Jonestown remembered A survivor recalls Peoples Temple tragedy

November 15, 1998|By Andrew Quinn

OAKLAND, Calif. - They called it "the Promised Land," but 20 years later its real name, Jonestown, still sends an icy knife stabbing through the heart.

In the tropical jungles of Guyana, more than 900 Americans followed their charismatic leader on a mission to build a utopian paradise. Instead, Jonestown became the site of the largest mass suicide in modern history.

Deborah Layton lived in Jonestown but did not die there. Among the few members of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple to leave Guyana alive, Layton was a defector who raised an alarm over what was brewing in the cult's armed jungle camp.

Living in a house outside San Francisco, she ventured back into the darkness of the Peoples Temple in an attempt to pull meaning out of the abyss where, on Nov. 18, 1978, hundreds of men, women and children choked down the cyanide-laced punch that snuffed out their lives. "I am doing this for the sake of my [12-year-old] daughter," Layton said.

Layton's effort to exhume memories of Jonestown has resulted in a book, "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple."

It also took her back to Jonestown, a trip riddled with shame and guilt. Her mother, who joined the cult in part to be closer to her, lies buried deep in the jungle after dying of cancer just 10 days before the cult's horrific final act.

Her brother Larry, who introduced his sister to the idealistic, multi-ethnic Peoples Temple, is serving a life sentence in prison, the only person charged in connection with the group's deadly attack on Rep. Leo Ryan of California at a Guyanese airstrip - the bloody prelude to the cult's last night of terror and despair.

Deborah Layton got out of Jonestown in May 1978. Once one of Jones' trusted lieutenants, she had grown concerned that the temple's adored "Father" was leading his flock in a dangerous direction. She says her escape was a simple matter of listening to a voice inside her soul - a voice that Jones had tried to drown out with hysterical rantings and midnight suicide drills.

A rebellious 17-year-old from Berkeley, she drifted to the Peoples Temple in 1970 because its progressive program of social action reminded her of the Peace Corps.

"These were good people, they weren't evil," she said. "I was young, and I needed structure. The people who joined the Peoples Temple wanted to be part of something bigger, feeding the poor or helping the homeless or whatever. The organization did not start out bad; it was Jim Jones who was deceitful."

While Jones recruited new members with shows of religious devotion, those in the group soon found themselves working for what amounted to a rigid political cell devoted to advancing their leader.

By 1974, as Jones was establishing his headquarters in San Francisco, Layton had risen high in the hierarchy. Although she had been sexually abused by Jones, she steeled herself in rigid obedience to "Father," who was ratcheting up the level of paranoia.

Little of this was visible on the outside. With his progressive credentials and photogenic, multiracial flock, Jones became a San Francisco power broker, feted by the likes of then-first lady Rosalynn Carter and then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, now the city's mayor.

Sent reeling by a 1977 press expose and several defections, Jones told Temple members they were moving out of range of "the racists and the enemies" to Guyana - "the Promised Land."

"It was like a dark, hot desert. There was nothing there," Layton said of Jonestown, where Peoples Temple agents had set up a bare-bones "agricultural project" in the jungle. "When you saw it, you knew it was an evil place."

The exodus to Guyana began in the summer of 1977. Early arrivals radioed back to San Francisco that it was indeed a paradise. Those left behind to wrap up the temple's affairs, including Layton and her mother, were eager to join the group. They did so in December. After a lengthy flight, followed by a 30-hour boat trip on the Kaituma River and an agonizing trek by flatbed truck, they arrived at Jonestown. The moment she arrived and looked into the eyes of Jonestown veterans, Layton knew it had gone wrong.

"When I saw their faces I they were so lost," she said of the frightened, subdued crowd that silently watched her group arrive at the makeshift camp of tents and cabins. "I could feel them watching me, that I came from that other world that they would never get back to. And they never did."

In the suffocating heat of Guyana, fed by alcohol and drugs, Jones' megalomania burst into evil flower. Jonestown, no happy commune, was a work camp where temple members were subjected to harangues from a leader obsessed with imaginary threats from "traitors" and "mercenaries."

Disobedience could bring punishment in "The Box," a stifling, underground cubicle no bigger than a coffin, and any night could suddenly become a "White Night" - Jones' code for a mass suicide drill.

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