Returning to Jonestown

by Laura Johnston Kohl

How did the trip happen?

The story of two survivors – Jordan Vilchez and myself – members of my family, and several friends returning to Jonestown, after 40 years, is an evolutionary tale.

At the time of the deaths in Jonestown, Jordan and I were living and working for Peoples Temple in Georgetown, Guyana. I had lived in Guyana from March 1977 until the weeks after the deaths in Jonestown. I loved the country, and I loved the people I met every day. When I finally left Guyana at the end of November 1978, it never crossed my mind that I would ever return. The deaths were too horrific, and in my mind, tied together. Guyana=Jonestown.

My own journey took me into another community, Synanon, where I was surrounded by people who wanted to help see me through to a brighter day. I lived there 10 years, separated from my fellow Jonestown survivors and our shared Temple history. After 10 years, my husband, son and I moved out on our own. I went to work rebuilding my life. I became a bilingual teacher in California. I still stayed away from the other survivors as I worked hard to raise my son, finish my education, and get good jobs teaching. I had to focus my attention on putting my life back together.

After 20 years, I attended the Jonestown Anniversary annual gathering at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, the final resting place for more than 400 unidentified and unclaimed bodies of the Jonestown victims. After that, I wanted to attend every year and couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else on November 18. I got more involved in writing and in public speaking, and in 2010, I published my book Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look.

It all prepared me for reaching a decision to return to Guyana. I started by taking baby steps.

The first step I took was to ask the 60 survivors and family members I stay in contact with if they wanted to go with me. About 25 immediately responded that they wanted to go. The second step was to look for funding from some media folks who would put the trip together for us.

After seven years, I realized the plan was a bust. The several media groups I worked with over the years either had no funding or lost interest. Without that financial assistance – or as their lives took different paths, or as health issues slowed them down – survivors started falling away. By the summer of 2017, it was down to Jordan and me, but we were both determined. And suddenly, it was on our calendars.

I still had to deliberate if I had to go back. I checked in with my son, Raul. He said that he absolutely wanted to go back with me. He had come with me to the anniversary gatherings in Oakland so many times that he felt great kinship with the other survivors, and wanted to be included on this special trip. My husband has been with me through most of my recovery. He said that he just couldn’t miss actually seeing the places I had spoken about so much over the years.

The plans for the trip continued to come together.

And finally, the Trip!

My life leading up to the actual trip was so fast-paced that I didn’t have time to reflect or pause to try to anticipate what would happen. I was teaching full time and helping with the trip arrangements, though Richmond Arquette really did the bulk of all of the planning. I was happy that the trip was actually happening. There was such an obstacle course to move through. I was relieved when reservations and other arrangements were made.

I was happy to set out but did not have expectations about my personal journey. People often asked how I felt about the trip ahead. I just felt it was a necessary trip that had been complicated to put together, but that I was ready for it. But thinking about it always brought a smile to my face. I also had the extreme pleasure of being with my family and my very good friends. I thought that everything that had gone wrong in trying to get the trip together had already happened, and that we had passed through those hurdles.

And I couldn’t wait much longer. I was turning 70, and I knew the trip would be rigorous.

Jordan brought along a good friend, who is an international photojournalist. Richmond Arquette, an adjunct Peoples Temple member if there ever was one, wanted to go. He is a humanitarian, researcher, writer, collaborator, and potential documentary or mini-series creator. Rather than just accompany us, he went several weeks before us and did the back-up for our whole trip. We also scooped up Rikke Wittendorf, a co-editor of the jonestown report, writer, and good friend to many of the survivors.

Our team of seven would spend about a week together, visiting Jonestown and other familiar parts of Guyana.

Guyana

My family arrived in Georgetown, Guyana early Sunday morning, March 4, 2018. We joined everyone else at a hotel in Georgetown. I found I was still in love with the place, with everything from the spicy smell of the cooking around the airport, to the gracious people, and to the colorful rich tones of everything from people to clothing to houses.

When we arrived at the hotel, a man in front was selling coconuts. They could not have been any better. We went in, greeted everyone, and immediately developed an indescribable intimacy. We spent the day Sunday setting our course, and getting familiar with tropical weather. I made sure to have curry and roti my first day!

We had set our priorities in advance. Highest, of course, was Jonestown and Port Kaituma. I didn’t want to take any chance that weather or any other hang-up would get in our way.

Jordan and I had our first interview our first day there. Many people – media folks and others we met as we walked the streets, stopped to eat, or bought some supplies – were fascinated that we were back there and wanted to meet and question us. We had television, radio, and newspaper interviews while we were there.

Port Kaituma and Jonestown

On Monday, March 5, the seven of us flew from Georgetown to Port Kaituma, landing on the infamous airstrip where Congressman Ryan, Patty Parks, and three newsmen were murdered. We traveled into Kaituma where we left our bags, then headed out to Jonestown in a large van. There were the seven of us, plus two of the original guides to the earliest settlers into Jonestown, and a driver.

Port Kaituma is the closest village to Jonestown. My memories of it from 40 years earlier were of dirt roads and small, poor population. Since then, it has had a boom-or-bust economy. Gold was discovered not long ago, and that has created a gold-rush atmosphere near the docks, which has forced development of better roads and other facilities to meet the needs for shipping and commerce. A new blacktop road will soon run throughout the village. The town has grown both in the inner village area and in its suburbs, with larger houses being built for those who can now afford them.

During Jonestown’s apex years of 1977 and 1978, we traveled through Port Kaituma to our boat on the Kaituma River, to the now-famous airstrip, and to other venues on a daily basis. We also had Saturday health clinics set up in Kaituma. Not many of the Jonestown residents even left our own community, but we did hear stories of some who found their way into Kaituma to the liquor shops and card games. One former member, Chris Lewis, was one of those who earned quite a local reputation before he was shipped back to the United States.

We headed out of Port Kaituma and traveled the five miles or so to the “Jonestown Agricultural Project” gate area. The original sign is long gone, and a second sign that stayed up for some years had fallen away as well.

When we pulled onto the dirt road and drove close into what used to be Jonestown, everything was unrecognizable and overgrown. Even though I had sort of expected it, I still felt like I was missing an old familiar friend. We trudged through the bush, with hats, bug repellant, sunscreen, boots, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. It only got more overgrown and less recognizable as I traveled into the jungle.

Guides into Jonestown

We followed our wonderful guides who had done the early work in laying out the site, leveling the ground, and, planning the roads, the kitchen, and the early housing. Their crews had taught us how to live there in the jungle and had shown us how to grow our crops and house our animals. They had wonderful memories of our earliest settlers, especially Joyce Touchette, Patty Cartmell, Rheaviana Beam, Charlie Touchette, and Chuck Beikman. Those same names came up in many conversations as we traveled in Guyana.

The trail we were on meandered through the bush. We had to keep the guides in sight to make sure we would not get lost. The path was covered with undergrowth, had small rises and valleys, and was slippery. My son often held on to me as I walked up and down the hills. After about a quarter mile, we arrived at the area of the former Pavilion.

The Pavilion is long gone, of course, but at its site is a tombstone that has been there for the past 39 years. The 15×15 foot area around the tombstone had been cleared recently; otherwise, there would be no way to recognize where it had been. We had passed a few boxes and a truck with a tree growing through the engine in the area, and a huge black wasp nest. But, there was nothing reminiscent of Jonestown.

Some of the others wanted to continue to walk through the jungle to see if there was anything else to discover, which was fine with me. I wanted time to myself. I stayed and journaled at the tombstone, and my husband stayed close by. In 1978, it was remote because there was no communication with the outside world other than a ham radio. Now, it is remote because there is no way to move around, or see where to go, or to get a sense of being connected to the world outside. We were in the middle of a rainforest, not a familiar setting for most of us.

When I stood at the tombstone in Jonestown – a place I visited and lived for nearly two years – I felt like it was a reunion. The day everything happened, when my friends and adopted family died, and my dreams were shattered, I split in half.

Part of me died that November day, the part that was optimistic, cheerful, hopeful, determined, and fulfilled. That day, my sense of humor and my sense of well-being were sucked out of me. It took many years to allow them back in. I had been so sure that I would live my life in Jonestown, or at least in Guyana, or at least that I would live as part of that vibrant family I had adopted. Surviving after that was next to impossible for me. So, when I stood facing the tombstone, I felt like I was reuniting with the me of that time.

I have rebuilt my life since 1978. I have a wonderful family, a good profession, a satisfying life, and many privileges. I miss my adopted Peoples Temple family but I work hard to leave remembrances and collect oral histories so that they are not forgotten or misunderstood. Even before the deaths in Jonestown, we in the community sacrificed a lot. We left some of the creature comforts and the convenience of living in the United States to live in a remote and primitive village in the middle of the rainforest. The dream was that we would build a Utopian home for our families.

I stayed silently in that space. Standing there just cemented for me the knowledge that I did survive, and that I followed my heart to be the person I am today. I have accomplished a lot – more than I ever thought possible – and taking the return trip to Jonestown proved that to me. I was so at peace with the decision to re-visit Guyana.

After an afternoon in the tropical bush in the former Jonestown, we headed back into Port Kaituma for a fascinating Community Meeting to discuss Jonestown with the residents of Port Kaituma.

The meeting was held in a public meeting building in Port Kaituma. We set up a simple format, starting with introductions of the people in our “survivors and friends” group, and introductions of the people who had gathered. Jordan and I spoke more about our Jonestown experiences. Afterwards, we answered questions and more questions. About 30 Guyanese had gathered when the meeting started, but more families and individuals continued to come in until we ran out of chairs. Altogether, about 50 people stayed for all or most of our discussion. The questions were remarkable.

Everyone was respectful and curious. They had thoughts and wanted to express them, but they were so interested to hear our answers. Whole families came with young children, as did older people who had known Jonestown residents or used the free clinic, or had helped set up the community in the beginning. Everyone asked questions in the whole group and then stayed to speak to us individually afterwards. It was hard to leave the meeting.

It is important to note that once the last surviving Jonestown residents and the rest of the former Peoples Temple members left Jonestown and Guyana, there was a vacuum of information. At the very least, the Guyanese government was complicit in not addressing problems in Jonestown. After November 18, the government placed a news blackout so that the information within Guyana was not shared or investigated. Eventually, some news did come out, but there was no in-depth explanation. And the Guyanese – particularly our neighbors in the Northwest District – were left with little information and many rumors. The same thing happened in the United States, since no one could grasp what had gone so horrifically wrong in Guyana. But, in the United States, the investigations, allegations, and research continued openly.

At the Community Meeting, we heard these basic questions or musings:

  • Did the Jonestown settlers find gold? No one had found it, so where was it hidden? (No, no gold was ever found or brought in to Jonestown.)
  • Why did we import cement into Jonestown on trucks by the bags full? (We did not bring cement into Jonestown. One possibility was that we were bringing in beans or rice, or some other food-type of contraband that was mislabeled. Guyana was going through a time of “austerity” and was implementing a no-import program to save money and use local resources. We needed to feed our 1,000 people. Possibly, we were bringing in some food in bags labeled “cement.”)
  • Did we lay long underground tunnels out of Jonestown, and where did they lead? They were never found, so where were they? And why did we build them? (No, we were fully employed with our planting and with our cottage industries. We had no time and no workers to build tunnels and no reason to. Where would they go?)
  • Was Jim Jones really dead, or did he sneak out and somehow survive? Is he still alive? (No, he died that day of a gunshot. Our Guyanese guide had gone into Jonestown himself the next day and had seen Jim’s body there.)
  • Who in government knew what? (There is a lot of speculation, even now as FOIA documents are released.)
  • Did their good friends in Jonestown – Patty Cartmell, Joyce Touchette, Charlie Touchette, Rheaviana Beam, and others – die? (Yes, almost all of the early settlers did die. Of all the people they named, only Charlie Touchette survived, by being on a Temple both in the Caribbean.)

That evening and the next morning, we walked around Port Kaituma. Everyone we met was gracious and wanted to engage us in conversation. Even when people did not want to change their minds about their beliefs, they did not attack us. They listened calmly and watched us. They kept asking questions – maybe testing to see if we would change our answers or feel threatened with their inquisitive thoughts – but they seemed to feel that we wanted to share and be open. I felt that they responded to that sense of communication.

We learned a lot from the Port Kaituma residents as well. We learned how they had appreciated the free medical clinic, how they all knew someone who had been helped by it. They had fond memories of the residents they knew and remembered funny stories about people. They were as mystified by the events of November 18 as everyone else. We learned that many had gone to the Port Kaituma airport to watch Congressman Ryan leave, with their families. One Guyanese man was wounded at the airstrip, when a bullet grazed his leg.

The residents told us that some Guyanese people they knew, both from Port Kaituma and from Georgetown, and who were early visitors into Jonestown after November 18, got rich after everything happened.

Mabaruma

On Tuesday, we all left by boat to go to Mabaruma. We wanted to spend the night there since Jordan had worked in our shop for a while in 1978, and she wanted to see it and look up her old friends. The wonderful two-hour boat trip passed villages, young children in school uniforms on their way to school, houses being built, and other boats. We were in a covered boat in case it rained, and halfway through our journey, we experienced torrential rains. All part of the wonder of being in the rainforest.

We flew from Mabaruma back into Georgetown the next day. We met people in every area who were curious about Jonestown and about our stories. They would want to share coffee with us, or sit and talk. Everyone was thoughtful, apologetic about bringing up painful memories, and curious.

Jordan and I were interviewed three more times before we left. Our stories were in the newspaper, on television, and on the radio. It was a great experience to be able to share our stories and listen to the Guyanese who had been so helpful to us as new residents forty years ago. We also donated books written by members of the survivor community and others to both Guyana Public Library and the Walter Rodney Archives. At the Walter Rodney Archives, we were delighted to donate some books by Eusi Kwayana, a Guyanese scholar and national treasure.

For me, there were many highlights of the trip. I would have to say that the most poignant and important part for me was the trip into Jonestown with my husband and son. I connected the past with the present. I was reintroduced to the wonders and dreams that I had acted on while in Peoples Temple in the Jonestown community. I understood who I was then a bit better, and I could definitely see how my experience there has impacted the person I am today. And I am reminded that nothing is at it seems, and that critical thinking and observation can not ever be turned off.

(An article about the trip of the Jonestown survivors appeared in The Stabroek News in Georgetown on March 31, 2018.)

(Laura Johnston Kohl is a Jonestown survivor and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Migration and Emigration, Guyana 40 Years LaterThe Legacies of November 18, and My Donation to the University of Southern Indiana. Her collected works may be found here. Laura may be reached at ljohnstonkohl@gmail.com.)

Last modified on October 16th, 2018.
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