'A cult is like abusive relationships... You are trapped, like a caged animal'

Andrew Gumbel
Monday 20 March 2000 01:00 GMT

When Deborah Layton came to write about her harrowing experiences as a member of the Jim Jones suicide cult - she got out of Jonestown just in time - she prefaced her narrative with a quote from Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust.

"We who have come back," the quote runs, "by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles - whatever one may choose to call them - we know: the best of us did not return."

Haunted for years by the thought that the rest of the world would think of her as hopelessly credulous or even evil, Ms Layton now ardently believes that she, like all members of all cults, was unequivocally a victim trapped in an inescapable nightmare.

"People do not join cults," she says. "They join a religious group, or a self-help group, or a mission." The group plays on people's insecurities and gives them a sense of order in the world. In her case she and her brother Larry, also a Jim Jones follower, sought a strong sense of identity that their family, haunted by its own past as victims of the Nazis, wrapped in layers of self-denial.

"The same thing happens in prisons or in gangs, not just in cults," she told The Independent in an interview last year. "You find a niche for yourself where everything is black and white, where this way is good and the other way is bad."

The logical consequence of this thinking, however, is that any deviation from the cult leader's thinking is automatically condemned. Members' individuality is suppressed and subject to fear and suspicion of everyone around. "It's an abusive relationship. Often by the time you figure that out it's too late, because you can't see how to extricate yourself without hurting yourself or your family. You are like a caged animal."

At Jonestown, 913 people took a cyanide-laced drink and died in the jungle. Ms Layton, who told of her extraordinary escape in her book Seductive Poison, spent 20 years building a new life before she could talk about what happened.

The deaths of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, shocked her into realising that if she did not speak up others might suffer the same fate; others, she says, who are generally "good, good people". "Anything based on deceit can't grow into something benevolent. If there is deceit from the very beginning the seeds grow and conceal what is really behind them."

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