‘Seductive Poison’ Shows Stages Of Indoctrination, Cult Acceptance

2008 Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN) newspaper clipping — remembering the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre.

It was about 15 years after the Jonestown Massacre when I learned Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones attended Richmond High School about 20 minutes from my hometown. I would later learn that he also spent part of his childhood in Lynn, IN — a very small town I was familiar with because some of my cousins lived there.

But I had never really wanted to delve into any books about him until I read an online review about another Jonestown book that piqued my interest.

Seductive Poison

Debbie Layton was a rising star and confidante of Jim Jones. About two months before the Jonestown Massacre, though, the mid-20s woman knew she needed to get out. This was accomplished with the help of a sister and some government officials in Guyana. She details this, and the slow indoctrination, that led her to put her faith in Jones in her memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple.

Like many readers, I presume, Jonestown always prompted an image of gullible people who, although they did not deserve to die, kind of brought it all on themselves. That is one reason I’m glad I read the book. It is easier now, for me, to understand that good people, seeking a sense of justice and community, can be pulled into a very bad situation. Many of us (myself included) forget that Jones was highly respected just a few years before the massacre. As the book notes in 1976,

“The Temple was becoming a reputable and widely recognized organization. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone welcomed Jim (who controlled a large voting bloc) and rewarded Pastor Jones’s good deeds with several prominent positions. In March 1976, Jim was honored with a mayoral appointment to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Seven months later, he was appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority.”

In a 1976 event honoring Jones, then-California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown introduced Jones as a “combination of Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.”

Even president Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, visits with Jones during this era.

True Believers

But, underneath the public persona that was capable of duping powerful enablers was a sinister, and unstable, side of Jones that Layton effectively reveals. From the first time he sexually assaults her — to the day he confiscates her mother’s pain medication (she would die of cancer just weeks before the mass suicide) — Layton paints the image of a very troubled man.

Another side of the story she tells extremely well is the paranoia and persecution complex that riddled the religious community as they became convinced the ‘outside world’ was intent on destroying them.

Jonestown, Guyana

Because of her high role in the church, Layton stays in San Francisco, and is a late arriver to Guyana. When she arrives, after months of hearing how great Jonestown was looking, she is shocked to see that the paradise she had been promised was little more than an ‘army camp.’ Once there, her days, like other members were long filled with hard, manual labor and deprivation. As she is working in the fields one day — a 12-hour task in a jungle environment — she daydreams of simpler things,

“When I didn’t dream of food, I fantasized about my shower… Planning ones shower was important because showers also had restrictions. Anyone reported to have allowed the water to run longer than two minutes was assigned to the Learning Crew for a day.”

The Learning Crew was a chain-gang type punishment with harder labor and no talking. The crew was also escorted by armed guards.

For Her Daughter

Even though Layton wrote the book for her daughter in a way to ‘set the record straight,’ it is just a heavy, unhappy story for her family. Layton’s family was deeply impacted by the tragedy. Besides losing her mother — buried in an unmarked grave — Layton’s brother was one of the gunmen involved in the attack on U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.

He was the only individual imprisoned over Jonestown.

Rating: 5 out of 5. This is an important read and it’s written in a way that you understand how Layton was pulled in. Even though she is empathic to the victims, she does not sugarcoat anything — not even her own errors.


Afterthought

As I was researching for this post, I came across a Rolling Stones piece which, of course, sheds more light on the topic. And, it includes the story of a elderly survivor who slept through the ordeal and published her story in 1995. The book is currently out of print.

I also researched the Richmond, IN newspaper and found a piece they did on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre. You can view it here: Page 1 | Page 2

Categories: American History, Books I have read, My America, Religion | Tags: ,

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4 thoughts on “‘Seductive Poison’ Shows Stages Of Indoctrination, Cult Acceptance

  1. Great review, her book sounds fascinating! I remember her and her family being mentioned in the history of Jim Jones and Jonestown that I read (thanks for sharing the link, by the way!) I was so surprised when I learned that he’d actually been well-respected before things went wildly off track, I hadn’t realized that at all. Actually what I really wanted to know after reading that book was exactly what it sounds like she details here: more about the individual experience and perspectives from people who were able to get out before the massacre, and especially how they got pulled in in There’s an effort to explain that in the other book, but it’s not the same coming from someone removed from the situation. But I was very exhausted after reading that book, it’s intense, so I needed to wait awhile before searching any other material on the topic. Her memoir sounds like an excellent one to follow up with, I’m adding it to my list.

    • I think you would really enjoy the book — it is very well written. Emotionally draining for sure, but an important read. And glad to include a link to your blog — I will always send readers your way when I can. I have found quite a few good books I want to read because of your reviews.

  2. Scott

    Great review Charlie; I thought it was one of the best insider stories I had ever read. Last year I fell down the Jonestown Rabbithole (there is so much on record to explore) and saw Laura Johnston Koh’s survivor presentation in Indiana as well as visited the graves of Jim Jones’ wife Marceline, and adopted children Lew and Agnes who all perished in Jonestown. The remains are next to one another in Richmond’s Earlham Cemetary. I consider Jonestown and Peoples Temple to be THE MOST SADLY VEXING EVENT IN RECENT HISTORY, and six books later, videos, photos, interviews
    online documents and actual audiotapes collected from the FBI, I still don’t understand quite how it could happen.

    • When I was reading old newspaper clipping, I noticed some of the family was buried in Richmond. I intend to visit the graves one day. The Jonestown story is a very intriguing tragedy, that I don’t understand either, but this book does shine some light on it.

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