In 1978, 918 people died at the hands of cult leader Jim Jones, but Laura Johnston Kohl lived to tell

Arkansas Online/April 17, 2018

By Francisca Jones

More than 900 Americans followed Disciples of Christ minister Jim Jones to northwestern Guyana in the 1970s to form a Utopian society of social equality and racial harmony he called Jonestown.

On Nov. 18, 1978, Jones ordered his followers to consume a grape-flavored mix of water and cyanide in what he called "revolutionary suicide."

Survivor Laura Johnston Kohl, who was 31 at the time, told a standing-room-only audience at Arkansas Tech University at Russellville last week that it was a "fluke" that she wasn't among the 918 people who died that day in Guyana.

"In my whole life, the people from Peoples Temple were my very favorite people I've ever worked with," said Johnston Kohl, now 70. "They were my friends, they were my cabin mates, my adopted family.

"I did not lose any blood relatives in Jonestown, but I lost family that I thought I was going to live with forever."

Joshua Lockyer, an associate professor in Arkansas Tech's behavioral sciences department, has known Johnston Kohl for about 10 years and serves with her on the board of the Communal Studies Association, a group of scholars who study Utopian societies.

Lockyer, who also studies food culture and food systems, is teaching a course on what he calls "intentional communities" and invited Johnston Kohl to Russellville to speak as part of the curriculum of a senior seminar in anthology.

"[Johnston Kohl] happened to be a part of one of the most infamous [groups]," Lockyer said. "Not all of them end as tragically as Jonestown did."

'Nobody watching'

Johnston Kohl grew up with her mother and grandmother in Maryland and described her mother as a "strong, progressive" person. Leafleting for her mother's candidates of choice as a child and becoming involved in her mother's politics as a high school student instilled "a sense of justice" in her, Johnston Kohl said.

Johnston Kohl said she became an atheist in the ninth grade when she experienced a sudden 20-foot drop while on a plane with her mother.

"People were yelling, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe that Jesus helped me' and saying things like that," Johnston Kohl said. "Somehow I just had this really clear message that there's nobody watching if you drop 20 feet. ... There's not a God and a scoop that's going to scoop up the plane, because people were killed all the time. People are dying at this minute and there's not somebody helping them.

"So somehow that realization was that you have to make your own way [and] you have to take count on yourself. You can't count on anything else."

In the 1960s, acts of vigilante violence in the United States further moved her to work for social justice.

"In less than a decade, we had [the assassinations of] John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X -- all killed by people who didn't want to hear what they had to say," Johnston Kohl said. "And so the part of me that wanted justice for the world was disturbed, that somehow if I continued to be passive then that kind of animosity and hatred would fill our country, and I couldn't let that happen."

Johnston Kohl would attend college before failing out in her third year, and a monthslong marriage afterward ended in divorce. She continued marching for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War on New York's Fifth Avenue, where she was tear-gassed.

After spending time as a Black Panther, which ended when another member was shot in her living room, she took her sister up on an offer to move from Connecticut and live with her in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

Three days after landing in California, Johnston Kohl crossed paths with Jones.

"I had just moved out from Connecticut [and] was looking for [a] place where I could make a difference," Johnston Kohl said. "I was looking for a group that had an articulate spokesperson, who would both include me in kind of a healthy lifestyle and also be progressive and socialist."

In March 1977, Jones asked Johnston Kohl to go to Georgetown, Guyana's capital, to live and work. Her work began with picking people up from the Georgetown airport, and buying and loading supplies for Jonestown, which was a 24-hour boat ride from Georgetown.

A year later, she moved into Jonestown and spent the next eight months working on an agricultural crew, as a counselor and as a Spanish teacher to school-age children.

The people were what made Jonestown wonderful, Johnston Kohl said.

"Nobody ever got close to the real Jim Jones," she said. "Everything was kind of like an onion, like different levels of people who were committed to him."

In Jones' inner circle were his secretaries and mistresses, the latter of which Johnston Kohl said she didn't know about until "the last day in Jonestown." Others, she said, lost any sense of their own and never questioned the things Jones did, even after witnessing them firsthand.

Outside of that were Jones' assistant ministers, who helped meet the needs of the community, and one more level removed were those who were on the commune's planning commission, of which Johnston Kohl was a part.

"He wanted to be the center of everything but he kept it as a need-to-know kind of basis," Johnston Kohl said. "He was really clever at the way he was a hands-on manager and didn't let the people meet to collaborate or even understand what he was doing."

'Everybody is dying'

Friends and loved ones of those in Jonestown eventually approached newspapers and officials, and Congressman U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., decided to visit the commune Nov. 18, 1978. Jones initially resisted but then relented to Ryan's visiting, Johnston Kohl said, with the plan that he would have devout followers interface with Ryan that day.

"He stopped to stack the deck with people like me who were happy," she said.

Johnston Kohl was in Georgetown that day with the Peoples Temple basketball team, which included Jones' sons Stephan and Jimmy. She was set to perform in a talent show that evening, and around 50 followers were in Georgetown when Sharon Amos, one of Jones' mistresses, received a phone call.

"[Jones] said, OK, everybody is dying in Jonestown and you need to commit revolutionary suicide now in Georgetown," Johnston Kohl recalled.

Johnston Kohl was sent across town to retrieve Stephen and Jimmy Jones. Amos gave the boys their father's message, but the boys chose not to spread the word.

In all, 909 died in Jonestown, including Jones, who was found with a bullet wound to the head; five died on the Port Kaituma airstrip, including Ryan, and Amos killed herself and her three children in Georgetown.

"When Jim killed all the people -- which he did -- there was no suicide involved," Johnston Kohl said. "[Jones] killed everybody by telling lies that were meant to manipulate people in their last desperate hour."

After leaving Guyana and returning to California, Johnston Kohl was left with a lot of time on her hands. A year after returning to the states she entered the residential drug treatment program Synanon. She didn't use drugs, Johnston Kohl said, but Synanon "understood some aspects of Peoples Temple."

"There's a certain synergy of what it's like to live in a community where you want the best for everything and so you just work your hardest," she said.

Johnston Kohl met her husband in 1983, and their son was born in Synanon in 1989.

It wouldn't be until the 20th anniversary of Jonestown that Johnston Kohl would truly begin to heal, by which time she'd attained a bachelor's degree and had been a bilingual teacher for four years.

"By the time 1998 came, I had those pillars that were holding me up that were permanent -- my education and my family," Johnston Kohl said. "I finally said, 'OK, now I have to revisit with these other survivors of Jonestown and figure out what ... happened on our watch that we didn't see it coming. How it happened that I was so surprised on Nov. 18, 1978.

"Looking back, you see all these flags you missed."

'I'm done listening'

Johnston Kohl's book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider's Look, was published in 2010, and she said telling her story helped her work through what happened.

"There's just lots of unanswered questions I still have, and now I have more of the answers," Johnston Kohl said.

Returning to Jonestown turned out to be part of the answer.

In March, Johnston Kohl visited Jonestown for the first time in 40 years with friend and fellow survivor Jordan Vilchez, her husband, her son and several people dedicated to studying and documenting aspects of Jonestown. The Guyanese, she said, were welcoming and friendly.

Scrolling through a slideshow on a projector screen, she pointed out aspects of Guyana that hadn't changed -- Port of Spain's open canals -- and some that had -- buildings had been added along the Port Kaituma airstrip. The travelers also were aided by three guides who had served as original guides to Jonestown inhabitants in the 1970s.

Johnston Kohl said that if she was atheist before Jonestown, she is even more so an atheist now. She's also a Quaker, part of a religion that believes in inclusiveness and other principles that she said were behind her joining Peoples Temple in the 1970s.

"If you're a person with integrity and if you're a person who lives by principles -- like simplicity, integrity, telling the truth, peace, things like that -- then [the Quakers] don't ever exclude you for not having exactly the same theology," Johnston Kohl said. "They don't have a doctrine that they have to wield or hit you over the head with.

"That was just what I'm looking for, because I don't really want to be told anything anymore. I'm done listening to somebody else tell me how I should think and what I should think and what I should do. Those days are over for me."

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