POINTS TO LOOK FOR IN READING DEBORAH LAYTON'S 

SEDUCTIVE POISON

 

Although the book describes events from (relatively) long in the past - before most of you were born - I am deliberately using this at the end of the course as a means of summarizing the basic themes. I hope that, on the basis of what you have learned over the past few weeks, you will be able to read this differently than you would have done back before taking the course. My hope, obviously, is that you will read this not just as sober narration of fact, but you will read critically, skeptically, being on the lookout for value-judgments, loaded language, and plain bias. Also, I assume that you will not read this as a simple account of "this is what those awful cults do". Well, some of them may - but by no means all.

 

Overall - did you like the book? Did you find Layton a sympathetic character? Why? Were you able to see things clearly through her eyes?

 

 Is the book believable? Why or why not?

 

What, if any, problems do we find in reading accounts by "defectors" or ex-members of cults? How should this affect our reading of the book?

 

Were there particular incidents or people, moments or sayings, that struck you forcefully? Which? Why? What about the religious rhetoric and the sermons: did anything grab you particularly there?

 

Look at the relationship between Layton and Jim Jones. Is it in many ways the story of a love affair gone catastrophically wrong? Should this angle make us suspicious of her account?

 

Was the book presented as a standard anti-cult account? Why and how? Does the book make over-sweeping statements about small and fringe religions? Note throughout how the author uses the word "cult" and who she applies it to. Should this make us suspicious about her particular slant?

 

What do we learn about gender relations within the People's Temple?

 

What benefits (personal, intellectual, psychological, social) did group members get out of the set-up within the Temple, either at Jonestown or in the US? Why did people follow him so passionately?

 

What do we learn about how members were recruited/converted into the group? Why was it so successful for so long? How does Layton explain this? Should we believe her? Are there alternative explanations?

 

People's Temple was a real anomaly among fringe religious groups in its racial mixture. How strongly does this theme emerge in the book ?

 

Part of its appeal was that the Temple was very much a product of its time, the 1960s and 1970s - why and how? How was the fate of the Temple conditioned by other events of the mid-1970s, especially in the 1977-78 period? What else was going on?

 

Like many fringe religions, People's Temple was deeply involved in politics, both fringe and (relatively) mainstream. How did this involvement affect its career and development?

 

Was the life in the Jonestown compound a simple continuation of the story in the US, or did the jungle isolation represent a dramatic and fundamental change with what had gone before? In other words, was the People's Temple a "cult" throughout the story, or did it just become one right at the end?

 

What do we learn about Jim Jones' leadership style? Was he a "charismatic" figure? What do we learn from this book about the nature of charisma? The same questions arise again: How does Layton explain all this? Should we believe her? Are there alternative explanations?

 

Much of the paranoia in the group derived from imagined plots by dangerous and threatening outsiders. Like who? How plausible were these charges of external  threats? How effectively did Jones and the leadership exploit these fears and imaginings?

 

Could a phenomenon like this happen again, or was it very much a manifestation of the credulous 1970s?

 

When and why does violence first enter into the People's Temple story? Who starts the violence? Could it have been avoided in slightly different circumstances? When did weapons first enter the story in a big way?

 

Red "Annie's" letter on pp. 300-301, written after the massacre, and tell me what you think about it. What does this say about the nature of Jones' charisma?

 

Contrary to the impression you may get here, the Jonestown episode was not  purely a mass suicide, since many people were killed by others, so it was properly a mass suicide, suggesting that many people did not choose to give up their lives. Does knowing this affect your reading of Layton's account?