When The Media Arts Center San Diego asked me to produce a short video interview with Laura Johnston Kohl, I was quite surprised. I knew that there had been few survivors of Jonestown, and to find one practically in my backyard was a huge shock. My friends made the obligatory and questionably tasteful “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” jokes, but I was fairly sure I would meet a very normal, well-adjusted person with little but regret for her time with Peoples Temple.
Indeed, Laura Johnston Kohl lives what seems to be a perfectly normal, happy suburban life, which renders her nostalgia all the more striking. Peoples Temple lives on in her memory not as a cult but rather as a Utopia Lost, the mass suicide/murder of some 900 people a sudden end to the best years of her life. However, as I listened to these fond recollections of a politically progressive multiracial community, I remained unable to banish the specter of Jim Jones – a madman regardless of his ostensibly progressive social and racial views – as well as my sense that by its very nature, Peoples Temple was an extension of him and his madness. Can we really separate the ultimate tragedy of Jonestown and its maker from Peoples Temple itself?
What was the true Jonestown experience? Unlike most residents, Laura Johnston Kohl was of sufficient rank to be allowed to leave for a few days to get supplies, a privilege that eventually spared her life. Does this mean she lived differently than the rest of the camp? Was she aware of the deprivations in the settlement and the extent to which people were suffering? Did she think that they suffered by necessity for a greater good that they were too myopic to see? Perhaps her Jonestown was not their Jonestown. Or maybe my Jonestown is not her Jonestown – is not their Jonestown – and the experience will be forever beyond my understanding.
What I know is this: the warning signs were clear and should not be obscured in a fog of nostalgia. Any attempt to rationalize White Nights as harmless theatrics, the brutal and humiliating public disciplinary hearings as expressions of familial concern, the threats of mass suicide and armed conflict as mere rhetoric, is at best naïve. In their search for a better way of life, Mrs. Kohl and her fellow Jonestown residents submitted themselves passively to a Will greater than their own, and that Will was an evil one.
I certainly don’t mean to single out Laura Johnston Kohl. I think she is a good and kind person who undoubtedly struggles every day with the tragedy at Jonestown. I feel the larger issue is our own human capacity for protective self-deception and idealization of the past. Something of that searching young woman from the 70s – idealistic, a little naïve – who saw in Jim Jones a teacher, and in Peoples Temple a progressive Utopia, still lives on in Laura Johnston Kohl today. I had assumed that she would have vanished after Jonestown, a victim of sorrow and dashed dreams. Has Laura Johnston Kohl fully come to terms with the meaning of Peoples Temple and the lessons of Jonestown? I don’t know, and maybe she doesn’t either.
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