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Me and Mr. Jones

Mass-murderer Jim Jones, as seen through the eyes of his trusted lieutenant

By Leigh E. Rich

Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple
By Deborah Layton
Doubleday, Anchor Books

November 18, 1978—Buried inconspicuously in a remote part of Guyana, 913 members living in the Jonestown “commune” commit mass suicide. Some drink the cyanide-laced Flavour-Aide voluntarily; others are forced at gunpoint.

No one is spared. Not even Jim Jones, the “reverend” who deceitfully enticed his followers of the Peoples Temple to this so-called “Promised Land.” A man who robbed, raped and tortured his disciples into submission. A man self-proclaimed the reincarnation of Jesus but, for many, now remembered as the devil.

Few were closer to Jones than Deborah Layton, a high-ranking Peoples Temple official for nearly a decade and survivor of one of the most baffling tragedies in recent history. Layton’s story of escape, bravely recounted in Seductive Poison, unravels the riddles of Jonestown from the inside and documents the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious cult leaders.

Executed with precision and emotion, Layton’s book serves dual purposes: One, to emphasize how intelligent and independent individuals can become engrossed in a cult; and, two, to educate government officials on the ins-and-outs of cult life so future incidents can be controlled appropriately.

A rebellious and lost youth of the ’60s, Layton joined the Peoples Temple after being introduced to its socialistic way of life by her peace-loving brother and sister-in-law. She was only 16. Like so many others before and after her, she found acceptance and love in Jones, a leader who selflessly spoke against discrimination. His platform opposed racism, class-ism and capitalism. He convinced his followers that abandoning material possessions and living in concert with one another would lead to spiritual liberation.

Jones promised the young Layton everything she was missing: “Debbie, you have wandered upon this earth looking, wanting, and needing answers. I can give you them. For every unknown in your mind, I can give you enlightenment.

“For your fear, I can give you strength. For your sorrow, I can give you hope and a dream we will attain together.”

And so went her early years “and perhaps some of her happiest” in the Peoples Temple. Situated outside of San Francisco, Layton developed “family” ties with other members, carried out her Temple duties flawlessly, and attended college. She, like her counterparts, wholly accepted Jones’ ideologies and, therefore, rarely questioned Jones’ increasingly anomalous behavior.

“The process of controlling new members began immediately and intensely, and I’m not sure I’ll know what prevented us from seeing through his deceit, his lies, and his manipulations. Only a few days after joining, I learned that ‘All men are homosexuals, except for Jim.’ I was stunned, but when the information was not disputed by anyone, I obediently believed it.”

Resembling an abusive relationship, Jones used his powerful position as “Father” to manipulate Temple members, blurring together love, punishment and condemnation to procure loyalty. Layton repeatedly describes falling out of favor with Jones, enduring his mean-spirited discipline, and consequently attaining better positions within the Temple’s infrastructure.

“Over time,” she states, “I became the perfect vessel for my leader’s dogma.”

Even when Jones raped her twice (she refused the third time), Layton bought into his explanation (“This is for your own good”) and blamed herself for the incidents.

He looked like a vampire as he thrust back his black choir robe, lowered his heavy body onto mine, and cloaked us in his demonic embrace. “I’m doing this for you,” he groaned. “I want you to appreciate yourself more. I have great things in store for you, Debbie.”

It was perhaps Layton’s unerring loyalty to Jones that eventually saved her from his ghastly grip. Continually promoted to higher positions, such as handling finances and establishing bank accounts in Panama and Switzerland for the Temple’s millions, Layton was eager to relocate to Jonestown with her mother, also a member. The moment they arrived in Jonestown, however, Layton knew she was far from the “Promised Land” Jones had described.

“As we were systematically stripped of our previous identities, never to be allowed private possessions or autonomous thought again, the lost souls [of other Jonestown members] watched. Later on I, too, would feel the excitement when the siren sounded to announce the new arrivals. It was a strange rush to watch these outsiders, these newcomers, pull into the camp and realize they’d been desperately wrong. We felt vindicated when we saw other new arrivals’ faces fall.”

Forced to slave long hours in jungle fields that produced little food, attend interminable “White Night” rehearsal suicide sessions, and report members breaking any Jonestown rules, Jones’ “Promised Land” was little more than a prison.

During one all-night “emergency” meeting, Layton describes in Seductive Poison, a 60-year-old man accidentally fell asleep: “Now Jim was furious, and we were going to have to confront Charlie and everything would drag on longer. But no wonder Father was mad. … Falling asleep proved that your head was in the wrong place, which made you more susceptible to committing treason.”

Jones meted out what he considered “appropriated” discipline: Charlie’s son, Nick, was ordered to place a 10-foot boa constrictor about his father’ s neck, thus punishing Charlie and testing Nick’s loyalty simultaneously.

Five months after her arrival, Layton began to recognize Jones’ manipulations. While Jones lived in more extravagant conditions, his members went without sufficient food, any privacy (even in the latrines), sanitary environments, toilet paper and medical treatment. Layton, fully aware of the Temple’s finances and the millions buried beneath Jonestown itself, grew doubtful. “I wondered why, with millions in a Swiss bank account, we were struggling in the rain forest, hot, thirsty, and foraging for food. … Why, with so many millions of dollars abroad, could we barely exist?”

Such questions even Layton cannot answer. But Seductive Poison is a riveting, haunting and all-too-real glimpse at the manipulative, egomaniacal Jones, his savage “Promised Land,” and the tragic events that chilling November night.

Five months previously, using her intelligence and high-ranking position within the Temple, a 25-year-old Layton risked her life and the lives of her mother and brother to escape and convince the American government of the evils—including the possibility of mass suicide—inside Jonestown.

Californian Congressman Leo Ryan heeded Layton’s “wild” claims and flew to Guyana to investigate Jones—on November 18, 1978. Ryan and several others were shot and killed as part of Jones’ mass suicide-murder.

“It breaks my heart to think how bravely and how desperately we endured. Only very few people were lucky enough to have been elsewhere when the suicide command was given. Those in the capital [of Guyana], some 250 miles away, refused to take their lives when Father’s orders came over the radio. Just that little bit of distance allowed them to think for themselves—and they chose to live.”

Rich, L. E. (1998). Me and Mr. Jones: Mass-murderer Jim Jones, as seen through the eyes of his trusted lieutenant. [Review of the book Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple by Deborah Layton.] Tucson Weekly, November 5.

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