Only the Survivor Activists “Get” Me

by Laura Johnston Kohl

I am made up of many personalities, many layers. I often believe – and sometimes accept – that no one really understands me. I am a mother, wife, teacher, Jonestown survivor, former Synanon resident, Quaker, activist, writer, and more. I am sort of like a kaleidoscope, with one petal of this flower more prominent than another at different times. In that regard, though I am no different from anyone else: All of us are made with many “parts of the whole.”

When I was a member of Peoples Temple from 1970-1978, I thought that I was living the life of an activist in an egalitarian community with all types of people, and that our existence was a statement in itself. We were activism personified, and we did not have to go out to demonstrate to prove that. I merely had to live and participate in Peoples Temple, and I was there already.

I have not appreciated until lately that I was primarily in Peoples Temple because the activism lured me in, along with a leader who – I believed at the time – lived in a manner consistent with my core activism. I have always known that different searches brought people into Peoples Temple, but i n thinking about the other survivors nearly 40 years later, I realize why some don’t understand my perspective about things. This new realization has helped me understand more about my own life, both in Peoples Temple and in the years since. It has clarified for me why some of the other survivors have such strong feelings about my perspective.

I have always shared that my loss in Jonestown was my loss of everything: it had been my adopted family that I expected to keep for the rest of my long life, and my dream of living a life that would resonate with many people and demonstrate true inclusion. I admit that these thoughts make it seem “healthier” that it really was for me. I was satisfied with the direction we were taking. I was home in that community. For the most part, I loved what we did and what we stood for. I loved that activism was something we lived every waking moment. That is absolutely true.

At the same time, I mistook great manipulations for great leadership, and powerful talk for truth. I chose not to see the abuse. I even bought into the end justifying the means. That is also absolutely true.

Being part of Peoples Temple was living the dream of being a warrior, battling against the societal injustices. That was the part that I thrived with, believed in, and have so missed all these years since November 18, 1978. I can’t stop my feelings about that even if I wanted to. My truth only has to be my own truth.

(Laura Johnston Kohl is a Jonestown survivor and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. She edited this volume’s special section on Jonestown from Guyanese Perspectives  and wrote the Introduction. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Change and the Chameleon That Was Jim Jones; and What Does it Mean to be a “Survivor”?. She is also the author of two remembrances for Paul Flowers and Tchaiko Kwayana. Her collected works may be found here. Laura may be reached at ljohnstonkohl@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on October 25th, 2017.

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