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Inspired by the arrival of The Path Season 2, Movie Pilot and Hulu have teamed up to launch an ongoing web series, Cults & Conspiracies, exploring how these beliefs come to fruition. Our first interview was with Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl who spoke of her experiences with the cult and what transpired.
Her story is chilling. Most of us are familiar with the phrase "drank the Kool-Aid" — or, as my own mother would say, "You're all in the Kool-Aid." This is a reference to the apparent method used to administer the poison in a mass suicide of more than 900 people who had joined the Peoples Temple cult, founded by Pastor Jim Jones. The suicide was triggered after US Congressman Leo Ryan had come to investigate the cult along with concerned family of some cult members who had quietly expressed desire to leave the sect.
Why Would Anyone Join A Cult?
There are a few reasons why someone might join a group that is considered socially deviant. These reasons include a sense of belonging, to needing some form of guidance in their life. Johnston Kohl explained how she, a rational, considerate person, was sucked in:
"I was looking for someplace where I could go, speak my mind, fight for the cause that I totally believed in. And then at the same time I would have somebody who had a better overview who might be able to prevent some of the falls that I'd had along the way. And I thought Jim Jones was that. ... To hear him talk about politics. ... I was not looking for a God or religion."
How Did Jones Connect With So Many People Of Different Backgrounds And Earn Their Trust?
When it comes to cults, the leaders are usually charismatic and prey on the people that follow them. They learn how to say exactly what you want to hear to legitimize themselves. Johnston Kohl recalled:
"There's probably five lines out of the Bible that rang true at the time, since I wasn't a Bible reader, but the part where Jesus built all things for all people, in a way, that's what Jim would do. 'Here's my sermon, I need to talk about religion, I need to talk about the Bible, I need to talk about hell and brimstone, I need to talk about politics, I need to talk about socialism.' He had rough topics that he would talk about in every service and so everybody would hear something that they were waiting to hear."
How Did Congressman Ryan's Investigation Change Things?
It started to go south when Jones caught wind of people coming from the US to investigate the Jonestown compound in Guyana:
"Jim was hearing that people in San Francisco had an investigative journalist who was writing about Peoples Temple. You know, Jim had many things swept under the rug when he was busted in a sting operation in Los Angeles. So he told the members in Los Angeles he was arrested because he had an interracial church. We know that Jim had things to hide that he didn't want to have public. ... So in the summer of '78 Jim hurried to get as many people as possible out of the United States over to Guyana. We weren't prepared for that many people."
How Did Congressman Ryan Find Out Things Weren't As Peaceful As They Seemed?
"Congressman Ryan came to our [Georgetown, Guyana] house before going to Jonestown. He climbed over the back fence and came into our house in Georgetown and shook all of our hands and said, 'Hi, I'm Congressman Ryan from California, I just wanted to see how you're doing.' Sharon Amos, [Jim's private secretary] chased him away. So a few days after that [Ryan] got out to Jonestown and he's been on several videos where he told people he loved Jonestown and it was beautiful. We did amazing work in Jonestown and then when he stepped off the podium, people started handing him notes."
Lastly, the toughest question of all and one that Johnston Kohl wrestles with daily.
Why Do You Think So Many People Willingly Committed Suicide?
"The first thing that people always overlook is that Jim Jones had proven himself to every family in Jonestown. He had saved somebody from a life in prison. He had gotten somebody off of heroin. He had given somebody a new life off of probation. He had given kids a home that was safe and away from dope parents. Every single family in Jonestown had had some family member saved, or some close friend given a new life. So here you have this guy who has proven himself to every single family. It's not like if a stranger came into the room and said, 'You have to do this.' I don't have any problem saying no. But Jim Jones had proven himself really to each family. So he had established that he was never gonna ask something of you that you couldn't do.
"The other part is, you can't ever go back again. You've killed a congressman, it's a big conspiracy or co-conspirators, you're gonna go back, you're gonna be put in prison, you'll be felons because you conspired to kill a congressman out of US soil. You are gonna be in trouble. That was the message he sent."
Johnston Kohl's tale is both enlightening and scary, but the honesty in her story is refreshing in this day and age. She is clearly a strong woman who went through a horrible ordeal. Make sure to watch the entire video above for more details and for more questions answered about the event at Jonestown.