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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple » User review

Compelling and disturbing. I could not put it down.

  • May 8, 2013
  • by
I had seen a documentary a while back on PBS, and Deborah Layton was one of the many former members and survivors who gave commentary on People's Temple and specifically the Rev. Jim Jones. In introducing Layton, there was a marker under her name that indicated she had written a book titled, Seductive Poison, on the infamous death cult. I ordered it. All I can say is that Layton's memoir is an altogether fascinating read that will keep you on the edge of your seat, because her very detailed account is absolutely all consuming, riveting in the best sense of the word when it pertains to memoirs; no stone is left unturned, and all the recollections are thoroughly laced together to form a disturbing portrait of how and why seemingly normal and intelligent people get emeshed in cults. And when they realize that they are in one it is often too late. Deborah Layton, among others, were the lucky ones.

Jim Jones was the charismatic pastor of the Disciples of Christ, a liberal Protestant denominationin that was a member of the National Council of Churches; it too was the division that housed People's Temple. Combining Scripture and Christian dogma with Marxist and Leninist philosophies, he espoused the concept of Liberation Theology, in essence, creating a social Gospel where people of all classes, colors, economic levels, ages and education would be a part of. In addition to the questionable socialist teachings, Jim Jones love-bombed his congregation, telling them how special and unique and important they were in the eyes of Jesus Christ, how what he required was the will of God, for he was supposedly the microphone of the Holy Trinity. And who can fight that concept? Bit by bit, people gradually gave their will over to him, assuming that his Divine influence was beyond question. And gradually, they became automatons, shadows of their former selves doing the will of their Father.

Aside from the fact that Seductive Poison is beyond exceptionally well written, it is the inside details that Layton offers that makes her memoir especially pulsating, particularly her details on the "white night", where members were so deeply indoctrinated that they on many an evening had practice drills to drink the cyanide laced punch. She also gives vivid details on the types of punishment used in Jonestone. The evil perpetrated upon children was especially disturbing: "...There was also the Well, a punishment used especially for children. They would be taken to the well in the dark of night, hung upside down by a rope around their ankles, and dunked into the water again and again while someone hidden inside the Well grabbed at them to scare them."--Page 176.

The spying, turning against loved ones, cruel assorted punishments, disturbing and nonsensical harangues all kept people in line until they flew off to Guyana, to the Promise Land. Yet it was anything but that, and many had to suppress their inner feelings of disappointment for fear of severe retribution.

There is a lot to say about this work; it raises serious questions and offers important answers, paramount being that individualism is indeed a very good thing and following your own will is not something to be taken for granted. It also sheds light on why people join cults, to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to live in a community where those who have nothing have something of far greater worth: love.

Seductive Poison works as sociology, history, a family record, psychology, autobiography; it works on so many fronts and conveys so much. Religion is a good thing, but sometimes it is best to appreciate it from afar.
Compelling and disturbing. I could not put it down.

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review by . June 09, 2010
I absolutely love this book. I am incredibly interested in religious cults, and especially the leaders of them, and this book offered an unparalleled glimpse into the inner world of the Peoples Temple. Considering that only 5 people who were at Jonestown the day of the tragedy escaped with their lives, Deborah Layton's story is one that 908 other people never got the chance to tell (though she wasn't actually there that day). Layton was a core member of the Peoples Temple and got a very …
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