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Seductive Poison


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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.


Published on the 20th anniversary of the suicide-murder of more than 900 followers of Reverend Jim Jones in the Guyanese jungle, Layton's book is the first by a former high-level member of the People's Temple. A troubled teen from an affluent family in Berkeley, Calif., Layton and her mother were introduced to Jones by her brother, Larry. For seven years, she was Jones's close confidante in California, and in 1977, she left with her mother for the "Promised Land" of Jonestown. In the months that followed, she became aware of trouble in "Paradise," realizing she had arrived in a work camp patrolled by armed guards and ruled by a deceitful "Father" (Jones), who practiced manipulative mind-control tactics, dictated grueling physical labor, staged suicide drills and devised bizarre punishments such as wrapping a boa constrictor around the neck of a "sinner" or hanging children upside-down in a well. By May 1978, Layton had engineered a complex escape plan and returned to the U.S. Concerned for her mother, brother and friends still in Jonestown, she went to both the press and the State Department to warn of a possible mass suicide-murder but found few who believed her. Her fears were, of course, founded and not only did her mother die of cancer in Jonestown shortly before the mass suicide, but Larry was convicted for the conspiracy to kill Congressman Leo Ryan and is still in prison. Layton's lengthy account provides valuable insights into the inner workings of cults, and the details of her escape in the closing chapters generate strong suspense, hinting at film possibilities. "Never before published" photos unseen by PW. (Nov.) FYI: Layton's other brother, Thomas, wrote an earlier family history, In My Father's House (1981), with journalist Min S. Yee.

In 1978, following orders from their leader, over 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. They were convinced that their Guyanese enclave, the "People's Temple," was about to be invaded. The public was shocked, unable to understand how this horrible event could have occurred. Layton, one of the tragedy's few survivors, was a high-level member of the People's Temple. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor, and her brother Larry were close confidants of Jim Jones, having joined his group in the early 1970s. Jones led his disciples to Guyana from California to develop a Socialist paradise. But Jones's paranoia soon turned Jonestown into a community of terror and repression. Recognizing the danger, Layton managed to escape and alert the U.S. authorities, whose investigation led to the ultimate tragedy. Vividly written and powerfully told, this book shows convincingly how a group of people, seduced by promises of an "Eden" on earth, will blindly follow a charismatic leader. Highly recommended for all collections.‘Sandra K. Lindheimer, Middlesex Law Lib., Cambridge, MA

Praise for Deborah Layton's Seductive Poison

"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

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

"Why do apparently normal people surrender in body and soul to a charismatic egomaniac? Deborah Layton knows. This haunting book, written with candor and passion reads like a thriller. I could not put it down." -Isabel Allende

"An absolutely riveting story, told as memoir but with the pulse-pounding suspense of a murder mystery. I read Layton's account non-stop through the night, unable to let go, struck by the realization that this is not simply an account of a bygone tragedy. It has great relevance to many of the terrible events we see unfolding today, for this is a story about those who seek a better world and are then inextricably caught in a plan to end it. This is a universal tale about ideology gone awry." -Amy Tan

"Deborah Layton is the unsung hero of Jonestown and her gripping and brave story kept me glued to the page. An essential read for those seeking to understand what went wrong in Peoples Temple/ Jonestown." -Julia Scheeres, New York Times bestselling author of Jesus Land: A Memoir and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

"Deborah Layton's account of the notorious Jonestown disaster explains the timeless allure and peril of charismatic cult figures."
-Adrienne Mayor, author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

"Seductive Poison is beautiful writing, deep psychological insight, and heart-pounding narrative, but above all it is antidote to the political poison of our time."
-John C. Wathey, author of The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

"Fiercely relevant. . . . Layton's compelling first hand account shows how ordinary people became trapped in a web of lies and conspiracy theories, clinging on to the promise of salvation as they marched towards their doom." -Mick West, author of Escaping The Rabbit Hole

"Deborah Layton's fierce commitment in bearing witness to the atrocities in Jonestown of 1978 serves as an urgent reminder to all of us. We cannot afford to ignore these lessons about the underlying causes as well as the devastating consequences of blind devotion, manipulation, and dehumanization. Remembrance combined with unflinching vigilance are not only necessary, they are our only hope for a transformed future." -Elizabeth Rosner, author of Survivor Cafe: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

"We are living in an age where it's nearly impossible to discern between reality and fiction. I had a similar feeling during the filming of Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and then again when I first read Deborah's book, Seductive Poison. Deborah's storytelling grips you from the beginning all the way through to the end. . . . You'll be enthralled, appalled, and intrigued. You won't want to put it down until you finish. This book should be republished every few years for more generations to know about Jonestown, and the People's Temple." --Stanley Nelson, MacArthur genius, director, flmmaker, emmy award winner for Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, PBS The American Experience

"In this time of demagoguery, greed, fear mongering and race baiting, we are watching the fabric of our lives being shredded by individuals we have elected to represent us. . . . How strange that, Seductive Poison, by Deborah Layton should have such relevance today. . . . Layton writes with painful honesty. . . . Seductive Poison reminds us of the dangers of foregoing the right to question and challenge those we elect to lead, and how we should never give our right to make decisions to others; that we must always stay alert and involved with the direction and governance of our society. . . . These are lessons that are particularly relevant today." Guy Johnson--poet and author of Standing at the Scratch Line and Echoes of a Distant Summer

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