By Rob Cox Daily News
Greensburg Daily News
---- — GREENSBURG — Deborah Layton has been to the abyss; has stood on the precipice of oblivion, staring down into infinite blackness, facing the darkest depths of the human condition.
In 1978, thousands of miles from here, she was nearly pulled into that darkness along with almost 1,000 other souls who met their end in a jungle at the end of nowhere. Her own rebellious nature, though; her own will to survive and to tell her story lifted Layton back from the edge.
But she was driven by more than mere survival instinct. Someone had to tell the story; someone had make the public aware of what had happened in the jungles of South America; someone had to stitch together the fragments of broken, otherwise discarded lives and make something whole and meaningful of them; someone had to do something to prevent Jonestown, Guyana from ever happening again.
Layton, who’s spent nearly four decades telling her story, will bring her harrowing, tragic tale to the Greensburg/Decatur County Public Library starting at 7 p.m., Monday. The following day, she’ll also speak to students at the 2014 Greensburg Community High School Chautauqua.
Layton’s 1998 autobiography, “Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple,” was re-released earlier this year as an audiobook, pushing her story and the Jonestown tragedy back into the public conscious.
On Thursday evening, Layton spoke with the Daily News regarding her upcoming Greensburg appearances and why she believes it’s important to tell her story.
“Poison,” Layton said, is required reading at several universities and colleges around the country. She’s glad for that, because she believes it important for young people, especially, to be exposed to the Jonestown story and to think about how and why it happened.
“I wrote about my life to help people understand this could happen to anybody,” she said. “Anybody can find themselves trapped. It doesn’t have to be a cult, either. It might be a bad marriage or other relationship where you don’t know how to extricate yourself without harming yourself or someone you love.”
For example, the Jonestown survivor continued, someone in an abusive marriage might be terrified by the possibility of placing his or her children in danger by trying to leave the abuser.
What many young people – what many people in general – don’t realize, Layton stressed, is how easily a person can be drawn into a bad relationship.
“I think we’ve all been touched, at some point in our lives,” Layton said, “by someone we think is so nice and wonderful. But then, after a while, you realize, ‘oh, my god,’ they’re not really so nice after all.”
For Layton, that “someone” was none other than Jim Jones, the charismatic founder of the “People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ,” one of the 20th century’s most notorious and best-known cults.
The homicidal leader would ultimately guide his cult into the deepest jungles of Guyana. Jones was deeply deluded by images of himself as a messianic figure, and when he believed American authorities were closing in on him, he chose martyrdom; some of his followers chose it with him, but many didn’t and died anyway.
To this day, when one hears the phrase, “drink the Kool-Aid,” or some variation thereof, it’s Jim Jones, the People’s Temple and Jonestown being referenced.
There are several misconceptions surrounding the tragedy at Jonestown, Layton said; she’ll undoubtedly detail some of those during her Greensburg appearances.
Layton first met Jones when she was 18, having just returned to the United States from boarding school in England; her parents had sent her there for her rebellious ways. She would ultimately rise to become one of Jones’ lieutenants, a fact that made her defection all the more extraordinary.
She was 25 on Nov. 18, 1978, when the congregation of the People’s Temple met its fate. She’d already fled to the US weeks before and had appeared before Congress to inform and warn the public about Jones’ cult. She also pled for the US government to intervene at Jonestown. Layton’s appearances on Capitol Hill ultimately persuaded Congressman Leo Joseph Ryan, Jr., to lead a delegation to Guyana to investigate Jonestown. Ryan’s fate, along with the fate of Jonestown itself, is well documented.
What might not be as well known is that Layton’s mother, Lisa Phillip-Layton, also died at Jonestown, though not as part of the mass deaths that occurred Nov. 18, 1978. Phillip-Layton instead died of cancer some 10 days before.
In speaking to Layton, it seems plain that her mother’s involvement with People’s Temple still haunts her.
Lisa Phillip-Layton lost her grandparents to the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II, but managed to escape Nazi Germany herself, taking flight to America.
“She was safe,” Layton said of her mother. “She had escaped a concentration camp in Germany and I then proceeded to take into one [in Guyana]. She was safe in America, but she died at Jonestown.”
Deborah Layton, survivor of Jonestown, will give a lecture at 7 p.m., Monday, April 14, at the Greensburg Public Library, and will appear again at the 2014 GCHS Chautauqua at 10:20 a.m., April 15.
For more information, call the library at 812-663-2826 or call GCHS at 812-663-7176.
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; firstname.lastname@example.org