An interview with Laura Johnston Kohl, a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre
Why did you join Peoples Temple?
The United States was going through critical growing pains in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In the decade of the 1960s, five American heroes were shot and killed by vigilantes - John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers - and many more besides these heroes. Then, we got into the war in Vietnam. I did not want the world run by bullies, nor by vigilantes. I tried as a single, naive woman to change some things - but was pretty powerless, it turned out. When I met Jim Jones, and joined Peoples Temple, I thought Jim would protect me, and stand for issues I felt were important. He had adopted children of many races, had gathered a huge interracial congregation, and stood with other leaders of our times - Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Dennis Banks, many in the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, and others. It seemed like a perfect fit, even though I was an atheist. Jim’s efforts were to move people into activism.
What was it about Jim Jones that first attracted you to the Temple?
From the first time I met Jim, in Redwood Valley, I was impressed at his inclusion and affection for all of us. He would hug, smile, congratulate, assist and nurture all of us regardless of age, sex, income, education, and life experience. He would be the one to notice the people cleaning up or working hard, or setting up events. His concern seemed genuine. In his own life, he and his wife had adopted five children of many races, sometimes having to fight a system opposed to household integration. They did it. His wife seemed to be as enchanted with him as the rest of us, which I thought was remarkable. And, he had political allies who were my heroes of the time - Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Dennis Banks, and others. In San Francisco, we were supportive of all diverse community members. There was not only a vision of what we could be, we could look around and see that we had already arrived in a small measure. Certainly, we had more work to do, but we were an inclusive interracial community, and determined to continue the fight.
The public persona certainly differed with the reality, even at that time. But, I did not see that part.
Some of the literature on the Peoples Temple paints a picture of abusive practices. Such as catharsis sessions, physical beatings and suicide drills even before the move to Guyana. How apparent were they?
I disagree that the catharsis sessions were always abusive. Jim ran the Temple as if he were the Godfather of a huge family. He was in charge. He took people to task if our work was shoddy, or our behavior was off, if he or others noticed issues. To this day, I have “family meetings” with my husband and foster son to resolve issues and organize our lives. Sometimes that happened in the Peoples Temple Family Meetings. The abuse part was to have Jim making a decision, stating a problem, and then not allowing the person to respond, or to refuse to listen to problems that needed resolution within the church. Jim could never be questioned. Never. That is abuse. A healthy catharsis is not abuse. Catharsis was the wrong word for much of what went on in our Family Meetings. We had dictatorship laying down rules, and not allowing discussion or defense. Because Jim took the role of everyone’s “father” he managed the discipline of the members. The beatings were outrageous, and even created life-long disabilities. The suicide drills were an early clue of Jim’s power-tripping. I wrote them off as just one more of his antics to get us more unified and to work harder. I think that the most relevant thing about the suicide drills was that NO ONE COULD EVER HAVE IMAGINED that Jim, the person who got relatives out of prison, who fought in courts for children and adults, who got people legal and medical help, who adopted his own children and seemed to love all children, and who spoke up for human and civil rights would or could EVER take our lives. Every family had had some relative or close friend helped. Everyone had a story.
Former members have described Jonestown as one of the best things that happened to them. Conversely, it has also been likened to a concentration camp. What was your experience of Jonestown? Did people tell you they wanted to leave?
I was one of the members who loved Jonestown. I always felt that there were many positives of our community, and that the problems would be sorted out and resolved once we did not have to work so hard building everything. If you look at a photo of Jonestown - built in just over 3 years, you will see how amazing it became in that short time. We were humping to make it less primitive and more functional and livable. I did not see things that would not be remedied as soon as our full-out building was done. For people who were not happy in Jonestown, it was a prison. You could not leave. Jim asked people to work hard and that after two years, anyone would be free to go. Many were rightly skeptical. Jim did not ever want anyone to leave. He took it as a personal betrayal and defeat. Even when about 20 people wanted to go with Congressman Ryan, he was overwhelmed. Twenty people out of 1,000. His paranoia and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (even besides his drug addiction) did not allow him to see that in perspective. For those of us in Jonestown, since people did not speak about how they wanted to leave (much as in Hitler’s Germany, where parents were reported by their children or neighbors), I had no idea that people seriously wanted out. I was a zealot so no one would have told me.
As a former member, how do you view the tragic ending of the Peoples Temple?
Jim Jones talked about revolutionary suicide in the death tape, however some scholars view it as mass murder?
The term “Revolutionary Suicide” was coined by Huey Newton, for his book published in the early 1970s. It was the rhetoric of the times, and was used at a time when the disenfranchised poor and people of color were reacting to the abuses of their neighborhoods. Many were saying that if they were to be killed by police or others anyway, they chose to decide the when and where. (That is a rough paraphrase) The deaths in Jonestown were murders. No good came out of the deaths, except that Jim got all the fame and infamy about the community just as he wanted. He never shared leadership.
How was Jim Jones’ behavior?
At the beginning, when I was part of the smaller Redwood Valley Peoples Temple, Jim’s behavior was inclusive, and consistent with the ideas he shared. He did work to get rid of racism within the Temple. Once he moved to San Francisco with many of his members from Redwood Valley, and many new members, I only saw him in public. He was very polished in public. I felt like I knew the “real” Jim Jones and so did not watch him as critically as I should have.
How did you feel inside the community?
The people I met in Peoples Temple were the best, most dedicated and diverse people I have met in my life. Many people made huge sacrifices because we all felt that we could create a safe community for our friends and family, and be a role-model community for the larger world. We worked tirelessly, and felt that each day, we accomplished a lot. I loved the Peoples Temple community, from the communes I lived in and the entire family - which is what it felt like to me.
Was sex an important element?
Jim was married, had a long-time mistress, and continued to have multiple partners over the years. He would justify having sex by telling us why these people “needed” him to show his care or his appreciation for their beauty - really, blaming the victim. And then, he used sex as a further control over that person. I would say that others in the Church were not invited to have multiple partners, and instead earned Jim’s trust be being celibate. He often referred to people as most trustworthy because they were single. He preferred everyone to have a personal connection with him, no room for others or rather, no distraction from others.
When and why did you leave the community?
I did not leave the community. I happened to be working in Georgetown from late October through the deaths in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.
How did Jones maintain such a strong control over the members?
First, Jim Jones was extremely smart. He just outsmarted us by knowing what to say to pull us in. He would speak and be sure he covered exactly what each person or group wanted to hear. I was always political, along with many other members. He would be sure to include politics and a political message in each sermon. Many members were religious, and he would be sure to include that as well. He was well-versed in the bible, although I have a strong opinion that it was useful for him, rather than it being his core belief. Religion was a magnet he could use to draw people in. Then, he would teach and model how activism was essential in interacting with the world.
Second, Jim actually helped nearly every family. He could write letters to get people out of jail or on probation, or get leniency. He helped get people off of drugs, into housing, into communes with shared resources so everyone had a safe place to stay, with enough food. He provided free legal help and got medical attention to members when they had been denied help. Really, every family was impacted by the services provided in Peoples Temple. People could not fathom that he would do them harm when he had so tenderly cared for them or their loves ones over the years. He was powerful because of his deeds. He took care of people.
As a consequence, people did not admit to seeing his flaws. His drug addiction and personality disorder, which worsened in Jonestown, were hidden by his closest nurses/mistresses/secretaries. His reputation was protected vigilantly. Most of us had no clue about how he was disintegrating right in front of us. Even people who did see some problems had no idea that he was so mentally ill that he would kill 917 people and himself.
There had been no precedent in US history of a leader killing nearly 1,000 people. No one in Peoples Temple - or very few, because some did see it on the horizon and left - could have imagined that end. We thought any issues in the community could be fixed as we settled into Jonestown and didn’t have to work so hard.
How did you feel the People’s Temple was taking a stand for social justice?
From the first day, I realized that Jim Jones had an adopted family of all races - Black, Native American, Asian, and his “home grown” son. He and his wife were the first white couple in the State of Indiana to adopt a Black child - Jim Jones Jr. His congregation was the same - mixed race, mixed socio-economic levels, mixed education. This was in the 1960s and 1970s, in a country that JUST passed the Civil Rights Act. Even today, that is not the norm.
From there, we moved on to supporting emerging groups - we spoke up for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, the American Indian Movement, the Farmworkers, really, all of them. They were us and we were them. We wrote letters to Judges to get family members and community members released from prison, and helped be the voice for the voiceless. That was our mission and we did it tirelessly.
In the late 1960s, I think that was Jim at his “purest.” He always had a borderline personality disorder - and power issues - he wanted all the power, over all of us. But, it really started eroding what he was doing in the early 1970s when he was so successful with the powerful in San Francisco and in California.
What did you see was your role in fighting for social justice?
In high school, I had been active in integrating my neighborhood in Maryland, and in the fight for equality and putting an end to segregation. In college in Connecticut, I worked hard on civil and human rights, and demonstrated to end the war in Vietnam, among other things.
After college, and a brief marriage, I went to Woodstock - but wasn’t interested in being immersed in that culture. Then I lived and worked with the Black Panthers for about 6 months. That did not work for me as a naive, and optimistic young girl.
When I moved to California and met Jim Jones and Peoples Temple - I thought of Jim as a protector who would enable me to continue on with my political activism. That was my life-blood.
How do you think the social issues of the time affected the rise of the People’s Temple?
I know that the society going through such upheaval (with the murders of so many leaders in the 1960s (MLK, the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers), with the war in Vietnam being so unpopular, and with Civil Rights and civil abuses so much in all of our minds made Jim’s rise to a political position meteoric. He was at the right place (SF) and at the right time to become a spokesperson for many of the disenfranchised.
What do you see as the impact of Jonestown on society?
Jonestown had the POTENTIAL to show the world that racism and abuse did not have a role in our society and that we should get rid of both in our communities. Those of us who went to Jonestown thought that we could prove to the world that our kind of mixed and fluid society worked. We thought we could keep our kids safe from drugs, give them a community that valued them, and … That is what we thought. What we didn’t know was that jim had so deteriorated in mental health, and had become so drug-addicted, that he stood in the way of that happening.
Could you describe what the transition into life after the People’s Temple was for you?
When I came back from Guyana, I was totally shell-shocked. I moved back into the San Francisco Temple building on Geary and Fillmore for four months until the Conservator assigned to sell off the assets of Peoples Temple kicked us out. Then, I lived in several different communes of Peoples Temple survivors for the next ten months. The government put a lien on my passport, saying I had to reimburse the $500 they spent to bring me back from Guyana, since I was one of those who received a subpoena to appear before the Grand Jury. I went to work, got a job, and went to school at night. I was putting one foot forward at a time - but not yet determined that I wanted to keep going. It was very difficult and we survivors were not much help to each other or to ourselves.
After a year of trying to make my decision about survival, I moved into a community I had been spending time with - Synanon. Synanon was a residential drug treatment program when it started in the 1950s, but it had become a fully-functioning diverse community with both former drug addicts and “squares” - those who did not become drug addicts. Over the years, there were thousands of residents who passed through. When I moved in in 1980, there were roughly 50% squares and 50% former drug addicts. Synanon took good care of me. However, there are some events mostly from before I moved in that were illegal and problematic. Some of my fellow survivors from Peoples Temple were anxious for me, moving into another “cult.” Synanon closed in 1990, when the IRS rescinded tax status because of profits we were making in selling advertising products.
While in Synanon, I married my current husband, Ron, and my son was born.
In 1990, we moved out. I went back to school and got my California Clear Teaching Credential. I started teaching in 1994. I also became a Quaker in 1994.
After 20 years of keeping my head in the sand, I went to the 20th Anniversary Gathering at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, where most of those murdered in Guyana were buried. That was when my healing began - once I realized I would and could never forget. My life in Peoples Temple is part of who I am today. Once I admitted to myself that I am forever changed - somehow, I could work with that and fully move on.
In the early 2000s, I started public speaking. I wrote and published my book JONESTOWN SURVIVOR: An Insider’s Look in 2010. I continue speaking about Peoples Temple and my experiences.
How would you like history to remember the people of Jonestown?
The people of Peoples Temple were wonderfully committed and optimistic people who wanted a better world and who were willing to make great sacrifices to bring it about. We were so determined, we failed to watch Jim enough, especially at the end. In Jonestown, his mental and physical health deteriorated, and he and his secretaries/mistresses/nurses were able to hide the disintegration.
In your opinion, what do you think is the historical significance of Jonestown and the People’s Temple?
There is an enormous historical significance of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Here are just a FEW:
Leaders can never be given absolute loyalty.
Insanity can be very well hidden.
There is no time and place where critical thinking and observation can be turned off.
There are certain behaviors of cult-leaders that are recognizable:
Wanting to take members away from family and loved ones who are not a part of the group
Moving the group to a remote location
Creating a we/they belief system
Refusing any questioning or corrections of the leaders
Keeping members exhausted and poor
Never assigning anyone as a replacement
Really, it is a very long list.
Are there any misconceptions about the People’s Temple that you would like to correct?
There are many misconceptions. The primary one that I always want to address is the nature of the membership. We were bright, hardworking, and optimistic people. It was unimaginable to us that Jim Jones, who had gotten our family members out of jail, into the hospital, into shared housing where there was enough food, and kids into safer environments - and so much more. It was just not possible that the same person would become so mentally imbalanced that he would murder or assist in murdering 918 people.
On this day in 1978, 918 people died in a mass murder-suicide led by Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. The self-ordained Christian minister Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s and relocated to California in the 1960s. Here the Temple gained a reputation for charitable works and egalitarianism, and the group’s membership expanded to almost 20,000 by some reports. However concern began to mount as accounts surfaced of how Jones forced his followers out of their belongings and about violence in the community; the group increasingly came to be seen as a cult. In 1977, following this negative media attention, the paranoid Jones relocated with over 1,000 members of the group to the Guyanese jungle in South America to establish a utopian community. However the Jonestown settlement proved far from utopian, with gruelling work regimes and their movements and activities being monitored by armed guards. Jones himself became increasingly unstable and megalomaniacal, comparing himself to Jesus Christ and sitting on a throne. On November 18th some of Jones’s gunmen murdered US Congressman Leo Ryan and several reporters, who had gone to the community to investigate allegations of abuse and people being held against their will. Faced with retribution for the murders, Jones told his followers they would be tortured by soldiers, and ordered them to drink poison-laced punch. The murder-suicide led to the deaths of over 900 people, including almost 300 children who were the first to be fed the deadly concoction. The next day the authorities found hundreds of dead bodies, including Jones who had seemingly shot himself. Until the 9/11 attacks, the Jonestown Massacre marked the single largest loss of American civilian lives in a non-natural disaster.
Three cheers for Congressman Tim Ryan, who has honestly and courageously spoken out about how his views on abortion have evolved — from opposing access to safe and legal abortion to supporting women’s reproductive rights.