by Elena Broslovsky
Written for Ron, Raul, and Jessica
Laura lives in my heart and always will. A generous, accomplished, courageous idealist. In shock from the gruesome loss of her community, family, and dreams, she was welcomed into Synanon where she hit the ground running.
Everywhere she worked and all those she touched were better for knowing her. Her capacity for love and forgiveness was immense. She was generous with her time even when she became sick. She helped others most often without being asked. Almost everyone I know has a Laura story of a kind and generous thing she did. She could always be counted on.
I was in the air flying to Chicago when the massacre was taking place on the ground below. My father had asked me to bring my son home to surprise my mother on her birthday, November 19, 1978.
They were having a party for her, but her friends had been calling all day with condolences. They knew she had a daughter in a cult and assumed I had been murdered in Jonestown. She was relieved she could show her guests that not only was I alive, but that I appeared to be somewhat normal.
Helene, one of my mother’s best friends, was a woman I genuinely liked. Her daughter Marilyn, my age, had changed her name to something eastern, exotic, and unpronounceable. She too had joined an alternate lifestyle. (After Jonestown, we were all called cults.)
Helene, devastated, hoped I could help her comprehend how her well-loved and gently reared youngest daughter had fled her secure home and joined a group that appeared so strange and bizarre.
Helene sobbed when I explained why I left home and why I loved my Synanon community. I hated to see Helene’s pain but was glad that Marilyn found a place where she might be happy and accepted.
I had never heard of Peoples Temple before my plane landed in Chicago, even though they were one of many organizations that received surplus goods, food, and clothing from the Synanon Distribution Network.
I was a true believer in the principles of Synanon. In 1978, we had the Synanon Committee for a Responsible American Press (SCRAP), which later became the Synanon Committee for a Responsible American Media (SCRAM).
I extrapolated that the media may have lied about Jonestown. I did not believe that those people could possibly have killed themselves or had suicide drills. It seemed remote, impossible. I saw no connection between our two groups.
“Do you do suicide drills in Synanon?” My mother demanded. I suppose in retrospect it was a valid question, but I was insulted and confused. I returned to Synanon early.
My mother’s questions about Jonestown and suicide drills were exhausting. She did not have the same open-hearted curiosity Helene had shown.
When Laura arrived at Synanon, we became friends. Fragile and broken, she carried herself with grace and dignity. I worked her first Trip, where the howls of her pain shook everyone in earshot. Every year on November 18 a special Game was held for her and she bravely confronted her demons. What courage. What a champion.
When we knew each other well enough for me to broach the subject I asked, “There weren’t really suicide drills were there?”
“Yes, there were,” she said eyes looking down at her hands.
I was shocked. I thought it was a lie. “Did you participate?”
“The drills were a loyalty test. I never thought that it would really happen. That he would ask us to … It was just a test. I came back from shopping in Georgetown where I was sent for supplies. My roommate had killed her children and herself. She left a note instructing us to also take our lives. In my shock, I thought about it. It would have been easy, but I made another decision with the few of us who had been 150 miles away and survived. I felt someone had to tell the story of these lives and the good they wanted to do in the world.”
I was stunned to learn that this had occurred, and the media had not made it up. I also learned that Synanon had donated the powdered beverage mix to Peoples Temple that was used to serve the poison. Over the years, Laura told me more details of her life and her idealism. I helped edit her books and introduced her to the Communal Studies Association that allowed her to share her story with open-minded, curious people, scholars, and communards.
Like everything else she did, she became deeply involved, served on the board, and expanded her huge circle of friends.
Laura married Ron Kohl and stayed with him till her life ended. She and Ron adopted a beautiful baby boy and raised an amazing son who is today a caring teacher with a great sense of humor and movie star good looks.
Laura was a wife and mother, an author, a teacher, a Quaker, a revolutionary, and a friend. She was the kindest, bravest and sanest person I ever met.
Laura Johnston Kohl grew up as an activist in Washington, D.C. While she was in high school and college, she watched as many of her heroes were assassinated in the 1960s: John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and others. That had a huge impact on her. She attended college in Connecticut and continued her commitment to work for change and to make a difference. While exercising her civil rights to protest peacefully against the War in Vietnam, she was tear-gassed. After a brief marriage, a visit to Woodstock, and a stint working with the Black Panthers, she moved to California to join her sister.
Soon after that, she was introduced to Peoples Temple and spent the next nine years in California and Guyana. She was away from Jonestown on the day when 913 of her friends and family died. The next twenty years were spent recovering and rebuilding her life. For the first ten years, she lived in Synanon, a residential community. The following ten years, with her husband and young son, she began rebuilding her life. She earned her BA in philosophy/psychology and then earned her California Teaching Credential. She also found some peace by becoming a Quaker.
In March 2010, she published her book, JONESTOWN SURVIVOR: An Insider’s Look. For more information about Laura go to https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=67567