Twenty years after Jonestown, a survivor looks back
PIEDMONT, California (AP) --
Jonestown survivor Deborah Layton grew up in a house of secrets.
She was 16 before she found out she was Jewish, 24 before she learned her
grandmother had committed suicide.
As a trusted financial lieutenant for cult leader Jim Jones, she kept secrets
him -- and later from him as she plotted her escape months before he
ordered 912 of his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch in the Guyana
But when her own child started asking questions, Layton broke family
First, she told her daughter.
Then, she wrote "Seductive Poison," her account of events leading up to
murder-suicide that shocked the world 20 years ago this month.
Along the way, she exorcised the family ghosts.
"I understand what these well-meaning secrets were for," Layton says. "But
same time, it's because of those secrets that I think my mother and my brother and I
were sort of pushed onto the path of looking for answers -- and that Jim Jones
seemed to have them for us."
Enticed into comfort
Layton was 17 when her already converted brother, Larry, introduced her
to Jones at the first Peoples Temple in far Northern California, where he
believed he could best survive the atomic apocalypse he expected. It was
1970, and she was on summer vacation from the British boarding school
where her worried parents had sent her to curb adolescent rebellion.
(The night before she'd left for the school, her father had stunned her
announcing her mother was Jewish. It turned out to be a sort of family rite of
passage; Larry had been told years earlier. Even later, she learned another
secret, that her mother had fled Nazi Germany.)
Young and unanchored, Layton was charmed as Jones fixed his penetrating
brown eyes on her and warmly invited her to "join me and my family of all
races," hundreds of followers working to feed the hungry, house the
homeless and help addicts get clean.
Soon, her mother would also join the Temple.
"The people that joined Peoples Temple were really good people. They
were innocent. They were naive," Layton said in a recent interview in her
home in the hills ringing San Francisco Bay.
"They were looking for something larger than themselves to be involved
... Nobody joined thinking their lives would be taken."
With the dark glasses he wore indoors and out, his glossy black hair and
robes, Jones, known as Father to his flock, soon became a San Francisco fixture. He
was feted by politicians. He was appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority; he
became chairman in 1976.
There was a scary side to the Peoples Temple -- beatings of fractious members,
fake healings. But doubts were eased by Jones' reassuring "You are the only one I
can really trust," or by the knowledge that failure meant punishment, physical and
"I saw things and I didn't stand up and say, 'Stop!' because I was too
These are things that haunt me still," Layton says.
The moment Layton and her mother, Lisa, arrived at Jonestown, a jungle
encampment about 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the Guyana capital of
Georgetown, "I knew we'd entered a prison camp and I knew I wanted out.
But how? I had no idea."
(The night before the trip in December 1977, another secret: The
grandmother Layton thought had died of a heart attack in Hamburg actually
jumped out a New York apartment window before Layton was born.)
In Jonestown, the able-bodied among the 1,000 or so residents worked the
fields, subsisting mostly on rice, Layton writes.
Dissent was unthinkable. Offenders sweltered in "The Box," a 6-by-4-foot
(1.8-by-1.2-meter) underground enclosure. Misbehaving children were
dangled head-first into the well late at night, Layton writes. Loudspeakers
broadcast Jones' voice at all hours.
Escape came in May 1978 when Jones sent Layton to Georgetown as
chaperone of a youth group. There she contacted her sister and U.S.
Once out, Layton sounded the alarm: Jones planned to force his followers
into mass suicide. Few heeded.
That Nov. 17, a delegation of reporters and relatives arrived in Guyana,
led by U.S.
Rep. Leo Ryan, who was working with San Francisco area residents worried about
family members in the cult. He was met with mostly beaming declarations of
The next day, preparing to leave with about 20 defectors, Ryan's party
at the airstrip. He and four others were killed.
Larry Layton, who had posed as a defector and wounded two people, is serving
sentence in federal prison. Back in the compound, Jones was choreographing one last,
grotesque dance of death.
First the children; poison was squirted into babies' mouths with a syringe.
Then the adults. Most were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by
security guards. Jones was found shot through the head.
After Jonestown, Layton retreated to secrets again -- "I was so ashamed.
didn't want people to know who I was."
She got a job in investment banking, married, had a child, divorced.
Then daughter Lauren started asking questions.
Answering wasn't easy -- "How do you tell a child that hundreds of children
died drinking juice?"
When she tried to write about abandoning her mother, who would die 10
days before the murder-suicide, she hit an emotional wall. For seven weeks,
she couldn't write. Instead, she grabbed her daughter's acrylic paints and
worked her way from front yard to back painting benches, the mailbox, even
the doorbell in a frenzy of bright stripes and squiggles.
One midsummer day, she stopped.
"It was a warm day and all of a sudden a breeze came up and the back door
blew open," she says. "All the hair on my arm and my neck came up. I just
sat there. It felt as though my mother was standing there and she was saying,
'It's time to come in and say, 'Goodbye.' "
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.