By Heather Spaulding
They worked to create a community without hate or violence, filled with love, peace, independent yet supportive, artistic and healthy – the 60s utopian dream. What happened was a nightmare.
“Jonestown lived and died in two years,” said Laura Kohl, a Jonestown survivor. “It never had a chance to get beyond the building stage.”
Kohl will be speaking at the San Juan Island Library on Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. At this free event, she will be discussing her experiences at Jonestown and how she coped after the tragedy.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert and John Kennedy, left a leadership vacuum for the idealistic, but according to Kohl, there was also a sense by many that vigilantes were taking over the country and needed to be stopped. Jim Jones was there to fill that space. Kohl was introduced to Jones in the early 70s when his San Francisco based Peoples Temple church had approximately 300 members.
Jones was dynamic and passionate about civil rights, humanity and peace. He and his wife Marceline adopted many children of assorted races, and boasted of his rainbow family. Jones’ charismatic personality coupled with his message of love and equality resonated with many. In a short time his church grew.
Jones had been to Guyan, South America, and believed it would be perfect for the Peoples Temple “Agricultural Project,” which promised to be a self-sustaining and peace-filled paradise. Kohl was one of the first to move there, and she loved it.
“It was all a highlight,” she said.
From her loft she watched the sunrise over the rainforest. Rains would rush in while they would be working in the field, they would run to a shed for shelter, but it would be over in five minutes, and then everyone would return to work. Jones droned on in the background from a loud speaker while the people of Jonestown toiled building 52 cottages, a nursery, a medical facility and a farm.
“It was a collection of 1,000 of the most wonderful humanitarians” Kohl said.
Many were musicians, singers and songwriters. The community often sang and performed together. They even formed a band called “the Misfits” who were planning a tour, starting in Russia.
As the summer of ‘78 rolled around, according to Kohl, Jones was embroiled in several custody battles, which put him under house arrest. He became increasingly addicted to drugs, which Kohl believes fueled his paranoia. Jones also grew physically ill with a high fever and cough. Much of Jonestown didn’t notice– they were busy building their dream. Others, like Kohl, noticed but having deep rooted optimism, believed whatever issues Jonestown faced were fixable. She spent much of her time in Georgetown, the capital of Guyan, which was the closest civilization to Jonestown, but took a long boat ride to get to.
Her job there included things like organizing transportation, and getting supplies.
On Nov. 18, spurred on by concerned constituents who had begun hearing rumors of Jones instability and possible abuses, California congressman Leo Ryan took a group of reporters and went to visit Jonestown for himself. The group was ambushed on their return and Ryan was shot and killed. Surviving witnesses told Kohl that Jones was incoherent that day, telling the people of Jonestown they were at fault for killing the U.S. congressman, that the government was now going to be coming for them, would kill them and take their children away. He tried to convince them that suicide was the only answer.
“But Jones was too weak to enforce his orders,” said Kohl, who was still in Georgetown, “It was actually his secretaries that handed out the poison. The secretaries also gave the order to those of us in Georgetown, and in San Francisco, but only his secretary stationed in Georgetown did it.”
In Jonestown, the secretaries began with the children. Adults who refused to drink the poison were injected. At the end of the day, Nov. 18, 1978, 913 people, including 276 children and Jones himself, had died.
“I was shocked. I really didn’t see it coming. There may have been hints of it, but I didn’t believe it would happen,” Kohl said.
The signs were there, retrospectively, in the way Jones discouraged his followers from spending anytime with their biological families, or any outsiders for that matter, in the fact that Jonestown was 24 hours away from any civilization, and secured by armed guards. There was also the fact that Jones refused to name any successor. All of which Kohl calls now red flags of a cult.
She returned to the U.S. only to discover the government was suing her for $500, the cost of her plane ticket home. “I was really angry, I didn’t even want to come home. But, it encouraged me to get a job right away,” she said.
For the next 20 years, Kohl kept busy, she worked, and became increasingly involved with a rehab center for heroin addicts. Time there helped her break down her communication barriers and process what she had just been through: some of her closest friends, indeed her entire community had been wiped out.
Kohl went back to school, married, and adopted a son. Twenty years later, she attended a reunion of survivors, and that she says that is when the real healing began.
“There were people there I thought had died. One of my good friends had snuck out the night before it happened, and I didn’t know, so there she was at the reunion,” she said, explaining why she has gone public. “I don’t want the people that died to be forgotten, and I don’t want them to be disrespected. These people didn’t move hundreds of miles away to die. They moved to make the world a better place.”
Through her talks, she began seeing a connection between domestic abusers and cult leaders, both are use power and control on their victims. Physical and emotional isolation are one of their primary tactics. For any one who is worried about a loved one, “Never give up. Listen to them, and make sure they know they can call you any time, no matter what,” said Kohl.