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Survivors’ perspectives differ

San Diego Union-Tribune, USA
Nov. 16, 2003
Sandi Dolbee
www.signonsandiego.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday November 17, 2003

Not everyone associated with Peoples Temple died Nov. 18, 1978.

Roughly 80 members who were in Guyana lived. Most were in the capital city of Georgetown to the south, where the temple kept a house. There also are many former members who left the group or never moved to South America.

And there were survivors from the airstrip ambush.

“If anyone tells you that they’ve got the Jonestown story, you know they are lying,” says Fielding McGehee III, a San Diego man who has spent years studying this subject with his wife, Rebecca Moore, an assistant professor in religious studies at San Diego State University.

“There is no one Jonestown story,” he says. “There are as many stories as there are people who tell them.”

Here are five of those stories.

Laura Johnston Kohl

SAN MARCOS She remembers Jonestown as “heaven on Earth.”

Everyone was equal, pulling together toward a shared vision. She worked in the fields and made soap.

“I really loved it,” says Laura Johnston Kohl. “It was so exciting.”

She joined Peoples Temple in the Northern California community of Redwood Valley in 1970, moving to Guyana in 1977. She was drawn not by the religious part but the socialist political agenda. “Really, my interest was being in an integrated community,” says the 56-year-old Kohl.

An estimated 68 percent of the members living in Guyana were African-American; 24 percent were white, and the remainder were either mixed or of another ethnic group, according to a demographic study by Moore of SDSU.

It doesn’t take Kohl long to weep as she relives the memories. “Unfortunately,” she says, “Jim really went crazy.”

She says she didn’t notice how bad he’d gotten. Or perhaps she was willing to overlook it. “The rest of our life was fine.”

She was in Georgetown on the day of the mass deaths. She returned to the United States as a lost soul; her world had been obliterated. Kohl drifted into Synanon, another controversial, cultic group. She met her new husband, Ron, there, and they stayed until the late 1980s, when Synanon began falling apart.

They are now school teachers and Quakers who live in San Marcos with their 14-year-old son, Raul. “I have a really good life now,” she says. “I really like who I am.”

On Tuesday morning, when relatives, former members and others gather for the annual anniversary service at a mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Kohl plans to be there. “It’s reconnecting, reuniting, with the people who died,” she says.

If she had been in Jonestown that day, would she have drunk the poisoned punch?

“I probably would have. I wasn’t interested in returning to the life I had in the United States.”

Stephan Jones and Jim Jones Jr.

THE BAY AREA They are sons of the father. Stephan Jones is the only biological son of the Rev. Jim and Marceline Jones. Jim Jones Jr. is an adopted son and namesake, one of a menagerie of accumulated children in their family coming from a rainbow of ethnicities.

Stephan Jones, a 44-year-old Marin County resident, is the introvert intense and cautious. Jim Jones Jr., who is a year younger and lives in Pacifica near San Francisco, is the extrovert a jokester who laughs easily and often.

They were in Georgetown with Jonestown’s basketball team on the day of the deaths.

“My primary experience of my father was somebody who did it on the fly. He was an overgrown kid, and people were his candy store and most especially the people in Jonestown,” says Stephan Jones.

His brother just shakes his head. “I had a great childhood. We had so much fun. I thought my brothers had fun. I didn’t know until it was all over of the angst they were feeling.”

Both say there were many reasons why folks were attracted to Peoples Temple. “But there is one universal that deep desire to belong to something,” says Stephan Jones.

Stephan Jones, who has two daughters and works in the commercial furniture business, says people in Jonestown were looking outside of themselves for the answers. He has learned that the answers come from within.

Jim Jones Jr., who has three sons and works for a cardiac care company, says he last spoke to his father on the day of his death. His dad called the Georgetown house from Jonestown’s radio. “He told me it was a day of reckoning.”

Looking back on it, he says his father fed off his own neurosis, and there was no one to stop him. “The mind is a dangerous place,” he says. “Don’t go into it alone.”

Tim Stoen

EUREKA On Tim Stoen’s desk in the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office is a photograph of a young boy, his eyes bright, his smile warm.

It’s his 6-year-old son, John Victor Stoen, who died in Jonestown.

For years, Stoen was lawyer to leader Jim Jones, a loyal member who turned over his child to the commune and even signed a statement saying that Jones was the boy’s father. Like so many, he was attracted to Peoples Temple’s egalitarianism. “I became very angry about how black people were being treated at large,” he says. “I turned on the white power structure.”

But in 1977, he says his estranged wife, Grace, another former insider who had already left Peoples Temple, unloaded on him about Jones’ abusive behavior and staged healings. It was his epiphany. Stoen became a vocal opponent and fought for custody of the boy he left behind in Jonestown.

In November 1978, Stoen went to Guyana with Democratic Congressman Leo Ryan’s fact-finding party. When they got there, he stayed in Georgetown to avoid angering Jones.

For 10 years afterward, he didn’t speak about it. Eventually, he returned to Ukiah, went back to work for the Mendocinio County District Attorney’s Office and remarried. Earlier this year, he took the job as assistant district attorney in neighboring Humboldt County.

Stoen won’t say why he signed the paternity statement, except that it is not true. He insists that he is the boy’s father.

He’s 65 now, goes to a Baptist church and says he’s at peace. He rejects suggestions that Ryan’s visit, and his own public crusade against Jones, triggered the deaths.

“I’d do it again. If I hadn’t tried everything, then I would have more guilt about losing my son. I believe it would have happened anyway. It was just a matter of time.”

State Sen. Jackie Speier

SAN FRANCISCO Left for dead, bleeding from five bullet wounds, she prayed and waited. Her boss, Congressman Leo Ryan, was already dead. So were three journalists and a defector.

After 22 hours, Guyanese rescue workers airlifted her to safety.

Jackie Speier is a Democratic state senator now for parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties. But then she was Ryan’s 28-year-old legal counsel, who went along with a contingent of officials, journalists and relatives to take a look at what was going on in this jungle where Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple had moved to from California.

They arrived on Nov. 17, 1978, and things were going pretty well, she remembers, until a reporter was slipped a note saying some members wanted to leave. “Jones became almost manic,” she says. She and the others in the departing group were attacked the next day at a remote airstrip near Jonestown.

“It was very much like a plantation, ironically, for someone who preached equality,” Speier says of the compound. “The whites were in leadership, and the African-Americans were subservient.”

What happened there was murder, she adds. “These people’s minds had been manipulated.”

And she’s not sure we’ve learned anything. “Jim Jones got away with what he got away with because he was politically connected and because he had the ability to call what he had a religion.

“Our commitment to protecting the First Amendment clouded reasonable people from recognizing that even though religions have a right to exist, they do not have a right to conduct themselves in a manner that suggests criminal conduct.”

Was it a mistake to go to Jonestown 25 years ago?

“I don’t think people who got out thought it was a mistake,” she says. “And there were people who got out because we went down there. It was a mistake that our State Department did such a lousy job of monitoring the situation. Those were American citizens.”

She points out that the suicides had been rehearsed time and again, in drills that Peoples Temple called “white nights.”

“We knew about the white-night trials. I think that Jim Jones was going to be exposed, and he couldn’t allow that to happen and was willing to take 900 people with him. He was a maniacal narcissist.”

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