By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Laura Johnston Kohl
Laura Johnston Kohl has always wanted to make the world a better place. That’s what motivated her to become a teacher. It’s also what motivated her to follow the Rev. Jim Jones into the jungle of Guyana more than 30 years ago. This Escondido teacher recently published a book to share her incredible story with others.
She met Jim Jones in 1970 after experiencing a failed marriage and becoming disillusioned with the hippie movement. In the eyes of Kohl, a college dropout, Jones’ interracial church was a successful experiment in social justice and helping the downtrodden. For seven years she was active in the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple, and was a welfare department eligibility
worker. When she moved to Jonestown, the agricultural jungle community in Guyana, she thought she’d found paradise.
There were ominous overtones, but she ignored them. Looking back, she describes herself and others as somewhat “clueless” and Jones as “insane.”
When 900 people were told to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at gunpoint, Kohl happened to be working miles away in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. She was staying in a house with more than 50 other Peoples Temple members, including one mother who killed herself and her three children after receiving a coded message by radio from Jonestown. Kohl arrived later at the home to see them being carried out in body bags by Guyanese officials. She and all the others were placed under house arrest so they wouldn’t harm themselves.
When she returned from Guyana to California, she was asked by a reporter how it felt to be “home.” She told him that she wasn’t returning home; in fact, she had just left her home in Guyana. Nearly everyone she had cared about and everything she had worked toward was gone.
“I thought about working with computers, because I wanted to be in front of a computer the rest of my life and never have to face another person again,” she recalls. “I was a basket case.”
She also admits to struggling with survivor guilt for several years, even though she was not there at the time of the massacre. “Jim Jones didn’t do what he did single-handedly,” she says.
Determined to rebuild her life, she completed college with a double major in philosophy and psychology, and then earned her clear multiple subject teaching credential. She has been an elementary school teacher for 15 years in California public schools. Teaching seemed like the natural thing to do. In Jonestown, she had taught conversational Spanish and arts and crafts to the children. She had taught classes in many venues over the years, from CPR in Spanish to English as a second language in workplaces and schools.
“I was determined to heal and thought the best way to do that would be to have an impact on the world, and teaching is the most direct way to do so,” she explains. “I had to find something where I could use all my energy and commitment to making a better world every moment of every day.”
Kohl, 62, now teaches sixth-grade English-language arts at Hidden Valley Middle School, and is a member of the Escondido Elementary Education Association. She doesn’t talk to her students about Jonestown. But she does talk to them about making good choices and being independent thinkers.
“I hold them totally accountable,” she says. “I tell them, ‘You’re in sixth grade, and the decisions you make at this point in your life can affect the rest of your life.’”
Her book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look, was published in March, and is available through iUniverse and Amazon. It took Kohl more than 30 years to get to the point where she could put her experiences into written words. Once she started, the process took three years. After it was published, she worried at first about what her colleagues might think. She says they have been very supportive of her, and that many of them have bought copies of her book.
Kohl believes that she would have been happy living the rest of her life in Jonestown if tragedy had not struck. Jones, whom she describes as a “master actor” who was able to control others through the art of manipulation, was mentally ill and addicted to drugs, says Kohl. He was also deteriorating physically and did not want to die alone. Kohl wishes that Jim Jones had indeed died, so that others could have been able to carry on their dream of living in an egalitarian, self-sufficient community.
Kohl says she wrote the book because she wanted to dignify those who had died in Jonestown, and wanted others to know who they were. She also hopes her story will inspire others to overcome adversity, just as she has.
“I have learned from my experiences and from writing this book that I can do anything I want to do,” says Kohl. “I have learned that nothing can stop me, once I set my mind to it.”
See Jonestown Web Exclusive.