Jonestown survivor tells cautionary tale of history

Greensburg Daily News, Indiana/April 16, 2014

By Rob Cox

Greensburg, Indiana -- Deborah Layton’s nightmares of Jonestown ceased long ago, but even after all these years, one dream yet remains.

It’s a dream of her mother and it’s very simple, Layton explained. She was speaking to a group of Decatur Countians Monday night at the Greensburg-Decatur County Public Library following a free public lecture regarding her experiences with the People’s Temple and its notorious founder, the Reverend Jim Jones.

Of the dream, Layton said, “I’m holding my mother in my arms and she’s looking up at me. She’s not well, but she’s alive. I don’t have that dream very often, but when I do, I don’t want it to end.”

For Layton, that dream of her mother is the final vestige of a living nightmare that began the summer between her junior and senior year of high school.

That was the summer Layton’s older brother, Larry, introduced her to Jones and his People’s Temple. “‘You have qualities your parents don’t recognize,’” Layton remembers Jones saying. “‘You have energies I can use.’”

Jones convinced Layton she could be a great asset to his church, and Layton was immediately pulled in. The inexperienced, rebellious teen had long had trouble finding an identity, and Jones was the first adult to express serious belief in her.

During her senior year in England at boarding school, Layton received a letter a week from Jones. When she graduated, she wasn’t able to get accepted into UC Davis as her parents had planned, but instead fell more deeply in with Jones and the People’s Temple.

By age 20, Layton told her audience Monday night, “I was financial head of the People’s Temple.”

The People’s Temple was becoming more and more powerful in San Francisco politics by then, with Jones himself gaining support from several big-name politicians. There was no quieting the cult leader’s growing paranoia, though, or his increasing worry about losing his tax-exempt status as a religious organization.

To allay those fears, Layton assisted the reverend with moving money from the United States into foreign banks. Layton noted that, on her numerous flights out of the country on behalf of People’s Temple, she was always accompanied by a team of impressionable young women like herself. That fact, she said, was not an accident, but was a reflection of Jones’ talent for recognizing and preying on vulnerability.

A number of members left the People’s Temple, Layton noted, but Jones tracked them down, brought them back and beat them in front of the other members. The young Layton was beginning to realize People’s Temple might not be the civic-oriented, socialistic paragon Jones proclaimed it to be, but was afraid to speak up. “I was determined that [a beating] wasn’t going to happen to me.”

By this point, Layton’s mother’s opinion of People’s Temple had begun to change, too. She became so impressed with the organization and the changes it apparently wrought in her daughter, she herself joined.

Around the same time, Layton’s boyfriend from boarding school, Phillip Blakey, came to visit her in the United States for six-weeks. During that visit, Layton said, Jones convinced Blakely not to return to his family farm in England, but rather, to fly to South America to oversee the creation of a new settlement devoted to People’s Temple: Jonestown. Jones promoted the settlement to his followers as a socialistic utopia where everyone would live as equals, free from prejudice, greed, immorality and government interference.

Before Layton could leave for Jonestown, though, her mother developed a severe, unexplainable cough, and a trip to a California-based doctor confirmed the worst: lung cancer.

Jones, though, convinced Layton there was advanced, cutting-edge medical care available in Jonestown Layton’s mother could never receive in America, and Layton was once more taken in by the smooth-talking reverend. Layton’s mother wasn’t convinced, but Layton ultimately persuaded her into coming to Jonestown.

Layton recalls being greatly excited about Jonestown and about taking her mother there for treatment, but her enthusiasm would be short-lived. Shortly after Layton’s arrival at the supposed paradise, the realities of the settlement became clear.

There was no advanced medical treatment – little medical treatment at all, in fact. There was also only limited running water, sewage and electricity. The residents of Jonestown were watched over 24-hours a day by armed guards and forced to work in the fields each day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. No one was allowed to leave and family members weren’t allowed to room together, meaning Layton and her mother were immediately separated and forced to live in cramped, dormitory-like cottages with several other women. Layton’s mother wasn’t even allowed to keep the pain medications she’d brought with her from America.

Layton would ultimately escape Jonestown, but would be forced to leave her mother behind in the hope of returning later to rescue her. Jones’ paranoia and psychopathy were so pronounced by then, Layton knew better than to even divulge her true plans to her mother.

On Nov. 18, 1978, Jonestown came to a horrifying end. Layton’s mother died 10 days prior, but that was small comfort. The lung cancer had spread to Lisa Phillip-Layton’s brain and the pain would’ve been excruciating. Worse, Layton added, “My mother died believing I had forsaken her.”

Layton can’t change the past, though, so she continues telling her story, hoping people will learn from her experiences and that Jonestown will never happen again.

“Young adults need to hear this [story],” she said. “So many of them are going off to college, trying to figure out who they are in this world – where they fit in – and maybe they don’t have any friends. Then somebody invites you to dinner or you get pulled into a fraternity or a sorority and things happen, and even though you know something’s desperately wrong, you’re afraid to speak up.”

“Nobody joins a cult,” she continued. “Nobody intentionally joins a group or organization thinking they’ll be harmed or injured; nobody imagined they’d give their lives for the People’s Temple. We join all kinds of groups all the time – self-help, political – but some become malignant. The people that join [such groups] tend to be idealistic and kind; they’re people you’d want as a friend. They get drawn in and trapped.”

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