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on August 18, 2014
I was completely immersed in this book from the first page until the end. Deborah did a wonderful job of describing her inner struggles, both emotionally and mentally, from childhood to adulthood that made her a prime candidate for a controlling group like that of Jim Jones's. She vividly describes the progression of her complete loss of self - i.e. the knowledge of right vs. wrong, truth vs. lies, love vs. hate - under the diabolical mind games Jones administered to his faithful followers. Debbie's past, although challenging in some aspects, really wasn't that much different from the "normal" teenager's "finding one's self" period in their lives. She just so happened to be exposed to the destructive group during this very impressionable and tender stage in her life. In other words, she wasn't necessarily uniquely vulnerable to the deceptive practices of Jim Jones. Something like this could happen to any of us to one degree or another. Ultimately, her courage and strength of mind helped her to do whatever it took to break free. My heart hurts for those lost in Jonestown. Most started with an idealistic view of making a difference in the world by helping others and living a simple way of life, only to see those ideals turn into the destructive adulation of a mad-man.
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on March 17, 2018
Why do people endure privation, humiliation, mutilation, and death in the service of psychotic and glory-mad leaders who who their victims simply as pathetic tools to be whimsically sacrificed for nothing at all? Answering this question is absolutely necessary for us to understand ourselves are we are, and life and death as we experience them. *Seductive Poison* is a wonderful exploration of these phenomena from the viewpoint of a thoughtful, sensitive, and idealistic survivor. This book is universal in scope and meaning; we must understand the processes of social control depicted here if we are to comprehend loyalty of any kind. The invisible and insidious web of manipulation, lies, the appeal status, the need for community, and meaning, underlie patriotism and religious affiliation as well as other illusions is laid bare.

Layton disdains preaching and theorizing. She instead invites us into the innermost recesses of her heart and soul, from her initial encounter with the Peoples Temple: her initiation into it, her increasing commitment, accumulating doubts, and final escape. Her characters come alive and almost jump off the pages and into our own lives. Her descriptions are vivid and non-dogmatic, allowing us to follow her trajectory as she herself viewed it at the time and as seasoned by later reflections. Layton allows us to see for ourselves [and, I hope, in ourselves], the processes of indoctrination, subjugation, and inculcation of faith in leader and cause, that are ubiqutous in human nature.

I heartily recommend this book as a life-changing experience, which can be further enhanced by reading *Poilu*, Louis Barthas [a very similar account by a soldier in the French army, an officially-approved suicide cult, during World War I], and *States of Denial*, Daniel Cohen, by far the best analytical account of the phenomena of affiliation, belief, and self-deception that rule our lives.
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on November 19, 2013
An incredible read. Yesterday marked 35 years on the mass suicide yet this book reads as fresh as if it were yesterday. Deborah Layton's amazing tale shows us that very smart well educated people can become interested in a movement and get sucked into the manipulative pull of the leader and its fellow followers. Even Deborah points out that when a very important man takes notice of you, finds you smart, worthwhile and interesting and leads you along with "promotions", you can feel like this new family is the place to be. The combination of Deborah's promotions yet publicly humiliating falls from grace done by Jim Jones caused Deborah and all other members to try to win back their love and praise by the leader. Deborah's endearing and complex relationship with her Mother is fascinating, through the rebellious teenage years and then as the People's Church members pulled her in along with Deborah's brother Larry who already had been a member. The changing relationship with her Mother interested me as Deborah could no longer confide in her or even show love or concern for her mother due to " frightening revenge" tactics of the Church which discouraged any relationships at all since "Father" Jim Jones" is the only person members were allowed to adore and have faith in. This first hand look was superbly written as to how Jim Jones displayed many disturbing signs while in the San Francisco Bay area (disappearances and accidents of members trying to leave church) yet the members were taught to believe that such a great healer, socialist and important civic leader could not possibly be an abuser. Her incredible writings of Jim Jones' change in Guyana and his ruthless punishments, staged mass suicide nights, and complete lies and paranoia made that part of the book unforgettable. And yetm favorite part was her difficult escape from Jonestown where I could not read any faster as I realized any second, her efforts would be thwarted by a follower and she could be sentenced to permanent silencing in the medical ward. Deborah is a brave woman for trying to speak up to the US Government and try to make change to save the followers, yet they were already fully trained and mesmorized to end their lives on Jim Jones' say. I highly suggest you read this book!
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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.
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on November 10, 2014
For the past few weeks I have been home on maternity leave, which as you can imagine, has left me with quite a bit of free time. So I decided to start re-reading books I found interesting. I love all true crime novels and psychological thrillers so I picked up Seductive Poison, which I had read my sophomore year at U.C. Davis (it was required reading). It stood out in my memory because I actually enjoyed this book. Since I hadn’t read it in a while I thought I should re-read it to see how someone could be caught up in something like that.
My family came here from Mexico in 1984, and I was born in Modesto in 1986, so I was the first one in my family to then attend and graduate from college. But this was never taught in middle school or high school so I never knew about it.
Seductive Poison only disappointed me in one way, I read it too fast. I read the entire book in 2 days. I just couldn’t stop reading. I even read through my favorite TV show and I never miss an episode of Sons of Anarchy. As I said, I am the first generation born in America and my family has struggled through incredibly hard times. So, when it comes to “harrowing” escape stories, I always wonder – really?-- but not here, the courage Deborah Layton possesses in her escape is beyond brave to me. I hope she is doing well and still educating others.
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on September 6, 2009
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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on July 11, 2009
I had always wondered how and why people were suckered into joining Jim Jones's cult, what life was like in Jonestown, and how in the world Deborah Layton escaped. This book gave me an insider's view, exactly what I was looking for.

Early in the book, I found the story unconvincing, perhaps fodder for a skit on Saturday Night Live. The idea that in one People's Temple meeting, she became a convert, I thought was possible. However, the moment of her conversion was unbelievable. Jim Jones tries to persuade her to join, so cheesy I wanted to gag. But then again, this is her story, and this is what convinced her to join. I must accept it as she explains it, the idea that anyone could become a victim becoming less of a reality. Some people are susceptible to such ruses -- the naïve, the mentally challenged, the desperate -- and we all know people who fit those categories.

Deborah easily falls for Jim Jones's lies, that all men are homosexual except for Jim Jones, that she may become an amoeba in her next life if she doesn't follow the teachings of her church. I wondered if she had a life before the Temple, why there didn't seem to be any hesitation to accept the teachings that are contradictory to everything she knows. Again, as I read, I begin to believe she is a bit more challenged than the average person.

I've always wanted to understand how the people at the top, those who organized the ruses could also be a blind follower of Jim Jones. How is it they can still believe in his powers when they have to collect poison ivy type leaves to cause letters to defectors to be irritating, making the defectors itch and suffer (as if caused by God)? Did they not wonder why God couldn't do it himself? That remains unanswered.

Once fully indoctrinated, it is easy to see why it was so difficult to escape. Once in Guyana, I can see how it became impossible. Even for those who wanted to escape, there was no way out.

The book was riveting at the end, and I could not put it down. Though I knew the outcome, how it happened was amazing.
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on July 1, 2014
One of the most honest, forthcoming and chilling first hand accounts of the Jonestown tragedy to have ever been written. Ms. Layton's memoir of her time spent there provides an evocative look at the intimate nature of daily life there. Written from the first hand account of a survivor, she takes us inside Jim Jones inner circle of deranged power to chronicle the extreme paranoia, drug abuse, torture (both psychological and physical) of his followers and dissent into mass murder/suicide madness. She details what daily life was like with rape among the beautiful young women Jones kept as his privileged inner circle and the hell he put them through for rejecting his advances, a tactic to keep them in line or just another brutal manipulation of their spirits it was just another mention of the hell she experienced. A must read for anyone seeking to understand an insider's view of what it was like from those among the inner circle.
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on August 30, 2017
I loved this book! I couldn't put it down until I finished it. My heart really went out to Deborah and it was understandable how all of Jim Jones victims became so dedicated to him and his cause. He preyed on the vulnerable. I truly became anxious and my heart was racing when reading about her escape. I would highly recommend this book. Deborah really gives an honest account of Jonestown.
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on December 4, 2008
I read this book after hearing about it in an article recently, given the anniversary of the horrible events in Guyana. It's a compelling story, well-told and I truly could not put it down. I read it in 2 days.

I felt so sorry for Debbie Layton, her family and all the others who were fooled into joining Jones' so-called church. I was very young when the events in Jonestown occurred, and I learned a lot of things from this book that I never knew (socialism/communism link, government complacency, etc). Before reading Layton's account, I admit I was skeptical. How could any reasonable person fall into a cult? But after reading this, I can feel the desperation of Layton when she was recruited. She was very young, vulnerable and insecure. She was the perfect target for Jones. I think that anyone with an interest in psychology, cults, religion or true-crime would thoroughly enjoy Layton's account. I hope the people who escaped Jonestown have found peace.
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