Jonestown Survivor: An Insider's Look

Jonestown Survivor: An Insider's Look

by Laura Johnston Kohl, Laura Johnston Kohl


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Laura Johnston Kohl was a teen activist working to integrate public facilities in the Washington,
D.C., area. She actively fought for civil rights and free speech, and against the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s.
After trying to effect change single-handedly, she found she needed more hands. She joined Peoples Temple in 1970, living and working in the progressive religious movement in both
California and Guyana. A fluke saved her from the mass murders and suicides on November 18, 1978, when 913 of her beloved friends died in Jonestown.

Soon after this, Synanon, a residential community, helped her gradually affirm life. In 1991, she got to work, finished her studies,
and became a public school teacher. On the 20th anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown, she looked up fellow survivors of the Jonestown tragedy and they have worked to put the jigsaw puzzle together that was Peoples Temple. Her perspective has evolved as new facts have cleared up mysteries and she has had time to reflect. Her mission continues to be to acknowledge, write about, and speak about why the members joined Peoples Temple, why they went to
Guyana, and who they were. She lives with her family in San Diego.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450220941
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/18/2010
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 636,025
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Laura Johnston Kohl joined Peoples
Temple, and unbelievably survived when her friends died in Jonestown in November 1978. Always a political radical, this white woman was involved in and accepted by the Black Panthers. She returned to live in Synanon,
become a parent, a teacher, a Quaker, and published author.

Read an Excerpt

Jonestown Survivor

An Insider's Look
By Laura Johnston Kohl

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Laura Johnston Kohl
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-2094-1

Chapter One

Who Am I?

My early history was probably much like your early history. No fortune teller could have guessed my future.

My mom, Virginia Richardson Reid, grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was raised by her widowed mother, Mabel. She attended and graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia. She was told she had the highest IQ of any of Bethany's freshmen. She majored in journalism.

My father, John Bryan Reid, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and Miami Beach, Florida. He was an athletic boy - a runner, wrestler, and boxer. In 1934, at the age of fifteen, he contracted polio. His muscles wasted and he was wheelchair-bound because his leg muscles were not able to support his body. His weight fell to less than 100 pounds. His family and he were told that he should "take it easy" because he was going to be "a cripple" for life. Somehow he came to believe that he could rebuild his body through weight lifting and band stretching and he threw himself into a grueling, painful regime of exercise, exercise, exercise - all from his wheelchair. My father built himself up to being an actual poster boy for the magazine Strength & Health. By 1940, he claimed to have been considered one of the strongest men in America. He put himself through correspondence school to become a certified public accountant and later wrote a pamphlet for other aspiring CPAs - "What Every Young Accountant Should Know."

My mother was a green-eyed beauty and a bit on the anxious side. My father was tall, dark, and handsome with a great sense of humor. My parents met in Washington, DC, where my father worked in the accounting field and my mom was a writer. They married shortly after they met - North meets South on the Mason Dixon line.

I was born on October 22, 1947, in Washington, D.C., at George Washington Hospital, the youngest of three daughters. My father yearned to return to the South, so soon after I was born, our family moved from DC to Dallas, Texas. Two years later, my parents separated. My sisters and I left Texas with Mom and went to Pittsburgh to live with my grandmother, Nana. My father stayed in Texas, started a new family and lived there the rest of his life.

I don't remember living in Texas or having my father in the home at all. After my parents' divorce, I only remember my mom crying a lot and being very unhappy for many years. She retained a lifelong resentment against my father, Texas, his new family and anyone mentioning any of those topics. I don't recall missing my father's presence in my life. I had never been accustomed to it. I think my older sisters were more affected by his absence.

Divorce in the late 1940s was unusual. Mom claimed that Nana was ashamed of her when we returned to Pittsburgh from Texas. Divorced women were almost unheard of in suburban communities - the places where kids were supposed to be raised. At that time, college-educated women and working women were also odd ducks. Mom had domestic responsibilities, but the life of the mind was her true passion. Divorce gave her the chance to find the kind of personal freedom most women did not have in those days. It also embittered her.

Mom went job hunting in DC while we stayed with Nana. Soon after she secured a job and rented an apartment, she came and got us. We moved to New Alexandria, Virginia. She found work as a ghostwriter of political speeches and an assistant for Pennsylvania Senator James H. Duff. She once wrote a speech for John Kennedy on water-based electrical power, such as that generated by Hoover Dam. Later, she worked as an editor for the American Public Power Association magazine. Late in her life, she obtained a Ford Foundation scholarship and went back to school to obtain her teaching credential, agreeing to teach in the Washington DC public school system. She retired from teaching and continued as an activist, taking her grandchildren with her to picket the White House on public interest issues.

As a beautiful, brilliant divorcee with three young daughters, her drive and the single life gave her the opportunity to open new doors for women - at least the three who lived with her. She bought a house in Rockville, Maryland, and moved us to suburbia. Her wide interests led her to expose us to theater, travel, art, politics and other virginal explorations - all without a hint of male presence. She became President of the Parent-Teacher Association, she was a member of the Rockville Planning Commission, and she was a block leader for the Democratic Party. Work, work, work. As soon as she was able to convince Nana to give up her life in Pittsburgh, Mom had Nana come and live with us. Nana was the typical "woman of the house" in suburbia - baking cookies, gossiping with the neighbors, reading picture-oriented magazines. Mom was the "man of the house" - working long hours, being exasperated at the trivial interests of Nana, etc. The main difference was that at work, as a woman, Mom had all of the responsibilities and about 1/3 of the pay of the drunkard who held the official title reflecting the work that Mom did. And, of course, she had to endure being told how "lucky" she was to have a job other than secretary or receptionist, the only jobs most women were considered for in those days.

My father, the epitome of the southern "good ole boy," became a successful CPA, wrote a column on life insurance taxation for Best's Review, served as an expert witness in accounting cases, and wrote books on accounting issues and on self-improvement topics. His new family somehow merged into my family, mainly through the efforts of his great wife, Barbara. Barbara, a "my house is your house" beacon of love, has loved us and made sure that we are one big family, all of us. Our relationship with our father (whom we called "Jack" and his new family called "John") was distant and periodic. He did call and send child support checks. We received Christmas and birthday gifts, but we rarely saw him. He attended neither graduations nor weddings. He would show up unexpectedly. I remember a visit when I was in junior high school. He visited us in Rockville and challenged my boyfriend, George, to tear a phone book in half with his bare hands. George couldn't do it, but Jack could. He was delighted that he could challenge a strong young kid and win. Perhaps because he had been so incapacitated by polio during puberty, he initiated a life-long competition with any other man or boy he met. As a Dad, at a distance, I could appreciate him more and more as I got older.

I come from several generations of single-mom females -my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother and perhaps further back than three generations. My great grandmother, Nellie McNerney, worked on an Army base in Kansas, where my grandmother was born. Not much is known about Nellie's husband, except that he was not a part of Nellie and Nana's life. Nana married Charles Richardson, and my mother was conceived shortly after that. Charles died when my Mom was 6 months old. Family lore is that he died of cancer, but the records indicate that he died from tuberculosis (a disease as shameful as AIDS used to be considered). And, of course, Mom, who was a single mom with three daughters, aged 2, 4 and 6.

My great-grandmother had no formal education. My grandmother left school after the 8th grade. My mother graduated from college and, in her 60s, obtained her Masters Degree in education. Each woman was independent, strong-minded and adventurous. Each daughter, in her own way, had anger issues with her mother. Each daughter brought her mother forward into the future with her as a helpmate, until my generation. My grandmother had been kicked out of the Catholic Church because Charles refused to raise my mom as a Catholic. She became a high Episcopalian, turned Methodist, and was a long-time Republican. My mother was kicked out of the Episcopalian Church because of her divorce, developed a disinterest in religious institutions and became something of a religious cynic.

Being responsible for the futures of three young daughters, she was frightened by the atmosphere of fear in DC during the McCarthy period of the early 1950s. She had joined the professional alliance called The Newspaper Guild, which was one of the many harmless organizations made to appear sinister by Senator Joseph McCarthy. She was committed to the principles of our country, but fearful as the sole supporter of our family during this dangerous time.

Our family didn't have much of a support system. My grandmother and my mother were both only children. My father and his family lived in Texas. Our other distant relatives were scattered far away. We had a cousin in Scituate, Massachusetts, who lived an alternative life style with her friend, Helen. We spent many summers visiting them.

Mom frequently took us to the city of her dreams, New York. We would go to Coney Island, see plays, and take the Long Island Ferry and see the sights. It seems like we spent a lot of time driving north to New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, just for the adventure of travel and because driving was the least expensive way to go. I guess we three kids were rascals of an innocuous sort, sometimes reading during our travels and sometimes not. My sister, Linda, and I would sometimes moon the car behind us on these drives. We also threw notes out of our car window that said "Help Us! We are being kidnapped!" or "Please adopt us. We don't belong with this woman." Our family dynamic was two against two - with Linda and me usually opposing my mother and sister Ellen.

Politics aside, we were comfortable and unobtrusive in our lives in Rockville. We had sibling rivalry, homework issues, broken legs, emergency appendectomies, lost and found cat sagas, and bad hair days. We were a family, but an unusual one for that day and time because of the absence of any male mammal in the household. Even our cats and dogs were always female.

Chapter Two

Biding My Time

Our neighborhood in Rockville was called "Twinbrook." It was a planned community with a community pool and clubhouse, but a lower middle class community with electricians, businessmen, repairmen and housewives. It was an all-white, picket-fence type of community, but integrated on the junior high and high school level prior to the Supreme Court ruling. There were black neighborhoods. None of the city business or government buildings had segregated areas. Tough in many ways Maryland was a southern city at the time, blacks were an everyday presence in our lives even though they were not our nearby neighbors.

Because divorce was so alien to that environment, my mother certainly stood out but was not to be thwarted. She developed her deepest friendships around politics and city government. She was an active, street-walking Democrat, and also an appointed member of the Rockville Planning Commission for many years. Our elementary school was a half-block from our door. For a while, my mother paid a neighbor to watch us before and after school. There were constant interruptions from home while Mom was at work. I remember one frenzied call I made to her at her job when our cat rushed in our open front door, followed by a neighbor's large dog, running around and around inside our house. Being a single parent, working an hour away from home, and having three feisty young daughters was very difficult for Mom.

I can only imagine how isolated and frightened she must have felt with no support network, living in the suburbs. There was nothing "suburban" about Mom. She made many sacrifices for us and worked very hard at being the best parent she could be. As an only child, her childhood had been very lonely. She told us she had dreamed of having a sister to love. I think she idealized motherhood and expected that it would heal her loneliness, only to find that sibling rivalry was a kind of hell for someone raised as an only child. The clash of her expectations with her real life led her to overreact to situations that others might let pass.

As we all do, she tried to correct parenting errors she believed her own mother had committed. She was raised with the standard of her day that "children should be seen and not heard." My mother had to nurture herself to get through school, go to college and seek a career. She did this through her intellectual pursuits. She fought and won the battle to be true to herself. What she accomplished just was not done in my grandmother's society, where men were expected to continue their education and get jobs, but women were not to do so.

My mother and my grandmother were worlds apart in interests, in philosophies and in temperaments. They were one as to devotion to children and grandchildren and each would have done anything within her power to help her child.

Nana moved down from Pittsburgh so that she could be home for us when we got out of school. She spoiled me rotten. She was loving and kind and had a fabulous sense of humor. Her eyes would twinkle when she shared jokes and she loved to poke fun at herself. I remember when she told the family that she might just switch her vote from Eisenhower to Adlai Stevenson (as Mom urged her to do) because she had had a naughty dream about Adlai and herself. From that point on, whenever Adlai's name was mentioned, she feigned a love swoon. Hilarious.

Nana and I had a very special bond. Nana loved soap operas. For her, "news" was the latest development on As the World Turns. In some ways, I guess the soap gave her a glimpse of the complex life she may have lived on her own, as an unmarried professional women in Pittsburgh. She had left that life behind to come and rescue Mom and us, but the yearning remained.

Nana would look forward to Mom coming home from work so that she could have adult conversation. Mom would come in exhausted from her work days of responsibility without commensurate pay or respect. It was a daily battle-Nana seeking closeness with her daughter; Mom seeking distance, peace and quiet. Nana's recitation of the daily soap opera shenanigans generally ignited Mom's explosive post-work temper. So often my mother would lose patience with Nana and lash out. Nana would go crying to her room. They were as different as a rock and a sponge. Nana's clear priority was Mom. Mom's last priority was Nana's isolation and companionship needs. Mom seemed to hate that she needed Nana to keep our lives together, but we all knew how interdependent they were.

Nana gave us a warm, gentle and quaint family life. Mom introduced us to the wider world of travel, politics, theater, music, dance, literature and social issues.

The artist in me, as seen by Mom, was a budding ballerina and violinist, pianist and/or accordion player. Thus, Mom sent me to ballet lessons for many years, bought me a violin and signed me up for violin lessons. My violinist career was cut short by the unwillingness of my family to tolerate the screech of my assigned instrument. Or perhaps the instructor advised that I was not a prodigy. I remember nothing of this experience except how funny it seems in retrospect-me and a violin! Ballet was a different matter. My teacher lived in our neighborhood and was inspirational. She and her husband were dancers with the Washington Ballet Company. Our ballet class held recitals and I learned the music for many lovely ballets. Sometimes our recitals were held in a Rockville auditorium and dancers from the Washington Ballet Company would perform with us. My painful modesty compelled me to quit ballet (developing breasts + leotard = (to me) naked body). Perhaps Mom thought ballet might help me overcome my modesty. I remember being somewhat clumsy before the ballet lessons taught me about positioning and movement. In any event, I have happy memories of how I often avoided practicing (sprains, colds, and malaise) and loved performing, even though grace is not one of my natural talents.


Excerpted from Jonestown Survivor by Laura Johnston Kohl Copyright © 2010 by Laura Johnston Kohl. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Who Am I?....................1
Chapter 2 Biding My Time....................6
Chapter 3 College Days....................16
Chapter 4 What is Peoples Temple?....................25
Chapter 5 What Were We Planning?....................44
Chapter 6 My First Trip to Paradise-1974....................58
Chapter 7 A Tropical Destination....................62
Chapter 8 Georgetown and Survival....................71
Chapter 9 Leaving My Home in Guyana....................81
Chapter 10 Another Community Steps In-Synanon....................89
Chapter 11 Placing One Foot in Front of the Other....................98
Chapter 12 All Alone in a Big World....................104
Chapter 13 My Heart Was Filled Again....................110
Chapter 14 Friends, My Dear Friends....................122
Chapter 15 And What is on the Horizon?....................132
Who Survived the Jonestown Tragedy?....................137
Who Died in Guyana on November 18, 1978?....................143

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