Jonestown survivor

Roberto M. Esquivel/

Laura Johnston Kohl, a survivor of the 1978 Jonestown massacre in northwestern Guyana, speaks before an audience at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, on Monday. Jonestown made international headlines when more than 900 people died on Nov. 18, 1978, from cyanide poisoning.

It took 20 years before Laura Johnston Kohl could publicly utter what happened at Jonestown.

It wasn’t until 1998, when Kohl attended a memorial service in Oakland, Calif., for the 918 people who died at Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in a remote commune in Guyana, that she reached a point when healing could begin by helping others understand what occurred.

After reuniting with other survivors in 1998, she said she told herself, “I can’t really keep living as though I didn’t live through that.”

Today, Kohl, who is a bilingual educator living in San Diego, Calif., writes and speaks widely about her experiences. On Monday, Kohl spoke at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, about her affiliation with the Peoples Temple.

Kohl said what drew her to the Peoples Temple was social activism, not religion. Growing up in the 1960s, Kohl was immersed in civil rights and anti-war activism. After college she joined the Black Panthers. Kohl said she began to feel like attending rallies and living with the Black Panthers “wasn’t working,” so in 1970 she moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district with her sister. Kohl said her sister had heard positive things about the Peoples Temple and suggested Kohl might find her place there.

“I was an atheist at the time,” Kohl said. “I didn’t see a place in the church for me, but Jim Jones was a political being.” Kohl said Jones used his political clout to affect the kind of social change she had been working toward. Kohl was impressed by the ethnic diversity not only within the church, but within Jones’ family. He was a preacher, happily married to a nurse, with several adopted children of mixed racial backgrounds.

Kohl became active in the church, and later in the project in Guyana, where she said she fell in love immediately with the “wonderful, mixed, vibrant country.” Mostly stationed in the capital city of Georgetown, Kohl was a procurer, gathering supplies and shipping them upriver to Jonestown.

“Most of us loved Jonestown,” Kohl said. “When we were in the United States, we looked to Jim for direction,” but in Jonestown the members could focus on building the ideal community.

“The people who moved to Jonestown knew it would be primitive,” Kohl said.

The people expected hard work, and welcomed the remoteness of the location, said Kohl.

“They wanted a new kind of lifestyle for themselves and their kids,” she said, a racism-free community where illegal drugs were not available on street corners.

“I never wanted to leave Jonestown,” Kohl said.

In 1978, Leo Ryan, a congressman from the state of California, along with a group of delegates, reporters and concerned family members, visited Guyana to investigate claims that members were being held against their will.

While attempting to transport some members who asked to be evacuated, the group was ambushed on the airstrip on Jones’ orders. Ryan and four others were killed and nine more were injured.

Back at Jonestown, Kohl said Jones announced, “We’re killing the congressman and you are all co-conspirators.”

For the next hour and a half, she said Jones told followers they no longer could go home, and that Jonestown would be eliminated once word got back about the fate of Ryan’s party.

Jones ordered the children to be poisoned first, Kohl said, knowing that the adults would be less inclined to try to survive, and then ordered the remaining members to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid.

Kohl was in Georgetown that day, and Jones sent the same order to the members living there and back in San Francisco. In Georgetown, Kohl explained, it was Jones’ son Stephan who said, “We’re not doing it, he’s a mad man,” and called members in San Francisco to stop them as well.

Kohl reflected on the refrain she’s heard as a survivor, that she and the others who lived must be special or blessed.

“I never felt blessed by it,” she said. “The people who died had it easier than those of us who survived it.”

Kohl said spreading the word about what really happened helps her heal, as does organizing events which bring together the unique community of survivors and families of those who perished. Kohl has written a book titled “Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look.” She also maintains a blog at and a collection of about 1,400 pictures on the website

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