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[whitespace] Smoke and Mirrors

Cults, Courage and 'Holy Smoke'--a conversation with Jonestown survivor Deborah Layton

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a movie review; rather, it's a freewheeling discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"I don't consider myself a cult expert. I don't want to be a cult expert," says Deborah Layton over a cup of hot tea, about 30 minutes after watching the powerful Jane Campion cult-drama Holy Smoke. "I only know what my own experiences were, and from my own experiences I can say what I think the dangers are. But that's it."

Of course, Layton has plenty of experience to draw on. As a member of People's Temple leader Jim Jones' "Inner Circle," the Piedmont resident saw the charismatic preacher rise from small-town minister to powerful political leader to self-described "revolutionary"--and finally, inside the guarded walls of Guyana's Jonestown--to maniacal mass murderer.

Layton escaped Jonestown just a few months before Jones' tragic final act, on November 18, 1978. Sparked by the arrival of a team of reporters, led by Senator Leo Ryan--who had been alerted to the accelerating cruelty and madness at Jonestown through Layton's reports --Jones ordered the murder of Ryan, and all 913 of his followers, over 200 of them children. Some committed suicide, using punch laced with cyanide; most were shot to death. Ryan and three journalists were killed. Jones himself was shot in the head by a follower, who then took her own life.

All of this is referenced, though briefly, in Holy Smoke.

Starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, the odd, thought-provoking film is about a confrontation between Ruth, a young Australian woman (Winslet) who is kidnapped by her family after being drawn into a mysterious religious group in India, a suspected cult group that vaguely resembles the followers of the late Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh. Back in Australia, Ruth is isolated in a remote cabin in the desert, left alone with a cocky cult-expert and "exit counselor" P.J. Waters (Keitel), who attempts to systematically break her attachment to her newfound "faith." What transpires is a roller coaster of mind games and sexual power plays, as Ruth decides to try and beat the deprogrammer at his own game.

Though troubled by the mysterious, ambiguous ending--"It was a little out there," Layton concludes--my guest enjoyed the film, respecting the director's decision to tell the story through Ruth's eyes. Though clearly young and easily swayed, she is far from the wild-eyed, foaming, Manson-esque cult-members we usually see in films about cults.

"People are always surprised at how normal I seem," says a smiling Layton. "When I talk to people, when I do book readings or radio interviews, I always want to remind people that nobody joins a cult. They join a self-help group, or a religious organization, or a political action group. I think it's easy to say, 'Oh, I'd never join a cult.' Of course you wouldn't. Because you don't know you're joining one. You think you're doing something else."

Layton herself was 17 when she first met Jones. Swayed by his talk of making a better world, she eventually persuaded her brother Larry and mother Lisa (herself a survivor of Nazi Germany) to join as well. Lisa died of cancer, a few days before the massacre. Larry, who wounded two defecting members during the final confrontation, is currently in prison, the only Peoples Temple member to be sentenced for his part in those events.

Layton, who changed her name and essentially went underground after Jonestown, now tells her family's story with remarkable candor and insight in her compelling, bravely revealing book Seductive Poison: a Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple (Anchor Books, 1998).

While watching Holy Smoke this afternoon, she was unexpectedly thrown back to Guyana, during a scene where P.J. forces Ruth to watch videos about cults, including shots of Jim Jones and Jonestown after the massacre.

"No wonder Ruth gets up to leave the room during the cult videos," says Layton, cradling her teacup. "They showed all the bodies at Waco and Jonestown and Heaven's Gate, but she could never have identified with that, because they were only showing her the end result.

"If you look at the end result of Hitler's Germany, of course it was bad. But it's more profound and frightening to go back to the beginning, and take look at how it started. What was it that enamored people? What was it that they liked about that movement? What was charismatic about that person, what spoke to them? What trapped them? That's far more frightening. Because then you're allowing the person to understand how they too, in different circumstances, could find themselves entrapped.

"In writing my book, I wanted people to understand how it is that someone can become entrapped. That this is something that can happen to you or your loved ones."

In Holy Smoke Ruth shows unexpected strength and courage. Layton, however, is uncomfortable when her own actions are praised as having been courageous.

"I don't think any of us who left our friends and families behind, would in any way think of ourselves as courageous," she says. "My mother was courageous. She spoke up. In Jonestown, she defended this one black woman, who'd made her this wonderful marmalade. [Jones castigated the woman in public for wasting resources on such an 'extravagance.'] My mother stood up and defended her, and took Jim's anger on herself--but I was too afraid to stand up to protect her.

"It's a very dark thing to carry inside you. Knowing that the best of us, the ones that did speak up and speak out, were the first to die," she says. "It doesn't feel so courageous to have gotten out and then told the world afterwards."

As for Holy Smoke, Layton is glad it was made, if for no other reason than its demonstration of what not to do when a loved one joins a cult.

"When you join one of these groups," she says, "it's a gradual isolation from the rest of the world, from society. And as a family member, you're on the outside, and if you call them a cult member, they will shut you further out.

Instead she recommends a simpler solution.

"Remind them you love them, whether they are in this organization or not," says Layton. "Make sure they know you'll still love them whenever they're ready to come back home."

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From the February 24-March 1, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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