Book Review - Seductive Poison-A Jonestown Survivors Story

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1999, Volume 16, Number 1, pages 67-70. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. 

Deborah Layton. Doubleday (An Anchor Book), city 1998.

Those of us who were in the cult-education field in 1978 remember the massacre at Jonestown in November of that year as an immensely important watershed in our struggle to warn people of the dangers of cults. At last, we thought, here is proof for all to see of the potential for violence inherent in cultic situations and relationships. Since the story of the Jonestown "suicides" was one of the most heavily covered news events of the 1970's, we thought, "now maybe the world will listen to us."

I remember that in the days following the Jonestown incident my horrified and stunned friends, most of whom had never taken my interest in cults seriously, turned to me to tell them "why?” While I tried to explain the recipe for disaster that is embedded in the combination of a cult leader demanding absolute power, followers willing -- or forced -- to submit to the ever-growing tests of loyalty, and a mission viewed as so important that the ends seem to justify the means, I remember at the time that even I could not comprehend the horror of that event. I certainly could not explain it. Who could? Now, over twenty years later, I have come to realize that Jonestown, like the Nazi holocaust, is an event whose depths we will never be able to plumb. The more we know about it, the more we realize what we don't know and that we can never really comprehend it or take in all of its ramifications. Like the Nazi holocaust, we think we know a lot about Jonestown. But the more we find out about it, the more we realize that we really know nothing, that we have not even begun to know and emotionally digest the nightmare of life and death under Jim Jones' regime, and that it's full horror may never be fully known and/or understood.

Deborah Layton's wonderful book, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple, helps us because her insider's command of details of that experience adds both to our intellectual knowledge and, because of her powerful and truthful writing, to our emotional comprehension.

Layton describes her vulnerability as a troubled teen in a high-powered family and the search for approval which led her, through recruitment by her brother and his wife, to join the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple at an early age. She attributes her rise to Jim Jones's elite inner circle to her capacity to gradually meet his sadistic tests--including a sexual one. As one of his most trusted followers, Jones sent her on secret missions throughout the world to set up bank accounts for the millions of dollars he stole from his idealistic followers.

Partly because of this inside knowledge of the group's secret, hidden wealth, Ms. Layton became disillusioned immediately when she finally made the pilgrimage to the Jonestown jungle settlement with her mother, who had also become part of the group. Why, she wonders, are we toiling in the fields for so long in the heat, given no medical care, given so little to eat, and living in such terrible quarters when Jones has all that money stashed away that I helped hide? She was especially disturbed by the repeated terrifying "White Night" rehearsals of death born out of Jones' paranoia, which she feared would one day become real.

Not long after her arrival in Jones's "Promised Land", the doubts that Layton had hitherto squelched for years surfaced. She resolved to escape, even though she knew that would mean leaving behind her mother, now fatally ill with cancer.

The story of her escape is electrifying. Deborah knew Jones had had other defectors murdered. She also knew that if she failed, the ultimate fate of apostates in Jonestown awaited her: she would be drugged heavily and would spend the rest of her life nearly comatose in the Jonestown "hospital". (This is one horror of Jonestown that I -- who thought I knew almost all there was to know about these horrors and abuses -- never knew about. I've known about the well in which children were hung upside down and the "box" people were locked in as punishment, but I had not known about the drugging and ensuing living deaths.) How to plan her escape? Telephones were bugged, incoming and outgoing mail read. She had no money and no passport. She knew that turning to American Embassy officials for assistance was dangerous because Jones told everyone that he had spies there, as everywhere.

In a heartbreaking chapter entitled "Forsaking Mama," Layton relates how her opportunity to escape came from a mission to chaperone Jonestown children presenting dance programs in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. She touchingly describes her farewell to the beloved mother she knew she would never see again and to an elderly black woman with whom she was very close. She was, of course, not able to tell them she was going to try to escape, yet both women sensed it anyway. The final scene with her mother is wrenching:

"It's time to leave, darling. They're yelling for you."

"I love you, Mama. Remember, keep our secrets just our own?"

"Yes, honey, I understand."

I walked over to the ledge and set my cup down next to the thermos. Her shoulders slumped forward as though she had lost a battle.

"Debsy?" she whispered after me.

"Yes, Mama?" I ran my wrist and arm under my nose to catch another tear.

"I'll never see you again, darling."


"Shhhshh . . .I know."

Her mother Lisa, a Jew who had escaped Germany's Nazi Holocaust, died in the concentration camp of Jonestown about a week before the final conflagration. After Layton's hair-raising escape and flight back to the U.S., she hid out from the goon squads Jones kept in San Francisco to silence defectors. (I don't know why Jones didn't make more of an effort to track her down in the U.S. and kill her, especially with her extensive knowledge of his shady financial dealings; apparently at that point in time Jones' goon squads did not always obey his orders.) She tried to recover and get on with her life. By giving a detailed affidavit, Layton helped to convince Congressman Leo J. Ryan to investigate the jungle settlement. With horror, she learned, like the rest of us, of the final White Night in which over 900 of her family and friends perished. She also learned that her brother, Larry, would be the only person held legally responsible for the conflagration, even though the two people he shot at the airstrip were not killed. If I have one criticism of this book, it is that Ms. Layton seems to rush her story at the end. However, this is a wonderfully written, must-read book.

Adding to its value is an excellent forward by Charles Krause, who accompanied Congressman Ryan to Jonestown, was seriously wounded during the airstrip shootings, and was the first journalist to reach the massacre scene. Krause relates his personal involvement in the terrible events, how he later met Ms. Layton, and presents a brief, convincing summary of why cults should be taken seriously and why this book should be read.

Marcia R. Rudin

New York, New York

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 16, Number 1, 1999