The events in Jonestown culminated nearly 37 years ago, and yet Peoples Temple – with a history stretching back a quarter century before 1978 and touching tens of thousands of people along the way – was so much more than the tragedy of November 18. If you speak with, read about, or listen to the reflections of these people, you will be astounded that there are varying points of view on all aspects other than the horrific end.
But it was the ending that colors everything. It had such a profoundly devastating effect on everyone, from the most intimate survivor to the stranger in another land. It was a large stone dropped in a still body of water, sending infinite ripples outward.
Sometimes as I write, speak, answer questions, and reflect, I ask myself how I could possibly find anything positive to say about Peoples Temple, particularly in Jonestown with Jim Jones. I lived for seven years as a part of Peoples Temple in California before spending nearly two years in Georgetown and Jonestown, Guyana. For almost a decade, then, I was an enthusiastic member. I didn’t want to leave. I loved my life in Peoples Temple. So there, I have said it.
I know I have distinctive and passionate views, and I’ve expressed them on both this site and my Jonestown Survivor website, and I know that not everyone agrees with them. But why are there such distinctive and passionate views? We came from such different backgrounds and then worked through differences we might have had in other settings. We were of all races, all ages, all political and religious philosophies, and all educational levels. We were truly a diverse group of visionaries. We lived in an unbelievable community. We were willing to do what it would take to provide a safe place for our families and for those who wanted to live in this integrated and powerful group. We knew it would be hard work. No shirkers need apply.
People have asked me if the congregation was generally depressed or passive. That was absolutely not the case. Participating in Peoples Temple required a commitment to hard work, sacrifice, super-energy, and collaboration, but each of us brought our own unique history and experience into making that commitment. Is it any wonder that we would have different experiences, different insights, different conclusions? Just as every event in history has many books written by many different authors, with many different perspectives, the history of Peoples Temple and Jonestown has many points of view that are valid.
More than 80 Temple members who were in (or near) Guyana survived that horrible day. The greatest number of those – including me – were people who happened to be in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown, but the number also included 15 who left with Congressman Ryan and survived the attack at the Port Kaituma airstrip, 11 who left with Richard Clark that morning and ended up in Matthews Ridge, a half dozen were on Peoples Temple boats, one woman in Venezuela, and seven who survived in Jonestown itself. We survivors were of all races, ages, opinions about Jonestown, and jobs in the community.
After we trudged back to the United States, some of us chose to keep close contact with the returning survivors and with those Temple members still gathered in San Francisco. Others completely withdrew from any contact from the moment we all arrived back in the United States. People told me that things would get better, and they did, only slowly. Other than one suicide, Mike Prokes, we all survived that first torturous year.
Over the next three decades, we rebuilt our lives. We had ups and downs – mostly downs – but we survived the trauma. I feel like I am fragile, in that all the events and the catastrophe itself live just under my skin. It is a part of my everyday life. But I am also as strong as steel. When I look into the eyes of other survivors, I see the same: a grief that is with each of us; and an enormous strength developed through survival.
I do not judge anything other survivors have to say about their reflections. I choose to respectfully disagree, but I do not argue. I am also not going to be dissuaded from stating my own thoughts and perspective. Just as I create a national forum to speak about Peoples Temple and my individual path, I know that others can create the same space for themselves and for their opinions. My job is not to try to condense all opinions into one one- or two-hour presentation. My job, as it relates to my Peoples Temple experience, is to honor those lost, advocate for the principles we lived by, take ownership of the horrific mistakes I made, identify flags we should be on the lookout for, and to keep going.
In addition to my speaking and writing, I am collecting Oral Histories from survivors, and helping put together a trip to return to Guyana for about twenty survivors and family members. Along with that, I continue my activism in opposing racism and war, and supporting superior education, as well as civil and human rights. I have a lot to do.
We all do.
(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.)