Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple

Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple

4.7 36
by Deborah Layton

View All Available Formats & Editions

Told by a former high-level member of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown survivor, Seductive Poison is the "truly unforgettable" (Kirkus Review) story of how one woman was seduced by one of the most notorious cults in recent memory and how she found her way back to sanity.

From Waco to Heaven's Gate, the past decade has seen its share of cult…  See more details below


Told by a former high-level member of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown survivor, Seductive Poison is the "truly unforgettable" (Kirkus Review) story of how one woman was seduced by one of the most notorious cults in recent memory and how she found her way back to sanity.

From Waco to Heaven's Gate, the past decade has seen its share of cult tragedies. But none has been quite so dramatic or compelling as the Jonestown massacre of 1978, in which the Reverend Jim Jones and 913 of his disciples perished. Deborah Layton had been a member of the Peoples Temple for seven years when she departed for Jonestown, Guyana, the promised land nestled deep in the South American jungle. When she arrived, however, Layton saw that something was seriously wrong. Jones constantly spoke of a revolutionary mass suicide, and Layton knew only too well that he had enough control over the minds of the Jonestown residents to carry it out. But her pleas for help--and her sworn affidavit to the U.S. government--fell on skeptical ears. In this very personal account, Layton opens up the shadowy world of cults and shows how anyone can fall under their spell. Seductive Poison is both an unflinching historical document and a riveting story of intrigue, power, and murder.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A suspenseful tale of escape that reads like a satisfying thriller, Layton's account is the most important personal testimony to emerge from the Jonestown tragedy." —Chicago Tribune

"A fascinating account of a debacle that continues to resonate." —Entertainment Weekly

"Shattering." —The Boston Globe

"Vividly written and powerfully told." —Librarby Journal

"An emotionally articulate and gripping account." —The Nation

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
8 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Secrets and Shadows

My mother was a mystery to me. Beautiful, often quiet, she secretly sketched portraits of women, closing her portfolio whenever I came unexpectedly into the sunroom. I often felt I was intruding on someone unfamiliar and interrupting something quite private. She seemed like a shadow, her silhouette casting a haze on my imperfect form. Always gentle and kind, she coddled me and continually asked after my thoughts. I sensed that she was worried about me and desperately wanted to protect me, but I had no idea from what. In return, from a very young age, I felt protective of her.

Every evening she would lie next to me and read aloud. I loved the sound of her voice, soothing and warm. My favorite poem was Walter de la Mare's "Sleepyhead." The way in which Mama pronounced each word lulled me into a trance. I begged her to read it over and over again, especially one segment:

                                                                                   "Come away,
                                                                                  Child, and play
                                                                               Light with the gnomies;
                                                                                    In a mound
                                                                                 Green and round,
                                                                             That's where their home is.

                                                                                  "Honey sweet,
                                                                                   Curds to eat,
                                                                                Cream and frumenty,
                                                                                 Shells and beads,
                                                                                   Poppy seeds,
                                                                               You shall have plenty."

But as soon as I stooped in the dim moonlight

To put on my stocking and my shoe,

The sweet sweet singing died sadly away,

And the light of the morning peeped through ...

After the fifth reading, when we'd finished saying the Lord's Prayer, I'd plead with her not to leave me. When she finally rose and kissed me gently on the cheek, then closed the door behind her, believing I was asleep, I would cry. She seemed so sad, like a fairy princess in a moated castle, and I grieved for her.

My mother, Lisa, was born to Anita and Hugo Philip in 1915. Although she shared few of her childhood stories with me, I had glimpses into her past. It was my father who bragged about her life. I knew she was proud and had grown up in Hamburg surrounded by vast amounts of art and culture. Concert musicians used to play in her extraordinarily modern home that was designed and built by her cousin through marriage, Ernst Hochfeld, a pioneer of the Bauhaus architectural era. There were built-in cabinets for their extensive art collection, a humidity-controlled vault for Grandpa's tobacco and cigars, and the beloved music room where Mama's Steinway and her father's Guadagnini violin were kept.

Mama explained on several occasions that the bronze nude in our living room was not an object to snicker at but a famous sculpture, Die Erwachende ("The Awakening") by Klimsch and that she loved it. I understood that her father had packed it together with a few other valuables and brought it from Germany. Why her parents hadn't hired a moving company to ship all their belongings from Hamburg was a question that never seemed to be answered.

There was the beautifully shaped silver cutlery we used daily, some exquisite jewelry Mama kept in her silk-embroidered jewelry box, and several large pieces of art, paintings and sculptures that Grandpa Hugo and Grandma Anita had personally carried to America.

I loved hearing the story attached to each one. There was an etching of Albert Einstein, signed by the genius himself, his hands so dirty his fingerprints showed clearly next to his signature, and an etching of Pablo Casals tuning his cello, signed by the maestro. Beatrice d'Este of Ferrara, the painting commissioned by my grandfather in Italy that stared away past me in the library, wore a headdress of leather and pearls and was covered in a maroon dress with a luxurious black velvet cape. I often wished the statue on the table, a beautiful bronze woman, her bared breasts firm, her long, sleek legs taut as she stretched upward on her toes, had considered wearing clothes on the day of her posing. My mother's legs were beautiful, too. I loved to sit on her bed each morning and watch her pull her stockings up over her ankles, then point her toes and extend her legs into the air as she attached the silk to her black garter.My mother was what I wanted to be: an enchanting enigma.

I sensed that my mother missed her life in Germany. The past seemed to consume and console her. When I was a little older I wondered what it must have been like to leave a place one deeply loved, all one's friends and relatives, and never see them again. But it was many years before I grasped that my mother's world was filled with sorrow, guilt, and regret. And it wasn't until years after that that I learned why.

Long before I came onto the scene, my mother had begun to spin a cocoon around herself. From her place of solace, she wove interesting stories and gave them to her children as protective shields against the painful truths she could not bear to tell. The one most closely associated with me was the story of my arrival. My birth, it seemed, was a momentous occasion. I loved the pretty stories of the long discussions and appeals from my big sister, Annalisa, for a baby sister. Mama, too, said she desired "just one more" baby. I grew up knowing that I was the only really planned-for child because, at age eight, my sister had successfully convinced my parents that she would take care of me. However, the truth was far different. It is only now that I realize my conception must have been on the evening of May 10, 1952, the evening my mother learned of her own mother's suicide. I imagine the night was filled with tears and profound despair, my father holding and consoling my mother, trying to dissuade her from her crushing guilt. On February 7, 1953, exactly nine months after Grandma Anita's death, the secretly grieved-about baby arrived in Tooele, Utah. Although she cared for me deeply and listened intently to my never-ending questions, she seemed sad, preoccupied, and sometimes in awe of me. Perhaps my presence reminded her of the mother she believed she had forsaken. Somewhere deep inside my mother's heart she must have wondered from where my spirit arose.

May 10, 1952

My friends,

Know that I, free and proper, am a good American. But I was a gossip and have been entangled in a network of intrigue. I no longer have the strength to free myself from it.

Forget me not, my beloved children and family.

And you, Hugo, forgive me.

Live well. All of you loved mankind so much!!


On the morning of her suicide, Grandma Anita left behind what at the time seemed a mysterious missive written in German. No one understood why she mentioned being a good American. Sadly, however, Anita had a basis for her belief that she was entangled in some terrible intrigue.

In 1951, my father had left his associate professorship at Johns Hopkins to accept a prestigious position as Associate Director of Chemical Warfare at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. My mother was apprehensive about the assignment, as was her mother.

Anita had become very involved with the American Society of Friends (Quakers), the organization that had safeguarded her and Hugo's journey out of Nazi Austria to the United States. The Friends had kept the Nazis at bay while desperately trying to obtain the last of the emergency visas granted to Jews. On March 20, 1940, the Friends gave Anita and Hugo the precious gift of another life in America.

Now Anita was a devoted Friend and believed in their gospel of peace and nonviolence. Her son-in-law's involvement in research on how to "kill humans with chemicals" was abhorrent to her. She talked with her daughter about her misgivings and begged her to convince Laurence not to take the job.

In 1951, Anita could not know that after her son-in-law's arrival in Utah, he was promoted to chief of the entire Chemical Warfare Division. With this high-level appointment, Dr. Layton required the highest level security clearance possible and the FBI began to conduct a thorough background investigation. My father, one of the government's top men at Dugway, was married to a German woman, an "Alien of Enemy Nationality" as denoted on her passport, and her parents had to be closely investigated.

J. Edgar Hoover was in his prime. He was a xenophobe and believed the Society of Friends to have Communist leanings. Hoover's men, with little concern for the fallout of their investigation, began to question my grandmother and her Quaker friends. These men deemed it unnecessary to explain to the Society of Friends and the neighbors of Anita and Hugo why they were investigating the loyalties of the Philips. Anita had no idea that this was a routine inquiry regarding a government employee. All she knew was that "people" were asking questions about her. Anita wrote to her daughter that she was being followed and spied upon. Unaware of the FBI's investigation, Lisa and Laurence thought Anita was becoming paranoid; to them her fears were incomprehensible. Of course she had been persecuted in Germany, but that was Nazi territory, it could not happen here. Never in America! Terrified and not knowing where to turn, Anita jumped to her death from her apartment window.

At the time, my mother did not know that her parents were being investigated. And she could not have fathomed the effect of such an investigation on a Jew who had just escaped from the Nazis. Much later, I would discover how deeply my mother blamed herself for having disbelieved her mother's fears. Long shadows now loomed over Lisa's universe. The world she had hoped to escape into was suddenly soiled. In 1952, Mama had three children under age ten, a husband with an extremely sensitive government job, and a new baby on the way. For reasons I think I now understand, Lisa chose to silence her sorrows. For the sake of her husband and her children, desperately wanting to give them the future she had hoped for, she suppressed her past and hid her own identity as well as her mother's.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Seductive Poison 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Deborah Layton has quite possibly lead one of the most unique lives of anyone on this planet today. She unviels her true skills as a writer in this masterpiece. If you enjoy a phsycological thriller, this book is for you. Layton goes into the most intimate details of her trully intimate life with the notorious Jim Jones. She was one of his most trusted companions, and thusly we get the pleasure of hearing nearly the entire story. One of my favorite aspects of this novel was the fact that Layton showed no regret as she wrote of her loyalty and faith in Jones. It allows the reader to feel what it was like to be entranced by the spell of Jim Jones. I know that throughout several parts of the chilling story, I certainly could have seen myself being seduced by the man had i been alive during the tradgedy. Once again, for those that enjoy having their minds temporarily warped by the books they read, this one is for you. One of the few downfalls of the book ( and something that I'm sure will depress some of the action hunters out there) is the fact that Layton made her escape before the ultimate fall of Jonestown. However morbid it may seem, I know that i for one would have loved a first hand account of what really happened on that fateful day. However, rest assured that there were many other strange happenings and tense moments that will keep you on the edge of your couch until the last page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hats off and hearts out to Deborah for her courage and bravery to escape that madness!! She has clinched it for me that Jim Jones was just another Hitler and Jonestown was nothing but a concentration camp. Everyone who is curious about the inside workings of this so-called church organization should read this book!!!
Adaptoid More than 1 year ago
The fact that this is a true story compounded the emotional response I had to this work. Most autobiographies don't rise to this level of quality writing and self-exposure. The last several chapters were more intense than any thriller I've read. This is unfortunate. I can only say that I'm happy that Deborah made it out alive and can enjoy her freedom with her daughter. The Jonestown murder-suicide occurred two days before my fifteenth birthday and has always stayed with me. This insightful book is highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This work was amazing she drew you in constantly until the bittersweet end. She is an amazing writer and I'm glad I read the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Exceptional writing. I felt like I was right there with the author during her years with the Peoples Temple. I felt her anxiety when she was planning her escape, and her pain of leaving her mother. While it seems impossible to understand how people can get involved in a cult, I thought the author did a good job explaining what life was like and how the brain washing occurred.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a lot of courage it took you to write that book. I am an ex member & my Son is a survivor. I wish I could contact you to find another person who is alive also. It sure was a bad experience & I am so proud of you to write this book. Thanks, Judy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MK2 More than 1 year ago
This whole thing continues to fascinate me. Jim Jones was a freak-show that gave good people empty promises. It breaks my heart that although this was deemed as a mass-suicide, from what Deborah Layton and another survivor says this was mass-murder. I'm sure some of these people DID sacrifice themselves willing, but I saw a documentary about how one survivor talked about how people were being held down and injected with cyanide. This book is amazing and heart-breaking, and those who don't understand the whole cult thing need to read this in order to understand what these people went for - fellowship through their higher power and love for the community they hoped to create.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I cannot begin to explain how powerful and breath taking this book is. It reads like a 'Best Seller' I read the book in one day, into the wee hours of the morning, because it captured my soul. I could not believe how everything just seemed to flow. Deborah had such a difficult adolescence period, then reading on you could see how easy it was for her to become so involved with Peoples Temple. She wrote the book so that each thread unraveled in sequence. I know in the end it seemed as though this would all end for Deborah, but here I am writing a review; however, I have never been so emotionally swept up by a book (a true story at that). I cried for her, the victims, Mama, her brother...what an experience. She must have healed some since then, but she can only imagine how many people she has healed. Her book, her life, her experience is so amazing, I am so thankful she lived to share it with society. I commend her on her bravery, her strength, and her honesty to share her past with her daughter. Deborah has made a wise decision by being honest with her daughter in sharing her tragedy, she will only be honored to have that connection they will possess. 'We never know who we are till we are called to rise; And, then if we are true to plan Our statues touch the skies.' --Emily Dickinson Yes, Deborah's statue has definately reached the skies!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Deborah Layton is lucky to be alive, after spending years in the grips of madman/late 'Reverend' Jim W. Jones and his People's temple. Her memoir of how life really was behind closed doors will leave you breathless and thankful that the madness that was the Temple is gone. Unfortunatley, 978 other followeres of Jones were lured to their own demise in Guyana, and the poignant style that Layton uses to describe her comrades really makes you feel that they were real people, not the lifeless corpses the news barraged the public with. Overall, a great read
Guest More than 1 year ago
un grande libro su una storia sconvolgente. un libro che ti fa riflettere,e apprezzare la propria liberta'. ammiro DEBORAH LAYTON,come scrittrice e come persona per il suo grande coraggio
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've read, ever. I was too young to experience the Jonestown aftermath and read all the news reports, but I have seen shows on Jim Jones on telelvsion and didn't think it had much to teach me. When my friend read Seducitve Poison for her class book report and asked me to readover her paper I was hooked. I wanted to know more right then. It is an autobiography I know but what makes it so great is that it reads like a spy thriller. I was panicked and afraid for most of the story. There was alot of spying and suspense in their group. And to think the author made it out alive. WOW. Seducitve Poison is definately an important book for people of all ages. My dad wants it next.