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

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

by Deborah Layton

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In this haunting and riveting firsthand account, a survivor of Jim Jones's Peoples Temple opens up the shadowy world of cults and shows how anyone can fall under their spell.

A high-level member of Jim Jones's Peoples Temple for seven years, Deborah Layton escaped his infamous commune in the Guyanese jungle, leaving behind her mother, her older brother, and many friends. She returned to the United States with warnings of impending disaster, but her pleas for help fell on skeptical ears, and shortly thereafter, in November 1978, the Jonestown massacre shocked the world. Seductive Poison is both an unflinching historical document and a suspenseful story of intrigue, power, and murder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385489843
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/09/1999
Edition description: 1 ANCHOR
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 330,269
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.82(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Deborah Layton was born in Tooele, Utah, in 1953. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and attended high school in Yorkshire, England. After her escape from Jonestown, Guyana, in May 1978, she worked on the trading floor of an investment banking firm in San Francisco. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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.

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