Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Searching for the Promised Land

Their hope was fragile but compelling.

The mother and daughter weren't sure what lay ahead. As their plane prepared for its final descent, the daughter looked out the window and reflected on earlier journeys she had heard of. Decades before, her mother and grandmother had fled Nazi Germany, traveling separately and ultimately meeting two very different fates, one tragic. As the daughter pondered this, she hoped that this current journey, this quest for a new life, would be different. She hoped that their choice to travel together would bring good fortune.

But it didn't. Their move to Jonestown, Guyana, ended in fear, pain, and death.

This is part of Deborah Layton's narrative in "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple." The book describes Layton's seven years as a member of Jim Jones's church.

I decided to read "Seductive Poison" after watching a documentary about Jonestown. The documentary was great, but afterward I still wanted to learn more. What made people join the group and stick with it? What kinds of lives did they live? Would I have joined?

Different survivors would undoubtedly answer such questions in different ways. Layton addresses them in a way I found quite satisfying — but the book deals with more than just Peoples Temple. For one thing, it's a mother-daughter story far more insightful than any I've come across in fiction. If that's not your thing, "Seductive Poison" is also a suspense tale that I imagine would hook any reader, regardless of whether they're particularly interested in Jonestown. A comment from Amy Tan on the back of my paperback copy indicates that she read it in one night. If I didn't have a job, I probably would have, too. Instead I read it in a couple of nights, staying up well past my bedtime each evening and paying the price next morning, when I groggily explained to co-workers that I was reading a book that was a bit too good.

The story begins with Deborah's privileged but troubled childhood, focusing in part on her mother, Lisa, a non-practicing Jew who initially kept their ethnicity secret from Deborah. Likewise, many years passed before Deborah learned of Lisa's mother's suicide in the wake of her escape from Nazi Germany.

Deborah met Jim Jones when she was 17 and joined his church the following year. I probably can't adequately summarize all the reasons she was drawn to it, but it seemed like a mix of things: she was feeling adrift in life, he made her feel special, and once she joined, participation in the group was something she succeeded at. The church became a place where she could accept responsibility and do good works.

Of course, the Temple community was tightly controlled by Jones and reflected his sometimes sadistic and paranoid tendencies. As time passed and Deborah witnessed events that troubled her, she pushed her doubts down. At one point she writes, "My inner voice screamed something at me, but I could not hear it."

Deborah eventually became a high-ranking member of Peoples Temple, and her interactions with Jones are fascinating to read about. She offers a detailed glimpse into the upper workings of the group.

After Lisa also joined the church and the two traveled to Jonestown, Deborah became disillusioned. Instead of finding the Promised Land she'd been told to expect, she found a totalitarian encampment, hidden deep in an inaccessible jungle, where she and her mother had no rights and no reasonable prospects for leaving. Upon their arrival, their passports were confiscated, as was Lisa's pain medication, a treatment for her cancer (it later turned up in Jones's personal stash). Deborah was forced to work long hours in fields, and their lives were so austere, reading about it made me extremely grateful for my ability to make coffee and take hot showers whenever I want. Moreover, like other residents of Jonestown, they were continuously warned that mercenary forces were coming to kill them, and threatened in ways both overt and subtle, all of them chilling.

The story of Deborah's escape is riveting. I won't say more about it except that it reads like a top-notch thriller, complete with one interlude so surreal, it's almost Lynchian, though this story is more disturbing than anything David Lynch has yet dreamt up.

I was really impresssed with Layton's writing, which is spare, eloquent, and effective. Given that the book is only 300 pages long, she clearly pared down her many years of memories into just those necessary to tell the best possible story. Everything she writes feels real and compelling.

Consider her brief reflections on U.S. values. For me, after living through eight years of George W. Bush, I'm not especially taken by patriotic overtures — in the Bush-Cheney era, so many statements of American patriotism seemed manipulative and false. But Deborah Layton's are the real thing:

"Mud splattered my arms and face while I gazed out at the scenery, my prison, and I thought about all the times I'd hoped for my escape. I thought about that evening when I had sat on this same truck. ... jerking and bouncing after a long day in the field, promising myself that if I ever got another chance, if I ever again looked at a sunset from the United States of America, I would always cherish the gift of freedom."

It's worth noting that not all residents of Jonestown share Layton's dismal memories of the place. Some people were happy there. (One example is Laura Johnston Kohl, whose moving account is published on the web site Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.) If you do additional reading about Jonestown, you'll find that some writers seek to reconcile these differences using a "who was right?" approach. But if you consider that 1,000 people lived there, at varying periods, in varying proximity to the force of Jim Jones's overwhelming presence, it seems believeable that different people had very different experiences, that both types of memories are true and right.

Layton's story is one of my favorites because she tells it so well, and because I can empathize with so much of what she must have felt. The fact that her initial accounts of Jonestown helped spur Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated visit to the encampment makes the story historically significant as well, and doubly sad.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.