Jim Jones was always a con man, Laura Johnston Kohl told me recently over the phone. But when she first met Jones at a Peoples Temple service almost four decades ago, she was impressed and later swept up by the diversity and heady idealism of the community Jones shepherded. In her book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look, Kohl describes her younger self — recently divorced and ensconced in the late-1960s San Francisco drug scene — as naive, unobservant, and idealistic. Raised by a politically active and progressive single mother, Kohl was involved with the Black Panthers before joining the Peoples Temple.
At the first Peoples Temple service Kohl attended, Jones preached about equality and socialism. Kohl was never particularly religious, but “his political and social statements were just what I had been searching for,” she writes in her book. The Peoples Temple attracted a wide range of members of different — and varying degrees of — religious persuasions. Jones, Kohl told me over the phone, was always good at identifying what a particular individual or group was interested in and telling them what they wanted to hear.
During the “healings” portion of the service, Jones would call out a member of the Temple and tell him or her something that had recently happened, something Jones supposedly couldn’t have known. Sometimes he went even further: Kohl claims she witnessed Jones physically healing people, including curing them of cancer. She later found out that at least some of these healings were staged, and the information that Jones had intuited may have been delivered to him by members working on his behalf.
Kohl began dating another member of the Peoples Temple. She continued to live in San Francisco, and then Oakland, traveling to Redwood Valley on Sundays for services. During one Sunday service, Jones called out Kohl’s name and told her to move to Redwood Valley. She obeyed, and soon her life became more intertwined with those of the other members and more under Jones’ control.
Kohl’s father was largely absent from her life growing up, and she admits that she viewed Jones as a father figure. This phenomenon wasn’t unique to her or to those who came from broken homes — many members viewed Jones this way and even referred to him as Father. “In some ways, Jim was the kind of parent each of us would want to be or have,” writes Kohl.
Kohl told me that for the first two years or so of her time at the Peoples Temple, she was evaluating Jones’ behavior as a leader and a role model. After that, she says, her critical thinking faculties were off.
During her years living communally with other members of the Peoples Temple in California, Kohl continued to work full-time, first as a waitress and then at the Ukiah Welfare Office. She spent all her waking hours outside of work in service of the temple. She gave her money to the temple and received an allowance in return. Kohl viewed going to restaurants or movies as wasteful and extravagant, and she looked down on members who secretly engaged in these activities.
“We were not interested in acquiring wealth, in being popular, or in fitting in,” Kohl writes. Kohl told me that Jones cultivated an elitism within the members of the Peoples Temple and discouraged contact with outsiders, including friends and family. Jones and the Peoples Temple align with almost all the qualities psychologist Michael Langone lists on the website of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA): unquestioning commitment to the leader, elitism, exclusivity, an “us versus them” mentality, and an expectation that members will devote most of their time to group activities.
Kohl and other members slept very little, and they mostly slept alone — Jones expected absolute loyalty from his members and discouraged them from having sexual partners. When Kohl slept with someone for the first time in six years, Jones publicly chastised her, telling her, “I should have slept with you myself.”
Both in Redwood Valley and later, when the Peoples Temple headquarters relocated to San Francisco, Jones’ behavior was erratic, paranoid, and controlling. At one point, Kohl fell asleep during a meeting, and Jones pointed a gun at her and told her to wake up. The Temple had an extensive security system, and Jones set up a special Planning Commission within the Temple community that delivered reports to him on other members.
Jones encouraged a variety of activities for their supposed health benefits, including sleeping on the right side so as not to crush the heart and lungs, taking daily cold showers and 50 deep breaths every morning, eating soybean products in case of nuclear war, and drinking Dr. Pepper to stabilize electrolytes. “We were internalizing the notion that things had to make sense only to us — not neighbors, not acquaintances, no one else,” Kohl wrote in Jonestown Survivor.
According to the ICSA, this gradual ceding of individuality is standard operating procedure within cults: “Over time, cult members give up more and more control to the leadership and develop an identity, or pseudo-identity, that is congruent with the values of the group.”
Though Kohl describes witnessing a wide range of controlling and problematic behaviors, she focuses a significant portion of her book on the positive aspects of the Peoples Temple and its members, particularly their idealism and their conviction that the world could, and should, be a better place. In 1974, Kohl went on an early scouting trip to Guyana, a small South American country bordering Venezuela and Brazil, and immediately fell in love with the tropical weather and the warmth of the local people.
Not long afterward, Jones and the majority of the Peoples Temple relocated to “Jonestown,” in northwest Guyana. They lived there until November 18, 1978, when more than 900 members, about a third of whom were minors, drank cyanide-laced punch under Jones’ orders.
Guyana, Kohl remembers thinking when she first moved there, was pretty close to Heaven on Earth.
Even before moving to Guyana, according to Kohl, Jones talked about the idea of revolutionary suicide — though Kohl never believed Jones intended this end for members of the Temple.
In Jonestown Survivor, Kohl describes a meeting of the Planning Commission back in San Francisco, pre-Guyana, around 1975. Jones gave members a beverage and told them it was poison. He had arranged for a few people to fall off their chairs to it make it look real. “For me, I had always known that Jim was dramatic and that he set a stage for his lessons,” writes Kohl. “I knew, or felt I did, that it wasn’t real, and that he was play-acting.”
Kohl told me over the phone that she thought Jones used the idea of revolutionary suicide to make sure people were committed. “You have it in the back of your mind that that is a remote possibility if there are a lot of things that line up in a row,” Kohl said, “but suicide — I never in my life thought that we were going to die.”
Once Jones had relocated the Temple to Guyana, his paranoia and erratic behavior seemed to ramp up. In my conversation with her, Kohl recalled the White Nights rehearsals, in which Jones would tell Temple members that an attack was imminent, and they would spend the night circling the camp with hoes and shovels. “It was all manipulation,” Kohl told me, “because there was never a point that an armed guard was going to take over Jonestown. At one point, he had somebody go out into the rainforest and shoot a gun, and then he pretended that somebody was shooting into our compound.”
I asked Kohl what behaviors were, or should have been, the biggest warning signs for her. “If I had stepped back from it, I could have seen that he was more and more paranoid,” Kohl said, but she explained that they were all paranoid — they were activists in the 1970s, she points out, well aware that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had wiretapped and blackmailed Martin Luther King Jr.
“Probably the thing that I should have seen the most is his abuse of individuals,” Kohl told me. “If I had kind of looked at the whole picture of what was going on, I would have grasped that he was just abusive to everybody that he wasn’t using. And he was lying to the rest of us.” She described how Jones would target particular families or individuals and cycle through assistant pastors. “At the point that he became jealous or felt there was some contest for his position, he would make everything a competition,” Kohl said.
Kohl estimates that around 100 people would have left Guyana toward the end had the Temple members been free to leave, but she says every survivor has a different perspective — one thinks almost everyone would have left had there been a big-enough plane. According to the ISCA, “exiting a cult can involve much pain and suffering, in part because the group environment is so demanding and in part because the group becomes a part of the person’s identity.” Jones multiplied the difficulty of leaving by moving the Peoples Temple to such a remote and secluded location and discouraging contact with the outside world.
In November 1978, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan visited Jonestown at the behest of concerned family members in the United States. At Jonestown, Ryan interviewed dozens of members who said they wanted to stay, and Jones orchestrated a demonstration intended to convince Ryan that all was well at Jonestown, which worked well enough to convince Ryan to leave — though not without the 14 Peoples Temple members who asked to leave with him. Ryan and his delegation, which included multiple members of the media, his staff, and the defecting members, were boarding a plane to leave at Port Kaituma, an hour outside Jonestown, when they were ambushed by a security squad sent from the Peoples Temple. Ryan and four others were killed.
At Jonestown, Jones told Temple members via loudspeaker that the end had come. A congressman had been murdered — there was no hope of continuing on in Guyana, nor was there hope of returning to their previous lives in the United States. “There’s no way to detach ourselves from what happened here today,” Jones told members in his now infamous “Death Tape.” He asked to hear dissenting opinions and argued against a proposal to request help from Russia and against the idea that the children of the Peoples Temple deserved life. “To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous,” said Jones. At another point in the 44-minute recording, he told the members gathered, “Without me, life has no meaning. I’m the best thing you’ll ever have.”
Jones’ aides prepared a punch containing cyanide — which Jones had been ordering shipments of since 1976 — and mixed it into a punch along with other drugs, including Valium. Infants were fed the concoction orally via syringe, which caused death in a matter of minutes. Jones himself did not take the poison and died of a gunshot wound, likely self-inflicted. More than 900 members of the Peoples Temple died on November 18.
Kohl was not at Jonestown on November 18 — Jones had sent her to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, days earlier. She told me that if she had been at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, she wouldn’t be here today. “I couldn’t choose to survive if I saw all my dearest friends and adopted family members dying,” Kohl said. “Jim set it up so that if there was somebody who had doubts, they would be coerced or there would be peer pressure, because there were going to be some people who were going to follow whatever Jim said.”
Former FBI agent and human behavior expert Joe Navarro told IB Times UK that cult leaders first and foremost reject scrutiny. “They do not like to be examined and are convinced nothing is wrong with them,” Navarro said. “In their mind, it is the rest of the world who has a problem.”
When she wrote Jonestown Survivor, Kohl believed that the children who died at Jonestown, and anyone who was given the punch against their will, were murdered, and the rest of the members committed suicide. Kohl’s thinking has evolved since then. Once she realized how long Jones had been lying to and manipulating people, she reached the conclusion that Jones had murdered everyone. “If he knew he was dying, and if he knew he wasn’t going to be able to carry Jonestown on,” Kohl told me, “then he would make sure that everybody went with him.”
The clearly unstable Jones reportedly abused a number of drugs at Guyana and, toward the end, told his followers that he was dying of lung cancer, though this has never been confirmed. According to a 1979 article in the New York Times:
We do not know for sure if the sweat the reporters observed and the fever Jones attested to were secondary to prostate and lung infections or if they were psychogenic, if the cancer he believed in was real or imaginary. We do know that some people bereft of psychological defenses, on the verge of a descent into psychosis, feel at bay, feel that body, mind and spirit are dying, and that their loved ones, or indeed the entire world, must inevitably end with them.
In our phone conversations, Kohl talked about how difficult it was to survive after the massacre of November 18, when Jones murdered hundreds of people who were, in her mind, dedicated to making the world a better place. Though Kohl believes that she, too, would have followed Jones’ orders almost 40 years ago, she says that now she would have different insights.
“Now I’m much more prepared to say no to anything,” Kohl said. “I’m not going to be pushed into any action, or any thought, or any behavior that I’m not totally comfortable with myself. At that point — we thought we were revolutionaries. We thought that if we created this utopian community, people would look to us and appreciate what we were doing and see that it worked.”