Religious Right Cons Drink Dickless Cheney's Cyanide Pee,
Radio National with Rachael Kohn on Sunday 08/08/1999
Drinking Poison: Inside Jonestown
On November 18, 1978, 913 men, women and children died in a mass murder-suicide (most drinking cyanide-laced punch) orchestrated by the Reverend Jim Jones in his compound in Guyana, South America. We hear from a survivor of the Jonestown suicide. A full transcript is now available.
Details of Transcript:
Deborah Layton was a devotee, trusted confidante and high level member of The People's Temple, the church Jim Jones founded. She tells her "up close and personal" account of life in a poisonous cult where theft, fraud, sexual, physical and psychological abuse, and finally death were required of its members. A full transcript follows.
Rachael Kohn: Deborah Layton, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Deborah Layton: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Rachael Kohn: Deborah, most people would remember Jonestown as a place where a lot of people died, forced to commit suicide by a deranged cult leader. It would come as something of a surprise to know that Jim Jones enjoyed a great deal of support and even patronage by local government leaders in San Francisco and even in Guyana, where the Jonestown debacle took place.
Deborah Layton: Correct.
Rachael Kohn: How did he manage to garner that support?
Deborah Layton: Well it was the end of the civil rights era here in the United States and Jim Jones was a well known and respected minister. As a young man he had been an Assistant Pastor of the Methodist Church. And by the time he moved to San Francisco (and that's when I met him) he was the Director of the Human Rights Commission. Mayor Moscone of San Francisco had been very impressed with him; the newspapers wrote about him; Jane Fonda spoke from the pulpit; and even Rosalyn Carter, the former President's wife, was seen dining with him at a conference, and wrote to him thereafter. He was charismatic, he was well spoken, and People's Temple at that time was a humanitarian service group that people like myself at the age of, well I was very young when I met him, I was only 17.
But it was also towards the end of the Vietnam War, and people were looking for some purpose in their life, a meaning, something larger than themselves to get involved with, and joining People's Temple was like joining the Peace Corps.
Rachael Kohn: Well he certainly had a radical vision of inter-racial harmony, as well as a very strong commitment to socialism. In fact one might even say it was communistic.
Deborah Layton: Yes. Those of us that joined thought we were joining a regular church and it was over time that we learned that religion was the opiate of the people, and you had to use religion to get them out, to understand socialism, and it made sense that Jim was trying to bring all races together; he was trying to house the homeless here in the Bay area, and we had free medical advice for people and we travelled throughout the United States leafleting. And I believed in everything he said, I wanted so much to be involved in something to help others. And it was over time, and isolation from families, being pulled away from society, that things began to change. And by that time, most of us had been so removed that we became sort of blind followers.
Rachael Kohn: Well he actually had people living together didn't he?
Deborah Layton: Yes, we had communes. It started that we tithed 20% to the church, and then over time, because there were so many humanitarian services, community work projects that he had going, that he suggested that maybe some people move in together. So people my age moved in together, college kids lived together in dormitories, and as he became more powerful in the community and in politics in San Francisco and became well known actually, across the United States, he said that we needed more money, and he suggested that people sell their homes and live communally together, since we were one huge family. And that's exactly what many people did. And Jim used that money for what we believed was good use, and actually a lot of that money was taken out of the country, secretly housed in bank accounts in Switzerland and Panama.
Rachael Kohn: A lot of that money was actually Social Security cheques of the poor.
Deborah Layton: Absolutely. People from all walks of life joined People's Temple, rich and poor. Many were uneducated, many were poor, and many were college graduates. And the Social Security cheques did come from many of the black families that joined, the older women and men, and they lived communally and the money was again taken out of the country. And what Jim promised would happen with that money is that he was creating a promised land, sort of a retirement colony for all of us, that we'd leave the racism of the United States and go to a wonderful paradise. And that's what people thought they were going to when they left the United States for Jonestown. We saw beautiful films from there; they were, I found out later, propaganda. It was all facade and lies, but at the time it seemed so wonderful, and it's not unlike what you find coming out of Cuba or Russia. You know, wonderful pictures of things, and beautiful children, and Jim used those exact tactics to have more people give more money. My mother gave, when she divorced my father, over a quarter of a million dollars to the church.
Rachael Kohn: That's a lot of money. Well Jim Jones used his power within the group as well, especially round kind of controlling relations between people. Now you had a mother as well as a brother in the movement, and your brother Larry was married to someone. It would become clear to him that Jim Jones had certain designs on his wife, or fiancee.
Deborah Layton: It did become very clear to my brother that Jim had designs, but it wasn't that obvious. Jim was so clever, he was so deceitful and so manipulative that Larry worked many hours as did all the members of the church. He had two and three jobs so that he can give the proceeds to the church, and during that time he wasn't home much. And Jim Jones was very enamoured by my brother's wife, who was a young schoolteacher. My brother and she had graduated from UC Berkeley Davis, California, and moved up to Ukiah this area where she did teach school, and they met this young minister who spoke and acted much like Martin Luther King, and they felt that it was something important to be involved with. And while my brother worked long, long hours, Jim and my brother's wife, Carolyn, became comrades, and it was arranged behind my brother's back, for a confrontation that Carolyn would say that she was unhappy with my brother, and he acquiesced. He didn't know that Jim was going to take her as his mistress, which he did, and continued to do that sort of thing throughout the Temple years.
[Are these broads playing dumb or did the love that dare not speak it's name also have to shut up on leftist talk radio in the 1990's? The way Larry tells this story is it was Jones' demand the two men perform gay sex as a spectacle act in front of both his former and current wives that turned them off sexually to him.]Rachael Kohn: Yes, well it seems that he would use sexual relations with himself and others, as a way of both forging links, but also shaming them publicly. He forced his affections on you, and then made you pay for it publicly.
Deborah Layton: Correct. People think, and one of the reasons I kept quiet for 20 years about this is just the immense shame, having been duped, having been involved in an organisation that turned wicked. And it took me a long time to realise that I had to come forward with my story for the sake of my daughter, who at the time was very young, she'd just turned 13, but I realise I had to tell the truth and explain how something like this could happen. And I was molested by Jim, and at the time I was very frightened, and I trusted him, as does a child with their father, or a child with their minister, or priest. And to me he was closer to God, he was Godlike, and that he touched my leg and he said that he cared about me, it didn't feel right, I felt it was wrong, and yet he was a good man, and I was afraid to do anything otherwise. And then again, what he did with everybody that he did this to, weeks later he'd have you brought forward and punished and harassed because you had begged for it, you had promised you would commit suicide if he didn't spend time with you. And I used to hate all the women in the church who admitted to this thing, and then I was one of them and I realised that none of them had asked for his unholy touch.
Rachael Kohn: Well one of the prevailing themes in your account is your sense of shock and upset and doubt at the things that you witnessed, and also were ordered to do. In contrast to your overwhelming need to please and to be good and to prove yourself as a loyal servant, what motivated you to keep silencing the doubt within you?
Deborah Layton: That's a great question. I think early on in People's Temple what Jim did and what a lot of groups do now, and one of the reasons I wrote Seductive Poison is so that parents and kids could see what the warning signs are, but when you go into certain organisations they tell you that first voice that you have, of questioning, that it's actually selfishness, and you need to turn that down because of course it is hard to be involved in an organisation that's doing important things, and it is hard to give of yourself, and you have to be less selfish. And over time as you've turned down that voice, it's your voice of reason, it's your ability to have dissent within yourself and figure things out, and having that muted, makes you a sort of blind follower.
Rachael Kohn: Well you became a high level operative in the People's Temple, trusted with moving large sums of money to different bank accounts and that involved even going to Switzerland at one point, and to Panama, and then to Guyana, in South America. Did you know at the time where the money was coming from? Because it was a lot of money.
Deborah Layton: Oh yes, we had offerings on weekends where thousands and thousands on weekends came in. We pulled $60,000 on a weekend, with all these - you know, we were in San Francisco and we travelled across the United States and we had meetings in Los Angeles, and we pamphleted areas and we got hundreds of people to come to these meetings, and they gave money. The other money came from the Social Securities cheques of the seniors, and young, well-to-do college kids, their trust funds and money from my parents who were giving me money that I funnelled right back into the church. And that money was taken out of the United States and what Jim made us understand is that there was a conspiracy against us in the United States.
And this is what these organisations will do. They'll isolate you, there's a conspiracy so now you're afraid and you have to protect yourself, and it made sense that we had to get the money quickly out of the United States. Here, if you're a church in the United States, you have no taxes, and that was a very important aspect for Jim, that People's Temple was a church.
Rachael Kohn: So it was actually a tax dodge?
Deborah Layton: Well in case it came into question if People's Temple was truly a church or not, because at that point he was espousing socialism, and the money was taken out of the country, and a lot of it illegally.
[What about all the high-level political endorsements from the Democratic establishment? How can she pretend to have it both ways? Does she think her listeners are that naive?]
Rachael Kohn: Well that sense of America against People's Temple would have been confirmed when defectors started to tell their stories, or tried to, at any rate, in the newspaper. When defectors went public, were they threatened, were their lives threatened? How dangerous was it to actually leave the group and tell others publicly, what was going on inside?
[Deborah Layton had absolutely no trouble publicizing the charges she made in her 31-point affidavit, which as she goes on to say, went out on the AP wire and was published in newspapers around the world. Where does that sort of pull originate In this way she was functioning as a Greek chorus, announcing precursors, or giving premonitions that will turn into miraculous self-fulfilling prophecies.]Deborah Layton: Well there's a twofold answer to that, so don't let me forget the second part. It was very dangerous to leave People's Temple. People that wanted to leave and Jim had an inkling that they were about to leave, would be caught, they'd be brought forward and punished. There was a young man who had decided he was going to take his entire family out, and he died suspiciously. Even if it had nothing to do with Jim, he would take responsibility for somebody's death. If it was an innocent death, somebody we believed was a good member and he died in a car accident, Jim would say 'They were having selfish spots; they were thinking of leaving, and that's why they died.' So it was stuff like that that would frighten people into staying. And those few that did escape here in the United States, and they stayed under cover for a long time because they were so afraid, because we were looking for them, and they were going to be hurt if they were found. And within People's Temple Jim had every single one of us blackmailed. We'd signed hundreds of documents saying we'd done terrible things, that we'd molested children, that we'd stolen from banks, that we were planning to kill somebody, and at the time...
[Where there's smoke there's fire. Layton uses exaggeration to make light of an obvious dynamic--that is the upper-class white leaders in the church were witting parts of a massive welfare and tax cheating scam, as well as voter fraud, and whatever other corrupt practices they could dream up with all the background help and support from elected officials, business people and media leaders. There is not one iota of socialism anywhere to be found.]
Rachael Kohn: These were not true.
Deborah Layton: They weren't true, but we signed them, and they were not dated. But Jim had them filed, every single person had files. And he could use that, because he was high in politics in San Francisco, he knew the head of the police, and what he would say is, 'The Mayor is my friend; the head of the police is my friend. [AGAIN WITH THE FUCKING CONTRADICTIONS! Are you a paranoid socialist renegade who must be stopped, or not?!] Now you leave this organisation and we will find you, and these things that you've signed' - this was much later in the game, there wasn't this much fear involved. But once those people had left, Jim said awful things about them, and I believed it, that they'd stolen money from the church coffers, again, that they'd molested kids and so when they went public and all of us within People's Temple, these wonderful disciples, these young followers who the best of intentions, the innocence and naivete and the goodness in these kids' hearts joining this organisation, we believed that these people who had left had done terrible things, so if you didn't believe anything they said, they were liars. So we took no heed of what they said.
Rachael Kohn: Well Deborah things got really hot for Jim Jones, and he decided to flee to this paradise in Guyana, which was a compound that he called Jonestown. And you convinced your mother to go along with you as well, later on. But it was quite a shock when you actually saw the compound.
Deborah Layton: Yes, this is the tough part for me, that my mum was sick, and Jim had left the country several months before, and we had just found out she had cancer, and she was afraid, and Jim said there were all sorts of medical facilities, and we had two of our own doctors in Jonestown, and she was afraid. She wanted to say goodbye to my father whom she'd divorced, she wanted to say goodbye to my brother and sister, who were not members of the church, and I convinced her she couldn't, that we couldn't tell anybody because then maybe my father who I believed was part of the CIA because Jim had created these memories for me, which he did, he was one of the first to give us these created memories of childhood disasters. And I had her leave without telling anyone goodbye.
[What clumsy Faustian bargains were entered into had something to do with the sacrifice of Lisa Layton, Deborah's mother, in a mega-ritual portal opening. Otherwise, the surface narrative is just stupid, stupid, stupid!]
We got into Jonestown after 30 hours on the ocean and up a long river, 250 miles away from civilisation in Guyana in South America, the only English speaking country there.
As we pulled in to Jonestown, this place I'd seen so many wonderful movies about, I was so hoping it was the promised land he'd told us about, and as our flat-bed truck drew into this compound, we got there at about one in the morning, it was like coming into the set of 'M.A.S.H.' There were no beautiful cabins with verandahs, there was no lawn, there were no children, of course it was one in the morning, but the people, the vibrant people that I had known here in the United States, wonderful people, they'd heard that another group was coming in from the United States, and they came to see us, and it was like looking into the faces of people in a leper colony, that they were looking at us, at what they had been. And looking at them, I
realised "Oh my God, we have been deceived." And it was that moment that I knew if I could that I would escape if ever given the chance.
Rachael Kohn: Right from the beginning, right from your arrival.
Deborah Layton: The minute of my arrival inside Jonestown. And actually there was an inkling just before that that I write about in Seductive Poison, and that's when my mother and I were on this tugboat. Now it's the last nine hours of this again 30-hour, horrific journey, and as we were coming deeper, deeper and deeper into this forest, and it's getting thicker, and the river's getting more narrow, the captain of our boat who was a member of the Temple, comes out, and he says, 'Anybody bringing in letters from the United States for family members, hand them over now.' And all the hair on the back of my neck and my arms went up. I had spent hours running around in San Francisco getting letters from loved ones, being so excited about going in that they'd get these little treasures from people here in the United States, and that they were considered dangerous, that they were going to be taken from us and maybe given to the family members inside Jonestown, I realised that a love of a family member, that that could be dangerous, that a memory of a life before was dangerous, that something was terribly wrong.
Rachael Kohn: Deborah, even when you got there, you were stripped of your belongings, your mother stripped of her medicine, that would have been quite alarming to you as well, a woman who obviously needed help.
Deborah Layton: Yes, it was unbelievably frightening, and yet when you're going into a concentration camp, whether it be Auschwitz, or Belsen, when you're going into a prison and you know it's a new environment, you're not going to stand up and scream 'By God, don't you do that!' You're trying to figure out what are the rules here, who can I trust. You're going to follow along as your survival instinct tries to figure out how do you live within this new system, and can you figure a way back out. And it was unbelievably frightening.
Rachael Kohn: Deborah, at the peak, there were about 1100 people in Jonestown. Now that would have meant that Jim Jones would have needed to exert a great deal of control, and indeed quell any attempts at escape. How did he do that?
Deborah Layton: He was clever. Within Jonestown, my first night I realised that there were loudspeakers everywhere, and Jim's voice spoke over them 24 hours a day. And during the daytime when he was awake and he spoke about the awful conspiracy in the United States, and the mercenaries who were coming down to hurt us, he would tape himself, and then when he was asleep or when he was doing something else, these tapes made over days and days and months and months, would play on and on and on, and on those tapes, or live in one of our pavilion meetings, Jim would say, 'Well, I'm sending out some people, people you trust, people you know, to say they want to leave. It's a loyalty test. Report them.' Well I knew I wanted to leave and I definitely wasn't going to tell anybody I knew, because at that point they knew I was trusted. So for me to tell even my mother, 'Mom, I think I've figured a way out' to tell a friend, 'Listen, there must be a way out', they could only believe that they were being tested, and the safest thing would have been to report me. So the safest thing within Jonestown was to keep to yourself, abide by the rules and within yourself pray that you could figure a way out, or that you wouldn't change your mind. My first week there I slept with a pillow over my head, I was so afraid that I'd be reindoctrinated into believing that I wanted to stay.
Rachael Kohn: When did Jim Jones start to hold the famous White Nights, where all of you would be preparing for mass suicide?
Deborah Layton: They started well before I came down, and I didn't know about them. My second week in Jonestown was my first White Night, and they were called White Nights because it was white people that were evil. I'm white, but Jim made us believe white people were bad and they were trying to hurt the blacks and there was racism, and it made sense. It was the end of the '60s and there was racism and we'd learn all about those civil rights, and how people had been hurt. And in Jonestown, there was no news. I mean we were an isolated little encampment in the middle of a rainforest. It was 250 miles away from civilisation. Jim had cleared a tiny little spot of land, and in a rainforest it's not plush, it's thick, it's dangerous, and if you
run 20 feet into this thick forest, you cannot find your way back out. And so those were our bars, and I've actually just forgotten what you asked me.
Rachael Kohn: When he began the White Nights, what was the motivation for it? Well you've said it was racism.
Deborah Layton: No, no, it wasn't actually. I mean I was just trying to explain that he used the term White Night, it could have been Black Night, which is probably more appropriate since it was in the black of night that these things were called. But he used them to break our spirit, and you'd work in the field from 6am in the morning until 6 at night. We had no protein, it was an agricultural community that was failing. We couldn't get in this thick clay of this rainforest, things to grow. And in this isolation, Jim was becoming more and more insane, and at night, at 2 in the morning, sirens would blare over the loudspeaker and Jim would say, 'Quickly, quickly children, quick, come to the pavilion to safety', and we'd run there, and for days we could hear gunfire in the jungle. Now we were told that there were mercenaries trying to come in and kill us, but what we didn't know was that he had different young kids, different to the armed guards that watched us day and night in the fields, and watched our cabins as we slept, he'd have different ones out there shooting off the guns. And so we believed that these people were coming in to hurt us, that they were coming in to kill the children, that they were coming in to torture us.
They became more and more frequent, but on one of the nights, I had just turned 25, I'd been in the organisation since I was 18, I wanted desperately to get out, and it seemed that there was no way. And on this one night when we were made to get in lines to take this poison before these people came in to torture us, you could say, 'My God, well I'd never do that', and it's true. Many people didn't. Many people said 'I'm not going to take that poison. We have reason to live.' And they'd be the first. Jim would have them, grab them, brought forward, they'd be punished. People would be put in a medical unit where they were kept comatose until their death at the very end. And I watched that, and I knew I wasn't going to speak up. I didn't want to be in that position because I wanted if ever a chance came, to be able to run. But on that night, after working the fields for months and being sick and being afraid and wanting to get out, I did drink what I thought was poison. And after 40 minutes of standing there and waiting and realising it was another test, my heart sunk.
Rachael Kohn: When you were finally at your wits' end and exhausted and malnourished, you did have an opportunity to escape. You went to the capital of Guyana, Georgetown. But even then, it was quite difficult to get, say the American Embassy, the Consul, to understand what you had been through and what was going on in Jonestown, because Jim Jones wielded so much power. How did he?
Deborah Layton: Let me say firstly that many people wanted out of Jonestown. Of the thousand people there, many wanted out, they were so afraid, but they couldn't get out. That I was able to escape was only by luck that Jim assigned me to go to the capital, which is again 250 miles away, and the only way there is by boat, our own boat. I knew when I was leaving Jonestown that I would do anything not to come back, and I knew that I would never see my mother again. When I went to say goodbye, I went to say goodbye knowing, and she knowing I was only going for a week to the capital, and I couldn't tell her because it was too dangerous if she were to cry and Jim would see her face and he'd ask what was wrong.
When I did get to the capital I was assigned to go to the capital with a group of young people, I was their chaperone. I was to make sure I stayed with them at all times so that they couldn't escape, and their assignment was, they had to go to the American Embassy because there were concerned relatives in the United States that were very worried about their children. They went on vacations, they went on trips and left the United States, and these families never heard from them again. These letters that I'd spent so much time getting, never got to these kids inside Jonestown. And I was assigned to go to the American Embassy with them when they were being questioned as to why they were there, were they happy, and of course they were saying they were very happy and they wanted to get married, and all these various things, and I was there to make sure they said that. And it was during that time that I tried to make eye contact with the men asking the questions of these young people. It was at the end of this first meeting that I tried to speak to the person, the Consulate, and he just didn't understand, and I realised that in so many ways the people assigned in the American Embassy in Guyana, they didn't know what they were up against, they didn't know they were dealing with somebody as brilliant and as deceitful and dangerous as Hitler. And that Jim was able to garner information from the American Embassy whenever they came in to Jonestown to check on the people.
When I was actually there at the American Embassy meeting with these young kids I was to be monitoring, the Consulate said 'I'm going into Jonestown in another two weeks. Jim wants the names of the people I want to meet with. I'm going to give them to him now because he said they might be off fishing in a village on a trip.' There is no fishing in Jonestown, there is no village nearby we could go on a trip to. Jim wanted the names of those people so he could he could prep them ahead of time, and that they'd be so frightened ahead of time as in Russia at the height of its fanaticism, that every single person was watched and when the Consulate took them aside inside Jonestown to talk to them, there was a senior sweeping nearby. She was assigned there, they knew that, they knew that she was reporting on what they were saying.
Rachael Kohn: So there were Jonestown operatives within the Embassy keeping an eye on things?
Deborah Layton: Well yes, I mean I was talking about Jonestown, but yes, we didn't even need operatives inside the American Embassy because we were able to get information from them all the time. After being assigned into the capital to stay with these kids, I made myself indispensable there. I worked hard, I reorganised things, I made sure that when people went to various ministries to talk that I immediately got them on the radio to speak to Jim into Jonestown, and Jim decided he had to keep me in the capital. He wasn't going to bring me back into Jonestown with the kids that I had to be with. And that was my purpose, that I would be indispensable in the capital, and that when all these people went back into Jonestown, that I would remain along with about 20 other people who were operatives in the capital who were the PR people for Jim, who went into the ministries, who blackmailed people. And it took me, once I was assigned into the capital, it took me almost two months to figure a way back out without telling the American Embassy ahead of time, because I knew if I were to go into the American Embassy before their trip back into Jonestown which was in six weeks at that time. If I were to go in and say, 'Listen, I need out, I have a way, I've contacted my sister, help me' they would have gone into Jonestown and said, 'Jim, things aren't that great here; we've had somebody from your headquarters approach us.'
Rachael Kohn: Right. That would have been a trap. Well when you finally did get out, in harrowing circumstances, you made an affidavit to the American government, and it was published in the newspapers where you predicted that there would be a mass suicide, and that I imagine activated Congressman Ryan to take a trip down to Guyana and investigate the circumstances. But even he was incredibly naive about what awaited him, and what kind of a man Jim Jones really was.
Deborah Layton: Absolutely. Actually when I escaped, the night of my escape from Guyana I signed an affidavit at the American Embassy in Guyana, telling them that Jim Jones had guns and cyanide poisoning and was planning to kill everybody in Jonestown. They told me not to tell anybody. When I got back to the United States, I called the American Embassy here and I said, 'I think I need to go public with this.' They said, 'Do not tell anybody, it's too dangerous.' And I waited for two weeks and then I met with an Attorney. And between the two of us, I put together an 11-page, 39-point affidavit spelling out what Jim was planning to do, that we had suicide drills, that people wanted out, that families were being kept there against their will, and it did go public. It went into newspapers through the AP wire, it went around the world, but if it happened now, people would listen. Then, the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle was 'Grim Report from the Jungle', and yet it was just my voice, there was nobody, no-one who had left to corroborate what I was saying.
["It was just my voice.
And Leo Ryan did read about me, and he flew to California from Washington and asked me to come to Washington D.C. and speak before the State Department, that he wanted to go down and investigate what was going on. But you are absolutely right, he was naive. Nobody took seriously my affidavit, which spelt out that we had guns there. Had I been in Jonestown when Leo Ryan came, I probably would have been one of the people to shoot at him, because we had been so well indoctrinated and so afraid of outsiders, that I would never have tried to escape with him because I was too afraid. The only way I was ever willing to escape was if it was just me alone, and only me that I had to depend on.
Rachael Kohn: And of course Senator Ryan was shot dead, and your prediction would come true, that a mass suicide was staged, and you had a double tragedy there: your mother died, and your brother was arrested for murder.
Deborah Layton: That's correct. My brother Larry Layton, is serving a life sentence here in the United States and he's been in prison for 20 years; he actually killed nobody. But because he did shoot at two people, but he was not one of the people on the flat bed truck that came in and shot and killed Congressman Leo Ryan and the cameraman and a reporter. And yet I think if you read Seductive Poison and you understand what these kids believed, these young people, although what they did was wrong, they believed they were coming in to stop people like myself, with Leo Ryan, there were four or five people that were leaving Jonestown, people who could corroborate now what I was saying in the United States, and Jim couldn't let that happen. And he set these young boys out there and said, 'Stop them, stop them. Kill them, and we'll get ourselves to Cuba. I'll get your parents, I'll get your children, I'll get our family to Cuba.' And that's what these people did. They went there, believing that they were giving their own families inside Jonestown a chance not be killed. And then they went back in and found that their own families were being made to take the poison. And within this story, these people did not commit suicide.
The first people to die were children, hundreds of children were killed. Children do not commit suicide. And as those parents, as you sit here or stand, and you think, 'Well by God I would have grabbed my child and run', that's right, you would have grabbed your child and you would have looked at there's maybe a mile, probably a mile to the jungle, and you would hold on to your child and you'd question: 'Should I hold on to them and run? Should I try to run to the jungle and possibly be shot in the back? And have my child pulled from my arms? Or should I stay with them and hold them for their last moments of their lives?'
Rachael Kohn: Your mother actually did not die at that mass suicide. She mercifully died before that all happened.
Deborah Layton: Yes, she did. She died ten days ahead of this tragedy. But part of that story is that she died of lung cancer without any pain medication, and my brother Larry who when I escaped, I was never allowed to get a hold of him. He was still here in the United States, and when I was flying back here, Jonestown called him and flew him down there. He never knew that I'd left, and he was the one that took care of my mother until the very end. And when you're afraid and you've lost everything, it's hard to be part of a conspiracy. It's hard to be held responsible for the insanity of a mad man, and the unwilling participation of a thousand people who were captives.
Rachael Kohn: Deborah at this point it's 21 years after that terrible event. And I wonder how someone normalises? I wonder how you come out of a situation in which you were so heavily indoctrinated, in which the CIA and conspiracies were just around the corner, everywhere. How did you normalise and function as a normal American citizen with her feet on the ground, with a job, even at a Stock Exchange, of all things, ironically for someone who was part of a socialist, even communist movement?
Deborah Layton: Well it's interesting actually that it was because I think I worked on the trading floor of an investment banking firm, in the hub of these evil capitalists that I'd been taught were so bad, and they were white, and they took me under their wing. And it was here that the indoctrination that I'd had for seven years, slowly crumbled away, and that I moulded myself. Truly, I came from an educated, well-to-do family. My father was a renowned scientist around the world; my mother was a very cultivated woman from Germany and actually part of the story is the secrets and shadows that I think sent my mother and me and my brother into People's Temple, that she actually escaped Nazi Germany, and came to the United States and kept her heritage a secret so her children wouldn't know anti-Semitism, and safeguard our ascent into American society.
And I had a strong core from my parents, and then coming back, my life having been on ice for seven years, I did do well for myself, and yet there are vestiges that have stayed with me, of distrust and shame and the reason I wrote this book was I was trying to stop the legacy in my own family, that I was actually following in my own mother's footsteps. Here I was, I was in this investment banking firm, I was doing incredibly well and I was keeping from my daughter, as my mother had kept from here children, who I was, and where I had been, to safeguard her ascent into American society. And then I realised that my keeping who I was a secret was setting her up possibly to follow in my footsteps and look for answers in an organisation that gave easy, simple, black and white answers, and that for the sake of my daughter and to break the legacy of secrets and shadows in my own family that I needed to tell the truth, and to explain it to her that I had to go back in to the darkness and explain it to myself.
Rachael Kohn: Deborah thank you for explaining it to us as well. You've done a great service. It's a courageous and harrowing and also very, very revealing story. I thank you for being on The Spirit of Things.
Deborah Layton: Thank you very much for having me.
(She says to the Cannibals right before they lunched her, also.)
Apparently, Deborah Layton said that last line and the transcribist had to reach for punctuation, because there's really no way to understand that kind of a sense of humor. It is dumbfounding