For the past three years, I have been talking about putting together a Guyana trip for some of the survivors, family members, and close friends, and now I have finally done it. When I finally took the first step and asked other survivors on my email list as to who might want to make the trip, I received responses from 25 people – with many different relationships with Peoples Temple – who were interested in going.
My first plan was to find funding from different grants that would pay for the trip, and which had certain conditions including creating a final project. I was delighted by that as well, since I wanted the experience and reflections documented and made part of a Peoples Temple Archive. It turned out the grants I sought could be issued to universities, libraries, historical societies, and experienced documentary groups… but not to individuals. After spending a lot of time of researching all these grants and picking the brains of friends with grant-writing skills, I found that it was not a likely source of funding.
My second plan was to contact all the media that has interviewed the survivors over these past thirty-six years. I asked for referrals, and tried to follow up with all leads. I had many people volunteer to join us on this trip, but no one stepped up to cover the cost. I had researched the trip and estimated that it would likely cost about $2500 per person. I had also realized that planning the trip would be a pretty complicated and time-consuming job.
Finally, in March of 2015, a New York City television host who had interviewed me on his talk show premier offered to pay for the trip and send his diverse camera crew along. I was delighted that he was willing to take over. We had not yet discussed the details of the trip, but – with the idea of going to Guyana in October 2015, the country’s the primary dry season – we set a tentative date to meet in June. Suddenly, though, the show disappeared, as did he, as did these plans.
About that time, a documentary crew which has been interviewing Peoples Temple members over the previous year or so contacted us. The original project for c.2k Communications and its producers Melissa Thrasher and Ken Musen was to create a Peoples Temple documentary for PBS, but then PBS changed its focus for the program. By that time, though, Melissa and Ken had become intrigued with the idea of their project and didn’t want to drop it. So when we approached them about the trip, they were interested to discuss it more.
I am optimistic that this third time is the charm. At this time, we are in the early planning stage of a March 2016 trip. A group of at least 21 former Peoples Temple members and family members plan to make the return trip to Guyana in March 2016. The group of fourteen Peoples Temple survivors includes an early settler in Jonestown, a person seriously wounded in the shooting at the airstrip, people who traveled in and out of Jonestown and Guyana, people on the basketball team staying in Georgetown, people on the boat, young people staying in the house in Georgetown, and people who just happened to be out of Jonestown on November 18.
Each person wanting to go to Guyana has a unique desire. One person wants to see that the rainforest was able to reclaim the horrific site. Another person wants to revisit Georgetown to see where his life totally started anew. A son of some very involved members who never lived in Jonestown wants to see where his parents’ dreams were supposed to happen. One woman wants to go back to apologize to beloved friends for the damage done to Guyana, a beautiful country that welcomed us with open hearts. Some want to walk on the Jonestown land, and some want to say a final good-bye to those who died there. Each survivor has a completely different story based on age, involvement, location, family involvement, and critical thinking done while in the Temple, especially in the last days, and each story is very important. What is common to the reasons for going back is that they are all deeply felt.
I feel drawn to go back for my own personal reasons as well. I left Jonestown in October 1978, when Jim Jones sent me into Georgetown to work gathering supplies, buying replacement parts, and generally doing anything that needed to be done in the Temple house at Lamaha Gardens where about forty of us were living. I never went back to Jonestown, so this will be a long delayed and anticipated visit.
Finally, I want to have some of the thoughts and feedback to be included in Jonestown and Peoples Temple archives somewhere and available to the public. I always advocate for discussion what happened – the disastrous end, and how we got there, and how we survived. I want to preserve it all.
I am hoping to have a wonderful article in next year’s jonestown report.
(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.)