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Book Review: Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story by Deborah Layton

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Jonestown. Most of us who were alive during that time remember something. I was only two and a half in November of 1978, though that did not stop me from having nightmares involving “the scary dark haired man in sunglasses.” Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple, published over a decade ago, gives a first hand account of what The Peoples Temple, Jim Jones and the nightmarish Jonestown were like, followed with her means for escape, and her eventual reporting of Jones.

Layton, only 25 at the time, worked as a “high ranked official” under Jim Jones, and spent over five months living in Guyana, hating every minute of it. Jim Jones originally formed his church and gained his early following in Indiana, and he was known for his passionate orations, as well as non-segregated services. He then moved his church and followers to California (when some objected to his ‘radical’ nature), where he gained many new members ranging from the very poor to the wannabe hippy privileged types, like Layton. Jones, an avid believer in socialism, eventually promised his followers a “utopia” in the jungles of Guyana, where they could supposedly live in harmony and raise their children in a racist and classist-free world.

All of this might sound ideal, save for the fact that Jim Jones was a nut who eventually forced over 900 temple members to drink grape flavored “flavor aid” laced with cyanide. This “revolutionary suicide,” as Jones called it, coupled with the death of congressman Leo Ryan, and several NBC members, made this event one of the most talked about items in 1978 and years following.

In my own reading up on Jones and Jonestown, I often wondered how people could be so dumb? Jones preyed on the very vulnerable and weak, used mind tricks and fear, sleep depravation and “suicide drills” as a means of gaining his members’ loyalty and trust. He worked hard in convincing his members that the U.S. government was out to kill them, so much so that many believed it, as well as believing he himself was god.

Layton’s book provides some interesting detail, though I admit I am still having a difficult time understanding why she, as well as hundreds of other members, went down to Jonestown to begin with. Jones had raped her on several occasions, tested his members’ “loyalty” by telling them they were drinking poison (as a means of seeing just who would do it willingly and who would cause a stir), beat his members regularly in front of the church (including Layton herself), made them strip down in front of the whole congregation, told them that all men were homosexuals (save for Jones) overworked them till they were ready to collapse from loss of sleep – and all of this was before they even went to Guyana!

Give me a break. The Peoples Temple evolved from being a church congregation to eventually being a socialist group, and Jones evolved from reverend to dictator. Jonestown closer resembled a concentration camp than any utopia. Members were forced to work long hours with mediocre food, couples were not allowed to have intimacy (relationships had to be “approved”), those who spoke out were silenced into zombies with drugs, or by being shoved into a box for several weeks, and kids who acted out were given the “well treatment,” where they would be held upside down, and someone would be at the bottom of it, ready to pull them down below the water as a means for scaring them. Their screams would then be broadcast throughout the compound. Jones also regularly performed what he called “White Nights” where he would sound sirens and force all members to the pavilion, and then tell them the CIA and U.S. government were going to torture and kill them all (meanwhile he would have his own men go into the jungles to fire shots as proof), and the list goes on. Jones was a really sick bastard, and why anyone would follow this idiot to the remote jungles of Guyana is beyond me, considering there were many signs of his lunacy well before leaving. 

Seductive Poison is a very fast read, and Layton tells of this information well, though the writing itself has some clichés like: “I must descend again into the darkness…” but this isn’t the type of book one reads for literary writing. One of the most interesting points about Jonestown is that the thing Jones accomplished is that he got members to fear each other. No one was allowed to voice his or her real feelings or opinions, lest be severely punished. Jones would also claim he was sending out people to pretend that they wanted to leave, so if someone came up to you, claiming they wanted to leave, you would then need to report this person, and those who did not, Jones would know you were “a defector” and one who was not true to “The Cause.” So no one trusted anyone, and ultimately most (with exception of a fortunate few) were forced to drink the poison on November 18, 1978.

The reason Layton’s book is significant is because she was able to escape from Jonestown months before the mass suicide took place, and it was she who publicly reported Jones, and who gained the interest of congressman Ryan, who upon going down to investigate, was then shot by Jones’ people as he and a number of others were readying to leave. Not long after the shootings took place at Port Kaituma, Jones ordered the mass suicide of over 900 of his followers. The most disturbing thing is that the children were done first, and whole families perished that day. Though again, why anyone did not read the signs beforehand and know to stay the hell away from Jones and his camp is beyond me. So while Layton provides a good first-hand account, readers might have trouble sympathizing with her, because one has to wonder why she could not only bring herself, but also her dying mother to Jonestown (who died of cancer ten days before the tragedy, and did so without any pain medication since Jones himself confiscated all of it for his own use).

The whole thing is just creepy, disturbing, and sick. But Seductive Poison does a good job probing the innards of what one might think in those dire circumstances, given that she herself was so beaten down emotionally, physically, as well as sleep-deprived, (yet I still have a hard time understanding her willingness to follow this sicko down to Guyana). And unfortunately, Jonestown is not the only instance where fear, paranoia, and group- think take place. We can see it in the work place, in the media, in cliques, anywhere people do not express what they really think out of fear and what others might say. On a personal note, I worked a terrible job where my bitch boss told my co-workers to spy on me and a co-worker friend of mine. Those who were willing to spy and report were doing so to prove their loyalty to her, and she got them to do it because she knew that’s what they were after. She kept everyone in fear, worried them over losing their jobs, and had her loyal lapdogs willing to do the dirty work for her.  One of the reasons I know she hated me was because I did not kiss her ass, and I would always be a “defector” in her eyes. Thankfully, I reside in that jungle no longer.

If there is one thing to learn from this whole thing, it’s to avoid cults of all kinds, and those who follow them. Or better yet, as my grandma would say, “The sweet talking ones are always the biggest bullshitters.”

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