In recent times, literally hundreds of books have been published relating to the widespread growth and influence of the differrent religious cults that have appeared during the last hundred or so years. Many but by no means all of these books have been written by ex cult members whose lives have been negatively affected by their time in the cult, and the majority are written with the intention of warning readers to avoid becoming embroiled in any such organisation.
Whilst all these books have value, perhaps more to the writers than the readers in some cases, there are a few that, despite referring to a particular religious group, provide an insight into how all such groups operate, as well as serving as a warning to all those contemplating joining one,
One of these is Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story Of Life And Death In The People's Temple, by Deborah Layton. Deborah was personally recruited by the groups leader, the Reverend Jim Jones, in 1970, and rose to a position of trust in the cult before her eventual escape from Jonestown, the compound in the Guyanese jungle where Jones had led his followers, in April 1978, a few months before 913 members of People's Temple, acting on the instructions of their deranged leader, committed mass murder/suicide.
In Seductive Poison Deborah provides a vivid, no holds barred account of what life in a religious cult was really like, from how she joined as an impressionable teenager who was made to feel important by Jones to her disillusionment when arriving at Jonestown in December 1977 and, once having escaped Jones' clutches despite the desperate attempts of some of his members to prevent her leaving from Georgetown airport, to her realisation that Jones was really a lying, hypocritical, adulterous charlatan rather than the Messianic figure he purported to be. Her account of some of the rituals that took place are very revealing, in particular the terrifying "White Night" suicide drills that Jones regularly subjected his members to in Jonestown. Her account of the difficulty she had in reintegrating back into society is also revealing, and should provide ample warning to anyone thinking about becoming involved in a religious group to thoroughly investigate it before making such a commitment.
Seductive Poison is now recommended reading for students about to enter college in some areas of the UK, but adults of any age would benefit from reading this book, whether they are current or exiting cult members, have family in a cult, or are merely interested in knowing what all the fuss about cults is about. With thousands of cults now operating throughout the world and actively seeking converts, it provides a timely warning for anyone approached by such a group to tread very carefully before making any kind of commitment.
This book should be required reading. Those who remember the horror of Jonestown remember mostly the bloated bodies piled upon each other, the stories of murder and mayhem that followed in the wake of the media hullabaloo. ALl too often I have heard the Jonestown cult members referred to as "crazies" or "mindless zombies". This book shows the slow and in many cases understandable development: how the initially benevolent aims and dreams of JOnes' followers finally found themselves trapped in a jungle prison, a web if deceit and terror with a madman at its centre. As Layton soelequently makes clear, the beginning is so often inoccuous. The followers believe they are doing the right thing; they innocently hand over money, free will, affection, to a leader unworthy of such. Jim Jones was at first not the devil he turned out to be; he did a lot of good. But the adulation went to his head; and thus the horrific outcome. I have some experience with religious groups and cults; I would say there are three traps their leaders fall into. It might be sex, it might be money, and it might be power. In Jim Jones's case, it was all three, which made the outcome triply horrific.
This is an immensely brave and well written book, which bears testimony to Deborah Layton's courage, not only in having escaped the Jonestown cult, but also for having been able to examine, in the years afterwards, her own motives and the personal history that led to her involvement in it. The book is almost unique in that respect.
Many of the books I have come across about Jonestown, Waco and other religious cults have been written by Christian academics so keen to excuse the cult members for their choices that they end up blaming the US authorities and wider society for failing to understand them and for 'harrassing' and 'persecuting' them into desperate actions. They present the cult members (or as they say, members of New Religious Movements) as brave, principled and even heroic individuals, and make little or no attempt to examine the individual responsibilities and motivations that lead to their eventual ends. Nothing is said of the bullying, emotional pressure, inventions of persecutory 'outsiders' and other forms of terror applied within the groups by the members to preserve coherence and to prevent 'defections'. While I think it pointless simply to apply abusive labels to people who join cults, neither do I support the view that society is to blame when collective paranoia overtakes them. Also, the tendency of such academics to call the US 'religiously intolerant' strikes me as odd, in a world where the Taliban operates.
Deborah Layton, having left Jonestown some time before its full murderous potential was revealed, was castigated on both sides: by cultists for having been a 'traitor' and by secular society for having been foolish enough to join the cult in the first place. She does not seek to excuse herself, but presents honestly what actually happened to her. Her descriptions of her childhood and family life are fascinating to a reader who believes that personal history has a great bearing on the choices we make, the chapters in which she makes her bid for freedom constitute one of the best thrillers I have read, and the final chapters in which she describes her readjustment to society are as interesting as the rest, in terms of our understanding of the dynamics of the phenomenon of belonging to a cult.
If there is one criticism I have of the book, it is that the author does not reflect sufficiently upon the interpersonal and emotional dynamics within the People's Temple. While she is honest about her own feelings, she seems to lack some insight into others around her, and seems not to apply her mind perceptively to them. But I suspect that this may be one of the key problems that allowed her to become involved in the Temple in the first place. I claim no expertise, but it did strike me on reading this book that the People's Temple attracted idealistic and motivated young people who had a limited world view and little awareness and insight into those around them. Another account based upon interviews of survivors that I have read showed the interviewees to have the same absence of insight - giving a kind of flatness of narrative, as the emotions and reactions of those around them don't figure at all. I wonder if this self-centredness and lack of insight could be factors in allowing people to become cult members?
Having said that, it does seem that Deborah Layton has tried much harder than others to come to some understanding of what she has done, and to take responsibility for it. And her book is a really gripping read.
Having read the ‘Manson’ story as an opener regarding cults, I was interested to take the cult phenomenon to the next stage. For the likes of you and I it is almost impossible to comprehend how anyone with half a brain could get sucked into something like this. I think it is fair to say that only certain kinds of intellect are susceptible and vulnerable to this type of brainwashing – but they are out there if you look long and hard enough and know what you are looking for … and cult leaders do know! This book is a fascinating and very worthwhile read, and of course it's a very tragic tale. Whilst we learn a lot about the ways and so called ideals of Jim Jones, you never really discover what motivates him? I t certainly wasn’t money, even though he had millions of dollars at his disposal. It wasn’t the good life or even a comfortable life – all against his socialist values of course, but he was a fake! Was it a power trip or were he simply delusional and an ace manipulator? There’s no doubt he was cunningly clever, he could mix above his station – all were taken in by him. Did he simply lose his way and become s dictator? So why did it all turn so sour and why couldn’t he just build his lovely little ‘socialist’ haven and treat his congregation with respect – he seemed to have the money and the wherewithal to do exactly that. Perhaps these people defy logic and can't be worked out? I can only suggest that you read it and see what you think? My only complaint about his excellent book is that there are no pictures of the devastation and carnage that Jonestown became, though there are plenty on the net. I do feel the end of this awful tale should have been shown here – it really would have finished this read off perfectly and emphasised the tragedy of it all. Some of the overhead shots of the aftermath will stay with me forever!