Deborah Layton got out of Jonestown in May, 1978. Once one of Jones' trusted lieutenants, she had grown increasingly worried that the temple's adored "Father" was leading his flock in a dangerous direction. She says her escape was a simple matter of listening to a voice inside her soul-- a voice Jones had struggled to drown out with hysterical rantings and midnight suicide drills.
"They tell you that it is wrong, that the voice is you trying to be selfish, trying to shut out the group," Layton said. "It is what saved me."
Her "inner voice" had once ruled her life. A rebellious 17-year-old from Berkeley, she drifted to the Peoples Temple in 1970 because its progressive program of social action reminded her of the Peace Corps.
"These were good people, they weren't evil," she said. "I was young and I needed structure. The people who joined the Peoples Temple wanted to be part of something bigger, feeding the poor or helping the homeless or whatever. The organization did not start out bad, it was Jim Jones who was deceitful."
While Jones recruited new members with shows of religious devotion, those in the group soon found themselves working for what amounted to a rigid political cell devoted to advancing their leader.
By 1974, as Jones was establishing his headquarters in San Francisco, Layton had risen high in the hierarchy. Although she herself had been sexually abused by Jones, she steeled herself into rigid obedience to "Father," who was ratcheting up the level of paranoia and fear.
NO HINTS OF VIOLENCE TO COME
Little of this was visible on the outside. With his progressive credentials and photogenic, multiracial flock, Jones quickly became a San Francisco powerbroker, feted by the likes of then First Lady Rosalynn Carter and then State Assemblyman Willie Brown, now the city's mayor.
Sent reeling by a 1977 press expose and several defections, Jones told Temple members they were moving out of range of "the racists and the enemies" to Guyana-- "the Promised Land."
"It was like a dark, hot desert. There was nothing there," Layton said of Jonestown, where Peoples Temple agents had already set up a bare-bones "agricultural project" in the jungle. "When you saw it, you knew it was an evil place."
The exodus to Guyana began in the summer of 1977. Early arrivals radioed back to San Francisco that Jones' promises had come true and that it was indeed a paradise. Those left behind to wrap up the Temple's affairs, including Layton and her mother, were eager to join the main group.
They did so in December. After a lengthy flight, followed by a 30-hour boat trip up the Kaituma River and an agonizing trek by flatbed truck, they arrived at Jonestown. The moment she arrived and looked into the eyes of Jonestown veterans, Layton knew it had gone wrong.
"When I saw their faces ... they were so lost," she said of the frightened, subdued crowd that silently watched her group arrive at the makeshift camp of tents and cabins. "I could feel them watching me, that I came from that other world that they would never get back to. And they never did."
In the suffocating heat of Guyana, fed by alcohol and drugs, Jones' megalomania burst into evil flower. Jonestown, far from a happy commune, was a work camp where Temple members, who toiled dawn-to-dusk under armed guard, were subjected to nightly harangues from a leader obsessed with imaginary threats from "traitors" and "mercenaries."
PUNISHMENT IN 'THE BOX'
Disobedience could bring punishment in "the Box," a stifling, underground cubicle no bigger than a coffin, and any night could suddenly become a "White Night"-- Jones' code for a mass suicide drill.
The exhaustion, and the fear, left most Temple members incapable of resisting, Layton said. "In insanity, there is no way to have clarity. You can't think. You don't know what to do. That's the real terror of it."
Layton believes she, too, would have perished at Jonestown if she had not been sent on a mission to the Guyanese capital of Georgetown in May, 1978. There, her "inner voice" now coming in loud and clear, she slipped away from the group and out of the country, leaving her cancer-stricken mother behind. "I felt I had to get out in order to go back and save her," Layton said. "I didn't know I would never see her again."
Largely thanks to Layton's testimony upon her return to the United States, Congressman Ryan launched a fact-finding trip to Jonestown in November, 1978. It cost him his life and set in motion the dreadful final act for the Peoples Temple.
Along with four others in his group, Ryan was gunned down on an airstrip by Temple guards including Layton's brother Larry, acting on orders from Jones.
Back at Jonestown, convinced that Ryan's arrival heralded an apocalyptic attack by his enemies, "Father" shepherded his frightened children through a final White Night. A total of 912 people died by cyanide. Jones was shot through the head.
Layton says there is little sense to make of the Peoples Temple tragedy. Cults, she said, will be around as long as there are people whose hopes get the better of their fears and who stop questioning.
She closed her own book on Jonestown this year when she revisited the overgrown site of the cult's jungle camp with a documentary crew.
"I went looking for something, some part of the people who had died," Layton said. "But if there is such as thing as essence of people or spirit they were not there. They had fled. And that is good."