Moving From Guilt To Obligation

Thirty-six years ago this November, I survived a horrific combustion which swept away my adopted family and friends, and my dream of actually making a community first, and then a world, fit to live in humanely. For the first twenty years, I struggled to just keep afloat with my enormous sense of guilt. Little by little, I built my life back up, and my own survival and determination not to waste one more life on the Jonestown disaster made me work hard to keep going. I felt that, had I died and someone else lived in my place, that life should be filled with happiness and joy, and lived with appreciation.

I do believe that guilt over a tragedy never goes away. It becomes part of who you are. It enables you to be more sensitive to others who carry guilt, and helps you understand the sometimes-peculiar behavior of those who blame themselves for some event. It may even allow you to understand your own behavior when suffering from this remorse.

Unquestionably, I will never be guilt-free, but the story does not end here. Sometimes, I visualize that I am a flower with many petals. Each individual petal joins the others to make me the person I am. My petals show that I am a mom, a wife, a bilingual teacher, a writer, a humanitarian, a Quaker, an activist, a communalist, a world traveler, a guilty person, an optimistic person, a public speaker, an animal lover, etc. I am all of those things.

Over the years, I have moved from being a survivor to being a “thriver.” Generally, I am active in doing all the things that I can do to make the world a little better.

But I also have a different responsibility – some might refer to it as a “calling” – regarding my life in, and the deaths of, Peoples Temple. In reality, I don’t help anyone from Peoples Temple with the basics of food, shelter, or clothing. Rather, this is how I see my role:

    • To be kind to all survivors, family members and friends who suffered;
    • To remind the larger community that those of us who were part of Peoples Temple were dedicated and smart people;
    • To make sure that the understanding of what Peoples Temple was all about is widened and deepened, and that November 18, 1978 was just one day, however horrific it was;
    • To prove that Jim Jones was likely correct when he told Jonestown residents they could never go back to the USA and have the same life they’d had, but that he couldn’t know the survivors were strong and wise people who would be able to conquer that challenge;
    • To make an Oral History archive available so that relatives and other people can listen to the recordings of the survivors to get a fuller understanding of who we were and are;
    • To be sure that family members of everyone involved know that we have a deep connection and we embrace all survivors and family members without judgment.

I can think back on my own evolution over the past fifteen years, when I started lifting my head out of the sand. I knew I sorely missed the camaraderie we had while in the Temple, and I missed the feeling that my hard work was pure and even noble. There wasn’t wasted time or conversation on the minutia which surrounded us. I miss that. I was directionless for a time, but just knew I was in the right place, in a place I needed to be.

As we survivors grew stronger and more self-confident, we started a critical dialogue to delve deeply into what happened, and why we didn’t see it. That was a breakthrough for me to hear that I was not the only person oblivious to all that has been revealed since November 18. As we survivors have learned how we each had some – but not all – of the information, we have a better understanding of how we could have, and in fact did, miss the clues that now look so obvious. That knowledge frees us up somewhat: not only did most of us miss the danger, but we have to keep on going by giving ourselves a break.

Every year on the eighteenth of November, and even throughout the year, a handful of survivors and family members who have never joined the rest of us take that first, frightening step towards reconnection. It is a difficult experience, because it is impossible to know what the reception will be. But the apprehension and uncertainty pass quickly. It seems that within the first thirty minutes, calmness and unity set in. We survived a tragic storm, and we are unified in that survival. No one understands quite as much as fellow survivors and we can feel it. It encloses us.

Early in September 2014, a group of twenty or more survivors and family members met in San Diego for a modified retreat. One survivor, who lost her beautiful daughter in Jonestown, came to the gathering for the first time. Her reflections at the end of four days are similar to other voices I have heard over the years. She lamented that she had been so reluctant to get back involved with her Temple friends. Before she came, she was feeling isolated and lonely. By the time she left, she felt like she had come home.

When I look at the whole group of survivors, family members, and friends, I personally feel that those who have “come out of the Peoples Temple closet” and have integrated the whole Peoples Temple experience into the people they are today are remarkable. They are people who do not spew hate, who do not re-live what can’t be undone, who have moved forward. They are critical thinkers and humanitarians, and I love them so much.

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Several years ago, I published my book Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s in print and electronic formats, and the audio book was released in October. I intend to write a second book on what I have learned as I have taken Jonestown Survivor around the country, and to include experiences the survivors who are allowing me to record their oral histories, as we all follow the path from survival to our lives beyond.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)