Three recently published books, each by a local author, makes for absorbing late summer reading. Two focus on controversial cult movements and the third is an engaging family memoir.
Laura Johnston Kohl’s “Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look” chronicles the author’s involvement with the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple and with Synanon—a close-knit community based near the isolated eastern Tulare County town of Badger. The author presents a compelling memoir from her childhood and troubled adolescence in Rockville, Maryland through her adult years in California.
Joining the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple, she found fulfillment in the cult’s teachings and regimented lifestyle. Kohl greatly admired founder-leader Jim Jones, whom she considered a father figure. Jones’s homicidal behavior severely shook her when in November 1978 he ordered the mass murder-suicides of 918 individuals inGuyana, South America.
Shortly after that, Kohl sought refuge in Synanon — an alternative community founded by Charles Dederich. Kohl found appealing the movement’s tightly regulated communitarian ambiance along with its emphasis on the self-examined life. She moved to Badger where she lived from 1983 to 1990. Upon leaving Synanon in 1990, she took up residence in Visalia and became an elementary school teacher. Following the publication of “Jonestown Survivor” in 2010 the author achieved national recognition speaking to groups throughout the United States.
Through the pages of her just-published novel“Wheel of Fire” by Visalia author Janet Nichols Lynch focuses on a different sort of cult movement — the fictionalized Church of the Wheel of Fire. Lynch was inspired by actual events and people in crafting her narrative. She dedicates her book to Laura Johnson Kohl, whom Lynch characterizes as her major inspiration. The book’s protagonist is 17-year-old Kori Lawton, an aspiring detective, fascinated by the San Joaquin Valley-based Church of the Wheel of Life.
When Kori attempts to free another teenage girl, Flicker, from the doomsday cult, she falls under the hypnotic spell of its charismatic leader, Promus. The leader possesses homicidal tendencies akin those of Jim Jones. When confronted with this reality, Kori must determine how to save herself along with other members of the cult. Although Wheel of Life is intended for young adults, it will appeal to readers of all ages.
Very different in tone and tenor is “Origins of the Universe and What it All Means: A Memoir” by Visalia’s Carole Firstman. The author chronicles her difficult relationship with her brilliant, egocentric father — a gifted biology professor. She feels that his narcissistic behavior stems from a mild form of Asperger’s, which left him distant from his family. The two had minimal interaction in the wake of her parents’ divorce when she was 9 years old. She describes her struggle to reconnect some 20 years later commencing with a road trip accompanying her father into the desert region of Catavina, Mexico.
All this causes her to reveal her complex feelings toward her father whose “intellectual life took precedence over family.” Firstman recalls him as “a cross between a nerdy professor and an over-aged hippie” who “even when he was around, he wasn’t really around.”
She characterizes him as chronically promiscuous, flaunting both his sexuality and involvement with other women in front of his wife and children. This resulted in his parents’ divorce and his six marriages. But she also finds appealing her father’s sense of adventure, through his wanderings in the desert combined with his intellectual curiosity.
In essence, the volume is a combination travel narrative, cultural commentary, and exploration of the nature of parent-child relationships. Effectively combining humor with pathos, Firstman’s skillfully written memoir captures the reader’s attention throughout.