SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) — A memorial service Tuesday at a mass grave will mark the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, in which 913 men, women and children died in the worst mass murder-suicide in recent history.
They had followed their charismatic leader Jim Jones from San Francisco to a jungle settlement in the South American nation of Guyana, believing he was leading them to a utopia of racial harmony and social justice.
Former Jones follower, Laura Johnston Kohl, who had the good fortune to be elsewhere in Guyana November 18, 1978, joined anchor Anderson Cooper from CNN’s San Francisco bureau.
COOPER: What drew you to Reverend Jim Jones in the first place?
KOHL: I was an activist in the ’60s. I was against the war. I really wanted to have a better world. And I kept seeing things, things that I wanted to see in the world around me demolished. I saw the Kennedys shot down and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King.
COOPER: But what about Jim Jones spoke to you?
KOHL: Well, when I went into the first service with Jim Jones, he had pulled together people from every walk of life, of every color. And we had progressive people who were involved and we supported progressive causes. I thought that it was really a way to speak out as a group and try and make the world a better place.
COOPER: So you move down to Jonestown in Guyana. Things begin to change. How strict were people controlled there? Were people able to leave if they wanted to?
KOHL: One of the things that we didn’t know is how many people wanted to leave, because no one talked about it publicly. Jim was not interested in having people leave and so people did not talk about it.
And so, when everything went down at the airstrip and people were anxious to leave Jonestown, many of us had no idea that there were people who were discontent there.
COOPER: But there were. There were mass suicide drills that you even took part in. What were you thinking at that time?
KOHL: All along — I was in the temple for nine years. And one of the things that I learned early on was that Jim was very much involved in theatrics and drama.
And people talk about suicide drills. No one who participated in the drills ever thought that Jim was seriously doing that. We participated in a drama that Jim would set up or a theater to make a point. It would never have occurred to us to participate, to stay in a group, to follow along, if we seriously thought that could ever happen.
COOPER: You were away from Jonestown the day this tragedy happened. You were buying supplies for the camp. If you had been there, do you think you would have drunk the cyanide?
KOHL: I really can’t tell at this point. I do know that, if I had seen, really, my adoptive family of 913 people all dying around me, it would have been a very tough decision not to.
COOPER: Really? You think you might have actually done it?
KOHL: Well, looking back 25 years, it seems really like a faraway decision. So — but I think it would be really difficult not to in that setting.
COOPER: What’s the No. 1 thing people still do not understand about what happened there, about that time, that place?
KOHL: Well, the thing that I think is the most understated was that we really did have a community that, had Jim Jones been forced aside or had he left willingly and let the triumvirate set up, we really had a structure in place that would make a successful community living there with people of all different races and backgrounds, which really would have been a promised land or heaven on Earth.
And except that Jim was getting sicker, going crazier and crazier, and all of us isolated, all the people who lived in Guyana only heard what was going on in the world through Jim. And the result was, not only were we isolated, but Jim was isolated, too. And there was no one who could talk sense into him either. He had isolated himself, as well as us. And so, as he got crazier, there was no one who could set him straight, no one who could take him to task for what he was saying either. So it was wrong from every point of view.