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Read in conjunction with other books. Not the definitive account.
on May 7, 2017
It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the people most likely to have survived the horrific end of Jonestown, and then gone on to score what was a presumably lucrative book deal for a "tell all" memoir were those like Deborah Layton, formerly Deborah Layton Blakey. The author states at the beginning that the purpose of writing this book was to inform her daughter of the truth about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple before she heard it, falsely, from another quarter. All well and good, but couldn't' Ms. Layton simply have sat her child down at a certain age and had a conversation? No high paying book deal, then, huh.
Debbie Layton was, at one time, part of the inner circle around Jim Jones, one of his top aides who, along with young women like his chief mistress, Carolyn Moore Layton (at one time married to Debbie's brother, Larry), Maria Katsaris, Carolyn's younger sister Annie, Harriet Tropp, and Teri Buford, held top secret information about the church's bank accounts (in the tens of millions in secret accounts overseas). She claims to have been close with Jones' children, including Stephan, Jimmy Jr., and Lew Eric. Like many other young and vulnerable women in the Temple, Layton was sexually abused by her "Pastor" multiple times, and increasingly, as events moved from San Francisco to the supposedly Utopian commune at Jonestown in the crumbling (literally) republic of Guyana, she was torn about whether, or even how to escape, even after her terminally ill mother was brought to Jonestown so as to be closer to Jones' "power" to heal (Lisa Layton died in Guyana, six weeks before the events of November 18th, 1978).
The narrative of Layton's memoir flows smoothly enough. Her account of her defection and subsequent escape from Guyana is gut churning. There are some truly literary moments that stand out; she claims to have dreamt, one night in Jonestown, that flowers, hundreds of beautiful, multi-colored flowers, suddenly grew over the rows and rows of benches in the central Pavilion, where, six months after her defection, her fellow Temple Members would die in utter despair and agony as their deranged leader watched. None of these flowers grew near "father's poisoned chair". Her description of the final day, as she imagined it from afar, is truly heart-rending.
Overall, though, I cannot recommend this book as anything other than a supplement to studies of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Layton offers little in the way of explaining why so many people were attracted to Jones, nor does she seem at all connected to the Temple rank and file, though she does try (she claims to have been close to an African American woman who was one of Jonestown's principal cooks). There is a passing mention of the many young women and families she helped book passage to Guyana. All of these people and their children died in Jonestown. While she does mention her sense of guilt at this fact, it comes off as merely perfunctory, and half-hearted, considering what happened to the people she "helped" in her capacity as Temple Staff. Even her ultimate abandonment of her dying mother, which she attempts to explain, does not pass muster. And soon enough, she abandons any and all attempts at activism, and begins working at some kind of financial firm in San Francisco, quickly imbibing the Ayn Randian ethos of the advent of the Reagan era. Her eyes were opened, she says, when, as a new hire, she ate the lunch of a higher up at the firm, assuming it was her right since he was "a dirty capitalist". One wonders why she was even working at the firm, then. She was reprimanded by her manager. "That man has worked for everything he has", she's told. Out of this single conversation, apparently, Debbie Layton became a conservative. After the cataclysm of November 18th, she married an investment banker, and became a stock broker. In an interview in the late 1980s, according to sociologist John Hall, in his highly recommended tome Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History, she said, "we are conservative people. We voted for Ronald Reagan." In Jeff Guinn's equally notable (but recent) The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, the author interviews numerous other survivors who remember that Deborah Layton was widely disliked among the Temple rank and file, even by her "colleagues" among Temple Staff. Before even becoming involved in the Temple, she was sent to live with the Moore family by her own parents, who could no longer handle her teenage histrionic rebelliousness. The Moores found her so disruptive they eventually sent her back, and her parents packed her off to a posh boarding school in England.
Ultimately, this seems to be the story of a young woman from an incredibly, obscenely privileged upbringing, with little sense of her own beliefs, apparently easily led by personalities as widely divergent as pseudo-Communist Jim Jones and an uber-capitalist hedge-fund manager. Unlike many of the upper middle class whites who joined Peoples Temple in the early 70s, she did so not out of any sense of sincerely felt political activism or desire to help the downtrodden, but out of apparent awe at Jones personal powers, and a sense of guilt at being so privileged (a sense of guilt that she apparently jettisoned immediately after leaving the Temple, and the hundreds of impoverished people trapped in Jonestown). When asked to give interviews, she apparently demands to be a paid consultant on any book, film, or documentary produced, which is why Leigh Fondakowski could not use her for her profoundly moving play, The Peoples Temple, which is composed of interviews by former Temple members in the style of the Laramie Project. Again with the money.
In the end, I found the book a useful look into one specific person's journey into the heart of madness, and what the day to day experience of life in Jonestown was like, even for a relatively privileged member of the inner circle. And I can certainly empathize with Layton's horrific experience of rape at the hands of Jim Jones, as well as the utterly depraved way in which her mother, Lisa Layton, was deceived about Jones' healing powers, and lured to Guyana only to die in agony, far away from any Western medicine. All of this, and more, is undoubtedly a profoundly haunting tragedy. But I found no respect or understanding for the rank and file temple members, nor any acknowledgement of why so many may have found life in America so repugnant, racist, and unjust that they were willing to throw in their lot with a charlatan like Jones. If you read this book, I beg you to do so alongside others, such as Tim Reiterman's Raven, Jeff Guinn's The Road to Jonestown, or, for a closer look at a multitude of perspectives from survivors, Leigh Fondakowski's Stories from Jonestown, a book for which Ms. Layton apparently refused to be interviewed.