This year, another person who survived the horrors of Jonestown and the loss of so many of her family, died. Teresa (or Terry, as I always knew her in the early 1970s) passed away in February of this year.
When I moved into Peoples Temple in 1970, the Cobb family was already well-established within the group, having made the journey from Indiana a few years before as part of its foundational core. Christine Cobb, who was a nurse, was also a vibrant and enthusiastic mother of seven smart and outgoing children – Jim, Teresa, Ava, Sandy, Johnny, Brenda, and Joel – and the “adopted” mother of many children in the Peoples Temple style. She guarded them all in her loving way.
Two of the older children – Jim and Teresa – went off to college and eventually left Peoples Temple in a fairly dramatic style. I did not have any contact with them for the rest of the time that Peoples Temple existed, in either California or Guyana.
Teresa’s brother Jim accompanied Congressman Ryan on his trip to Jonestown and survived the attack at the airstrip. At the time, Jim was with the Concerned Relatives, an oppositional group in the Bay Area consisting of family members and friends of Jonestown residents who believed their loved ones were being held in Jonestown against their will. The group was most active in calling for investigations of Jim Jones and the group he led.
When I returned from Guyana following the deaths, I stuck my head in the sand for about twenty years before I could surface. Rebuilding my life took that long. When the twentieth anniversary came along, I began attending the annual services at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. I wasn’t the only one, either then or in the years that followed. Each year, new family members of those who died would come by to hopefully feel a little peace.
About six years ago, a woman sat in front of me at the ceremony. She looked somewhat familiar but I could not place her. When I spoke to her, she said her name was Teresa and that she had lost her family in Jonestown. It took me a minute to place her. I hadn’t seen her for nearly forty years. When I did remember, I welcomed her and told her how glad I was that she had come.
After that time, she would come to a few events, like dinner at another survivor’s home or the informal gatherings held during the summer. She also came to a meeting we had to begin collecting Oral Histories at another survivor’s home. She was not interested in going into the depths of revealing her Oral History, but seemed to want to reconnect with those of us who knew and loved her family. Another survivor told me she feels peace when she spends time with fellow Temple members because she doesn’t have to explain anything or re-introduce her own family members who were victims, because we all knew them. Teresa seemed to appreciate that as well. As we have all been transformed by the horrific experience, so was she. She seemed very much at home with us, and that joy of coming together only seemed to grow with each get-together.
When I attended her ceremony this year, and saw the beautiful family she had gathered around her, I knew her much better. Wherever she went, she always created family. She would find someone wandering through life, and she would pull them in, to her family and to her “Truth.” She was never one to mince words. There was never any holding back ever. She would tell you – and everyone else – what she saw and thought needed to be fixed.
Teresa was a wonderful, generous person who enriched the lives of all that she touched. Her tough love and tender care will be greatly missed by everyone in her extended family, and I’m happy to say that family includes me.
(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.)