Review: Seductive Poison

Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's TempleSeductive Poison
by Deborah Layton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seductive Poison / 0-385-48984-6

I purchased "Seductive Poison" after watching the intense "Jonestown" documentary. I was fascinated by the story, and hoped to learn more about it - and the memoirs of the intelligent ex-member Deborah Layton, interviewed in the documentary, seemed to be the best place to start.

"Seductive Poison" tells the story of Deborah's life, from her rebellious teenage years, her indoctrination into the church at a time when she needed guidance and stability, and her eventual escape from Jonestown. Her attempts to warn the outside world of the terrible conditions of Jonestown - where back-breaking labor was mandatory, sleep was all but forbidden, and torture was a constant reality - and to try to rescue the inhabitants of Jonestown were the stimulus behind Congressman Ryan's ill-fated visit. Deborah speaks heart-breakingly of the mass suicides, explaining that suicide was preferable to being shot in an impossible escape attempt... and death was preferable to the living nightmare that Jonestown had become.

I am grateful to Layton for her unflinching account of her life inside Jim Jones' cult. There is a wealth of detail here, and it is frightening and fascinating to learn that Jones was not simply a 'good man' corrupted over time by power or madness; even from the beginning, he was controlling and domineering, insisting that members leave school, donate property, and break up families in order to be nearer to him. I was disappointed slightly to find that there is not a very good feel here for WHY some of Jones' more outrageous behavior was believed and condoned - we must accept that his followers were intelligent, normal people, and yet it seems odd that they should, on the face of things, appear so gullible. Case in point, when Jim's "second-in-command" Carolyn goes missing for a little over nine months and returns with an infant - blonde and pale-skinned, despite the fact that the baby was "supposedly" the product of a brutal rape in a Mexican prison. And what are we to make of the fact that Jones insisted that all men (except him) were homosexuals? Why did he have so many married male followers who chose to believe this? Deborah, unfortunately, cannot shed a great deal of light on why an intelligent adult would choose to believe such things - she was brought into the church as an inexperienced, bewildered seventeen year old. She does explain that the constant lack of sleep (even in the early days of the church), the admonitions to speak or think critically, and the fear of losing your friends and loved ones (people who left the church were shunned) helped pave the way to unthinkingly accepting all that Jones said or did.

Possibly the most infuriating aspect of this book is not the actions of Jones, but rather the actions and inactions of the American officials charged with protecting Layton and her fellow members. US consul Dick McCoy stands out in particular, as if even half of Layton's narrative is true, the man comes off as being either criminally stupid or just plain criminal. The consulate does the absolute bare minimum to help Layton escape back to America, completely fails to visit Jonestown on their regularly scheduled basis - including failing to return to Jonestown for MONTHS after Layton's statement of the terrible conditions there, and steadfastly urges Layton to refrain from going to the press. Layton is surprisingly kind to the consulate, willing to chalk their behavior up to sheer idiocy and incompetence, but considering that the consulate was apparently aware of the fact that Jones was smuggling in guns and thought it was a joking matter, I'm more apt to wonder if some money wasn't changing hands. Even so, bribery can't explain the sheer apathy Deborah faces back in the states, with congressmen lazily asking her "why didn't you just leave" and apparently not grasping the fact that one cannot "just leave" a madman armed with guns, brainwashed guards, and the ability to torture and kill all your loved ones. Even brave Congressman Ryan fails to understand the depth of the situation and apparently does not genuinely believe Layton's concerns - that if anyone goes to Jonestown, they will be killed by Jim Jones and his terrified guards.

The lesson of "Seductive Poison" is that friends and family do not join 'cults' - they join organizations, churches, and peace movements that draw them in with lofty ideals, allow them to make friends and bonds within the group, and then prey upon them by making them feel that leaving the group will entail leaving all their loved ones within the group behind. I would also add that any organization that feels it knows better for you that YOU do and wishes to pressure and order you to conform (like when Jones urges students to drop out of high school in order to be closer to the church) is an organization that is using you for its own means, rather than allowing you to flourish with their support and advice.

~ Ana Mardoll

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