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.
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.
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.
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.
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.