What Does it Mean to be a “Survivor”?

(Leslie Wagner-Wilson and Yulanda D. A. Williams wrote letters in response to this article, and Laura Johnston Kohl wrote a reply to both.)

Did you ever wonder what it means to be a “Jonestown survivor”? The label itself is a lie. Some of us survivors are really walking victims of Jonestown. Regardless of how we came into Peoples Temple, how we related to Jim Jones and the message he repeated, or how we “survived,” some of us consider ourselves victims.

Last night, as I tried sleeping, I had a face-to-face moment with two of those who died in Jonestown. I saw Thelma Jackson, one of the loveliest and kindest people I met in Peoples Temple. She visited me, and reminded me of what a treasure she was. She was very down-to-earth and practical, but not just a worker. She was a Light, and when you saw her and spoke with her, you felt just a little bit happier. It wasn’t that I was unhappy. I loved Jonestown and living there, and I was not interested in ever leaving. But she had that effect on you: she just brightened your day like a beautiful flower along the walkway.

I didn’t just think of Thelma. I thought too of her husband Don. There was an incident when he saw a stranded motorist on the side of the road and stopped to help. As he was standing between his car and the broken-down car, another driver drove into the cars, crushing Don’s legs between them. He never regained his full mobility.

In the Temple, we took so much for granted. We assumed that most of us would have noticed the broken down-car and stopped. We also understood that often there is a price to pay for doing the right thing. What we never did though, never, was to tell the person who was damaged – and in Don’s case, permanently damaged – and whom we so appreciated that we would expect no less from him, a kind and helpful and thoughtful person. We did not tell him how much we loved that about him.

So, as I lay in bed, I thought about Don and Thelma. Many nights I lay in bed thinking of many of the others. We had such wonderful people, natural givers and kind partners. And, we didn’t tell them enough how much we appreciated them.

Yes, we are the survivors. But we continue to be the victims too.

(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.)