JONESTOWN SURVIVOR Interviewed by Sean Phipps –

I was extremely impressed with Sean – he had done enough research to understand my comments and probe into depth – and then write what I said without altering my message – a wonderful, and rare quality, I’ve found.


Interview: Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl
By Sean Phipps
Published Thursday, April 17th 2014

Chattanooga welcomed Jonestown survivor and author Laura Johnston Kohl.
Kohl spoke at UTC, made an appearance at The Public Library and spoke with WRCB’s David Karnes.
She is the author of the 2010 book “Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look,” a reflection on her experience and how she survived.

In 1978, more than 900 followers of Rev. Jim Jones perished in Jonestown after they were instructed to drink a cyanide-laced fruit drink. Jonestown—located in Guyana—was designed to be an agricultural haven and community.

Kohl survived the massacre because she was working as a procurer, making return trips via boat from Georgetown to Jonestown.
In the years since, Kohl has received degrees in psychology and philosophy and teaches bilingual education. She also became a Quaker. She spends much of her time giving lectures and educating people about her time at Jonestown.

We sat down with Kohl to discuss the tragedy, her recovery and the takeaways from Jonestown.

Kohl is planning an additional book with interviews of the families of those who died at Jonestown.

When giving presentations on Jonestown, what are the questions that people ask?
I’ve had some great questions. In York, Pa., earlier this year, they asked me what the Black Panther Party was. I don’t think anyone ever asked me that. And I assumed all these years that people knew. There are some things that I just assume: that people have heard of the Black Panther Party; they’ve heard of Leo Ryan, the congressman who was shot. So sometimes, I’m very glib … I tell people from the beginning that I’m a teacher, and I’m looking for teachable moments. I really appreciated that if I say something that isn’t clear or if I look over something or assume you know it, please ask me questions.
One of the questions I really liked lately was from a woman; she said, “Are the people who went to Jonestown, were they just tired of life? Were they depressed? And did they just go to Guyana because they didn’t have anything else?” I said, “Really, it’s the total opposite. We were the visionaries. I said, ‘I’m going to leave my creature comforts, my car, the restaurant on the corner and move to the middle of the rainforest. Anything that’s there, I have to build. And it’s good because what we’re doing is creating a role model community for the rest of the world to look and see that you can live racism-free, and it doesn’t harm the bottom line, the community. It’s what we need to do.'”

So once we made the commitment, the visionaries went, and here’s Jim Jones—who is articulate, brilliant and who masked and hid away all the parts of him that were mentally and physically ill and corrupted. But his façade was that “I’m going to get you from being religious and passive to being activists and taking charge of your lives.” I said OK, I’ll buy into that. While he was there, he just deteriorated even more. But it was behind the scenes. When he was incoherent and on drugs, he had trained his secretaries and mistresses well to keep quiet and to take care of what he couldn’t. So if he’s talking to the crowd, they’ll bring out the vats of poison. They’ll do all of his dirty work because really he infected them, also. In a way, that’s the lesson. The point I always want to make is the people who died didn’t just move off to die. I think that, over the years, people probably wondered about that. My assumption was that people got it, but I’ve probably made a bunch of presentations where they didn’t ask and might not have known that. In a way, I use the questions—especially new questions—to guide what I have to relate to.

Why did you decide to go to Jonestown?
I thought of [Jim] as a protector, as someone who could articulate what I wanted, but come to find out, that was not the role he wanted to play. I didn’t know it at the time. It took a long time for that to dawn on me. But when I got to Guyana, Jim was kind of like having an old parent live with you. That was kind of the role he had. At first, he was very vocal and talked a lot, but then, he withdrew even more.

We became infatuated by the growth in the community. And Jim was not in the picture. I wanted to live that way; I wanted to be racism-free, to have integrity and keep busy, make the community thrive. And really, Jim was on the side-burner …. Most of the survivors didn’t know all of these plots and twists … We fell in love with the community. That’s why, when Congressman Ryan went down, there were only 20 people that wanted to go with him. The rest wanted to stay. They just didn’t know how sick Jim was. The last day … the tape … I just think that day everybody was exhausted because Jim had been on a tirade. He’d been coercing them, and the more he talked, the more exhausted people got. He said, “You know you can’t go home, anyway. We’re co-conspirators … We’ve killed a congressman. You are not innocent. You are here.”

In the years after, what was the healing process like?
I lived with the survivors for about a year. But we were all disabled, trying to help each other. That didn’t work. I moved into a place called the Synanon, which is a drug rehab residential community that existed. It was for dope fiends mostly, but it had 24-hour activities. What I really needed was 24-hour attention or contact, people or activity. It was so hard because Jim kept us working every hour of the day, every second. We had a to-do list. So when I came back, everything stopped ….
For the first couple of years, I just cried for three hours in a really safe setting … Eventually, it helped me build up my resilience, and it allowed me to see that other people were in pain. If I’d just gone to a corner and shut myself in, I would’ve thought that I was the most miserable person in the world … I had to listen to other people going through tragedies in their lives, and it helped me stop and take a breath. I lived there 10 years.

Kohl survived the Jonestown massacre because she was working 12 hours away at the time. (Photo: San Diego State University archives)
What is the big takeaway here from you at age 65?
I would say the takeaway is that the people who went to Peoples Temple were visionaries. They weren’t suckers or sheep to be led to slaughter. I don’t want people to think they were just too stupid to go along. There were a lot of really bright people. Jim … was really a con artist who was always a couple steps ahead of us. He would look at me and say, “She likes Angela Davis, she hung out with the Black Panthers, she’s politically active, so I’m going to talk about this when she’s around.” Another person is a born-again Christian, or this person is into Edgar Cayce and really likes to think about reincarnation.

Jim knew us better than we knew ourselves in a way that he was able to pull us all in. Because even now, when all the survivors sit in a room, on almost any topic brought up, there is total disagreement. There’s not anything we feel the same about. I was an atheist when I moved in (am even more so now), and on the other hand, others have found faith, and it’s helped them to survive. And so, in terms of religion, the jobs we do, how politically active we are, everything is really different. Literally, we don’t see anything the same, and somehow, Jim saw all those differences and said, “I don’t care. We’re all together. “And so he brought us all together and made us commit and try to change the world.

Are you OK being defined by this tragedy?
It is very strange. It’s totally integrated to what I do now. Some of us who lived through the whole thing—at first, we were traumatized; then, we were victims; and ended up being survivors. It did kind of place us and maybe even put a pall around us. Then, we moved to being thrivers. And I really consider myself a thriver because I’ve integrated all of this, and it’s a part of my life. I teach bilingual sixth grade; I … work with ACLU, do presentations. And so, instead of doing a presentation on Peoples Temple, we talk about inequality and racism … things like that. What it did do was prepare me to figure out what makes me feel whole. Because it ended didn’t mean I still didn’t want to be whole. It wasn’t saying, “OK, I give up now.” I’m not somebody who gives up. It just takes a lot more for me to interact in all the areas where I see injustice.

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