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Jonestown Survivor to Speak on Cult Leadership Styles

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SDSU, March 29

San Diego CA—How do you distinguish quirkiness from insanity in a leader? What are the red flags to watch for? What are our expectations of a leader? A fluke-survivor of the Peoples Temple and decade-long resident of Synanon — an alternative community in Santa Monica, California. that disbanded in 1991 — will share her analysis of both cults, as part of the Love Library Series through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at SDSU.

Laura Johnston Kohl will compare and contrast the styles of leaders Jim Jones and Charles E. Dederich, both of whom were drawn to California and had their greatest success here. She will also reflect on the members who were drawn to join each group — why did Peoples Temple members mostly join as extended families, and Synanon members join as individuals?

Kohl feels that to properly understand the People’s Temple, it needs to be considered in the historic perspective of the 1960s and ‘70s. “In less than a decade, we had Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers all killed by vigilantes,” said Kohl. “So by 1970, I really felt that I needed to take charge and not be a victim and see our democracy go down the drain.”

Like many others, Kohl joined out of disillusionment for society, and the desire to create a better world. Then, on Nov. 18, 1978, at the command of Jim Jones, 917 residents of Jonestown lost their lives. Kohl happened to be in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, on church business.

“We know so much about him, yet there are 917 people who need to have their stories told too,” said Kohl. “So I don’t want the story to die because it’s so uncomfortable or difficult. I think we really have to investigate it. … I’ve lived in two cults over my lifetime and I have a perspective now of why People’s Temple was able to gain so much power, and a sense of what leadership styles seem to draw people in.”

Kohl is happy to answer questions, and even invites them. “I think I’ve been asked every question over the last 39 years and I’ve survived those too,” she said.

 Leadership Styles in Famous/Infamous Cults: Peoples Temple and Synanon is on Thursday, March 29, from 1–2:50 pm, at the SDSU Love Library. Following Kohl’s presentation, participants will view the Peoples Temple at Jonestown Special Collection, held in Special Collections and University Archives. The cost is $15. OLLI membership ($30) is required to register. Every semester, OLLI at SDSU offers intellectual and literal adventures for adults age 50 and better, but participants of all ages are welcome to this special lecture. To register, call (619) 594-5152.