Laura Johnston Kohl is recounting the months she spent as a member of the Peoples Temple before Nov. 18, 1978, when 900 of her friends and family died in the largest mass suicide in American history. Almost 37 years later to the day, history’s inclination to overlook Peoples Temple members triggers tears in her eyes as she scans a collage featuring hundreds of the members’ passport photos. She says she recognizes every single one of their faces.
“Jim was not the only one who died. He was a conman,” says Johnston Kohl, referring to Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. “He had conned all of us, but there were all these people who really sacrificed so much.”
It would be easy to assume Johnston Kohl, as a former member of one of the most infamous cults in history, would resemble a zombified devotee. She does not. Johnston Kohl lives in San Marcos, works as a sixth grade teacher and is a freethinking optimist. Still, her fondness for Jonestown defies expectation.
Just before our interaction, I ascended four floors of San Diego State University’s Love Library, up to what Special Collections Division head Rob Ray refers to as “the attic.” There, an exhibit called Peoples Temple at Jonestown: Interpretations of Jonestown in Art, Photography, Sound, Film and Words is on display. Inside, glass cases showcase lots of photos, but somehow my eyes immediately landed on the photo. The infamous TIME Magazine photo in which hundreds of lifeless bodies lay in the dirt. Ray noticed my line of sight and ushered me away from it, stating that photo is saved for last because that November day is not what Peoples Temple is all about.
“What you’re faced with in Jonestown is interpretation,” Ray says. “Everything you conclude about Jonestown depends on what you think it was and what happened there.”
For those who don’t know or remember Peoples Temple or Jonestown, here’s a quick debriefing: Jim Jones led a racially mixed group of followers who were pushing back against the social injustices of 20th century America. Jones lured nearly 1,000 of them to travel to Guyana in the summer of 1977 to partake in an agricultural project and to build a utopian community called “Jonestown.” There, in rural South America, the members farmed, constructed and operated the community while Jones binged on drugs. Then there was Nov. 18, 1978 a.k.a. White Night, when he ordered the death of visiting Congressman Leo Ryan and NBC TV crew personnel. This was followed by the mass “revolutionary” suicide of more than 900 Peoples Temple members by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid.
Johnston Kohl remembers it differently.
“I have wonderful memories of Jonestown, and part of it is probably because I wasn’t there on the 18th,” she says. Johnston Kohl wrote about her experience in Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look. “That would have knocked me for a loop. But while I was there, I was happy living in Jonestown.”
And while Jones has always been the face of the movement, it took decades for the surviving members of Peoples Temple to start telling their stories.
“We know what color underwear Jim wears, what he had for breakfast that day, but we know so little about those 917,” Johnston Kohl says.
She calls her survival a fluke, since she was in the neighboring town of Georgetown that day. She says she didn’t realize Jim Jones was insane until the day after the mass suicide.
Filled with audio tapes, exploitative books and movies, survivors’ personal reflections, artwork and photos, the exhibit at SDSU is an attempt to explain the Peoples Temple to the world, and also to the survivors themselves. It’s set to end Nov. 20, but Ray hopes to extend it until the end of the year or move it to a more populated library section.
His favorite pieces are four vibrant oil paintings by Terry Gordon, who lost relatives in the tragedy. There’s also the “Jonestown Carpet,” which contributing artist Laura Baird crafted over a period of 10 years. The bulk of the carpet imitates the TIME Magazine photo, but the carpet’s border is purposely left unfinished, representing the inconclusive story of Jonestown.
“[This exhibit] is like the unfinished part of Laura’s carpet,” Ray says. “It’s never going to be over for me, it will never end... trying to understand.”
Johnston Kohl donated scrapbooks, original Peoples Temple pamphlets and memorial information to the exhibit, but it’s her personal reflections on SDSU’s online archive, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple ( jonestown.sdsu. edu) that expose a melting pot of confusion, fondness, betrayal and realization.
With more than 4,000 miles standing between Jonestown and San Diego, SDSU isn’t an obvious choice for an exhibit like this, but the ties are stronger than the residency of one survivor. Site Manager and former SDSU Religious Studies Professor Rebecca Moore’s two sisters were in Jones’ inner circle. One of them, Carolyn Moore Layton, was the former wife of Larry Layton, the only man convicted for the events of White Night. The second sister, Annie Moore, is rumored to have been the one who mixed the “Kool-Aid” and was behind the bullet put through Jones’ head on the final day.
Johnston Kohl and a group of about 15 other survivors may be getting a shot at closure. They are in the preliminary stages of partnering with PBS to film a documentary about their return to Jonestown. For Johnston Kohl, she would appreciate the opportunity to see Jonestown once more and say goodbye, but not everyone has the same idea of closure.
“It’s not like we get along. We’re not all kissy-huggy,” says Johnston Kohl. “We all have different points of view of what happened, and we’re all really strong willed.”
Despite their varying personalities and mix of opinions on what happened in Jonestown, their commitment to demystifying what did happen will help fill the void left by the deaths of the other members.
“This whole exhibit shows that we weren’t silent when we came back,” says Johnston Kohl. “We didn’t just shove it. We talked to people. We allowed people to tell the stories. I think it’s an ongoing exhibit because it hasn’t really ended.”