Layton, Deborah 1953-

views updated

Layton, Deborah 1953-


Born in 1953, in Tooele, UT; daughter of Laurence Laird and Lisa Layton; married; children: Lauren. Education: Attended college in the area of San Francisco, CA. Politics: Liberal. Religion: "Raised as a Quaker." Hobbies and other interests: Theater, music, painting, gardening.


Home—Berkeley, CA. Agent—Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, 1155 Camino Del Mar, Ste. 515, Del Mar, CA 92014. E-mail—[email protected].


Research analyst and executive assistant to the chief executive officer of an investment banking firm. Lecturer on cults at high schools and universities; guest on media programs.


Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Layton's book has been published in Thailand, France, Germany, and Italy.


In November of 1978 more than 900 members of the religious cult known as the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide. They were followers of Jim Jones, who had begun the group in 1956. A small number of members did not die, mostly those who were not at the Jonestown, Guyana, compound. One such person was Deborah Layton, who in trying to alert U.S. officials about the abusive control Jones held over his followers, triggered the catastrophic event at Jonestown. When Congressman Leo Ryan visited the compound and invited members to return to the United States with him, Jones had Ryan shot and ordered everyone to drink poison in a carefully rehearsed mass suicide. Twenty years after this horrific event, Layton wrote Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple, becoming the first survivor to offer an account of life at Jonestown.

Layton's purpose in writing the book was twofold: to show how intelligent, independent people can become part of a cult and to educate the public about the dangers of cult life. The Jonestown massacre was unprecedented, and its scale still dwarfs cult suicides that have followed it. Nonetheless, the deaths of members of other cults—such as Heaven's Gate, the Solar Temple, and the Branch Davidians—painfully reminded Layton of her experiences. She saw her memories of life at Jonestown as a dangerous secret, dangerous to herself and her family, and dangerous to others, if not revealed.

When she joined the Peoples Temple at age eighteen, Layton was a rebellious teen who had been sent to an English boarding school by her parents. Her older brother Larry was a member of the Peoples Temple, and a visit to see him in northern California introduced her to Jim Jones. The charismatic leader said he could answer the questions that troubled the young woman, offering her a place in a community of idealistic, selfless people who wanted peace and racial equality.

Jones's doctrine made a religion of socialism. Followers were required to give up material possessions and to confess any thoughts that did not comply with his teach- ings. In California, Peoples Temple members were active in supporting Democratic politicians and provided welfare services to the hungry and poor. Accordingly, much of his membership was made up of poor African Americans, but the Temple's administrative work was done by a group of young whites, including Layton.

Jones called himself the Prophet of God and believed that he was the reincarnation of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Layton notes that she and the other members did not question Jones's more bizarre behavior and the abusive relationships he developed with members. For example, Jones asserted that except for himself, all men were homosexual. He raped Layton twice, told her he was doing it for her own good, and then denounced her for having seduced him. This was part of the mind control that Jones worked on members, charging them with guilt and disloyalty, and placing adherence to his doctrine above personal needs. It was a system that punished individual thought.

It was his inability to tolerate dissent that drove Jones to Guyana. After a 1977 article in New West criticized the Peoples Temple, he moved most of the members to a compound and farm in the middle of the jungle, a place to be called Jonestown. Layton knew when she arrived at the compound that something was terribly wrong. She compares the experience to entering a prison; items such as her shoes and underpants were taken from her. Her mother, who had also joined the group and given Jones a $250,000 divorce settlement, had pain medications taken away while she was suffering from cancer.

Layton likens the experiences of other members to a concentration camp. Inadequately fed and housed, they worked under the eyes of armed guards. At night, and sometimes all through the night, Jones would lecture them. And he began to hold monthly rehearsal suicides, called "White Nights." The members drank from cups that were potentially filled with poison, not knowing if this was the night that they would die.

Layton participated in these White Nights, but she also left Jonestown in her capacity as Jones's financial agent, depositing millions of dollars in bank accounts in Panama and Switzerland. She considered the disparity between Jones's lifestyle and the terrible conditions members endured: they did not have enough food, supplies, and medical treatment. She knew that Jones had the means to provide them with a better life.

Layton's escape from Guyana allowed her to notify American officials in Guyana and Congress of the situation in Jonestown. California Congressman Leo Ryan went to Guyana to determine if members were being held against their will. He and four of his party were shot and killed before they could board their plane on a jungle airstrip. While this was happening, Jones ordered members to drink cyanide-laced fruit punch. Children and babies died first; those who refused to drink were forced at gunpoint. More than 900 members died, including Jones.

Adding to the horror of Layton's no-longer-secret memory is her brother's involvement. Larry Layton posed as a defector and shot two of the members who sought to escape. He is now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder a member of Congress. After the Jonestown massacres, Deborah Layton worked as an assistant on the trading floor of an investment banking firm. She married and had a daughter, and later divorced. In addition to writing Seductive Poison—using family documents and tapes that she had made after leaving Jonestown—she worked on a documentary film about the cult for the Arts and Entertainment network.

Critics called Seductive Poison a brave and well-written book and an important contribution amidst the confusion that still shrouds the mass suicide. Library Journal contributor Sandra K. Lindheimer said, "Vividly written and powerfully told, this books shows convincingly how a group of people, seduced by promises of an ‘Eden’ on earth, will blindly follow a charismatic leader." Leigh Rich wrote in Tucson Weekly that it was "executed with precision and emotion." Rich described it as "a riveting, haunting and all-too-real glimpse at the manipulative, egomaniacal Jones, his savage ‘Promised Land,’ and the tragic events that chilling November night."

Others remarked that the book showed that many questions remained about the Peoples Temple and other cults. Booklist contributor Vanessa Bush reflected, "Layton's story is chilling, and although it accounts for how some people come to join cults, it doesn't really explain something that may well be beyond explaining." In Nation Bettina Drew called the book "emotionally articulate and gripping" and "a convincing and detailed account of how membership in the temple affected her psychologically." Bush considered Seductive Poison to be a critical contribution to the subject: "That no one has yet written a fully documented study, and that the failure to investigate the deaths forensically has crippled our ability to understand them, makes first-person accounts like Layton's all the more important to understanding what really happened in Jonestown."

Layton once told CA: "I live in the San Francisco Bay area with my husband, daughter Lauren, and her daughter Ella. I continue to write and also lecture at high schools and universities across the country. I believe that it is important that I continue to tell my story so that others may learn from my mistakes. I explain that no one joins a cult … they join self-help groups, religious organizations, and political groups. It is their idealism and naïveté that draws them to apparently worthy causes. But that same idealistic desire to be a participant in a cause bigger than oneself can allow even the best of us to be deceived and manipulated by malignant forces. I tell my audiences to listen always to their inner voice—it is your conscience, your ability to reason, your moral compass—without it one becomes a blind follower. Only questionable organizations will tell you to ignore that voice and, like Jim Jones did, will call it selfishness. I feel honored that my book is required reading at several high schools and universities. I continue to give radio and television interviews throughout the world to educate the public whenever asked."



Booklist, September 1, 1998, Vanessa Bush, review of Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple, p. 4.

Library Journal, November 15, 1998, Sandra K. Lindheimer, review of Seductive Poison, p. 79.

Nation, February 1, 1999, Bettina Drew, review of Seductive Poison, p. 25.

Tucson Weekly, November 9, 1998, Leigh Rich, review of Seductive Poison.


Seductive Poison Web site, (January 11, 2008).