By Ekta R. Garg
February 8, 2012
Rated: Bookmark it!
“When I flew into Guyana to join my friends in Peoples Temple, I was immediately enthralled and believed I might have found the ‘promised land.’” So says author Laura Johnston Kohl in the introduction to her book Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look. Kohl refers to her short time in Jonestown, Guyana as a member of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. The Project grew as an extension of the work church founder Jim Jones had begun here in the United States in his ministry known as Peoples Temple, an organization many call a cult due to its socialist leanings and the dynamic method in which founder Jones led his people and eventually convinced more than 900 of them to commit mass suicide in November 1978.
In the 1950s Jones began Peoples Temple after observing the power of religion to move people and compel them to make financial contributions to churches. Some people of that time considered Jones’ messages of racial integration and a communal thought process radical; others embraced wholeheartedly his seemingly innocuous ideas. Most did not know that his methods were more calculating and more self-serving.
Jonestown Survivor author Kohl first walked into a Peoples Temple service in March 1970. Although she didn’t feel at home in the beginning, soon she realized that she had found a place for herself.
“As I looked around, others in the building seemed to be comfortable, happy and engaged also. The Temple services were never just fashion shows and places to wear your newest duds. They had accepted me as one of them and I had eventually accepted that I was in a place I belonged.”
Quickly Kohl became involved in all aspects of the temple, and as she describes her experiences readers will still feel her amazement at being accepted there and with the work she accomplished. Readers will also become aware of Kohl’s naiveté, a fact she freely admits more than once throughout the book. Kohl and many of the other temple members participated wholeheartedly in activities (such as panhandling on the streets to raise funds for the temple.) Kohl and her friends truly believed they were working towards a better temple, a better community, and a better world. They honestly felt each and every action would transform the world, making it a place where everyone would accept the integration of races and shining focus on the needy and homeless.
Jones’ dynamism had such a deep affect that he convinced his entire flock that a new home for Peoples Temple could be developed in the South American country of Guyana. Plans began for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, and author Kohl eventually moved to Jonestown, Guyana to participate in the initial ground-up construction of a viable community there. She split her time between Jonestown and Georgetown.
On the surface to temple members all seemed to be well. But following the investigation of the IRS into the questionable tax-exempt status of the temple as well as increasing concern raised by the public and others for temple members, Jones made the decision to convince his people to kill themselves. And they did.
Kohl’s succinct memoir tells her story, beginning with a quick recapture of her childhood so readers can understand her background and how she came to join Peoples Temple in the first place. She doesn’t waste words in this short book that doesn’t even hit 150 pages in paperback, and Kohl manages to convey the essence of her feelings on the belief system of the temple. Clearly Kohl, like many others, got caught up with the utopian concept of Peoples Temple; they either missed the obvious signs of Jones’ deception or else closed their eyes to those signs. Regardless, being a member in Peoples Temple—especially considering the tragic events of November 18, 1978 in Jonestown—had a deep, life-altering impact on the survivors and those who were members but had not migrated to Guyana. And Kohl does an excellent job of making the point without belaboring it.
I highly recommend Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look to better understand some of the thought processes behind those who join such ventures. Readers will certainly enjoy Kohl’s book and will appreciate its insights.
What the ratings mean:
Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection. It’s definitely worth it!
Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.
Bypass it–Free time is precious. Don’t spend it on this book!