Monday, April 08, 2013

Lisa Layton

Laurence Laird Layton's obit, in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 5, 1999, by Michael Taylor, notes that his wife Lisa Layton, along with his son Larry, and daughter Deborah, had by 1978 emigrated and were residing at the Peoples Temple, in Jonestown, Guyana, (a second son and daughter remained nearby in California.) In May of that year, in a speedy turn about, Deborah, said to be "increasingly disturbed by Jones' paranoid ravings and brutal treatment of his flock, escaped and flew back to the United States. Her mother and brother stayed behind." In the coming months, Deborah played a key role agitating for a federal intervention in the affairs of Jonestown, a cause which led directly to Rep. Leo Ryan's visit there in November.

Meanwhile, her brother Larry remained a close confident of the sect's leader Jim Jones. On November 18, two days into Rep. Ryan's trip to Jonestown, it was Larry Layton who fired the opening salvos in an airport ambush of the Congressional entourage, which left Rep. Ryan and four others dead. Ostensibly, this assassination served as the casus belli for the Jonestown group to self-sacrifice over 900 of its members, although, somehow, Larry Layton escaped the sect's collective suicide. Ultimately however, he became the only participant in the killings of Ryan and the others to be prosecuted in the U.S., and he served 18 years of a life sentence in prison.

Laurence Laird Layton's obituary makes no mention of Karen Lea Tow Layton, said to be Larry Layton's pregnant wife, who suicided with the group. The Jonestown Memorial List, however, inconsistently references Karen Lea as only Larry Layton's "partner," while organizing her under the Layton name, it also gives her an a.k.a. as Karen Lea Tow for good measure. Like Larry, she held high-status roles, on the Planning Commission, and with a job in the Radio room.

In an odd bit of timing, the obituary lists Laurence Laird Layton's wife's death by natural causes as having occurred just ten days before the killing of Ryan and the massive group suicide:
Lisa Layton, already ill with cancer, died in early November 1978. Ten days later, on November 18, Jones and 912 of his followers committed mass suicide.
By "already ill with cancer" one can only infer the writer means to say that Lisa Layton knowingly emigrated to Guyana with the disease, which seems an odd choice. Even in the Guyanese capital city of Georgetown--a difficult journey away from Jonestown for someone in her condition--the medical care found would be far inferior to that home in California.

At Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, a web site co-managed by author and university professor of religion, Rebecca Elaine Moore, who lost two sisters in the cult's mass suicide, has amassed the most serious and extensive collection of research on the subject of the Jonestown tragedy. Ms. Moore, who has an academic specialty in matters relating to Jonestown, runs the effort with her husband, Fielding M. McGehee III,

One page relevant to Lisa Layton, Who Died in Jonestown Before 18 November 1978?, should speak to the original intent of the colonists, who endeavored, we're told, to establish a self-sustaining and permanent socialist community with all of life's attributes---from birthing chamber to final resting place, and the many filled bellies in between. has captured this page 16 times between November 2003, and March 2012, and it is of interest to watch how information is slowly accruing over time.

Two of her references to Lisa Layton display misinformation, if not disinformation, however. It is difficult for me to imagine, for instance, how even as the jungle retakes the site of an abandoned Jonestown cemetery, that ground so consecrated as a permanent resting spot wouldn't continue to hold some sacred spirit even if not marked in marble. I recall as a youth hiking in a Tennessee wilderness and coming upon a long abandoned cemetery, whose stones had become utterly integrated within a mature second-growth forest. Even in a case where softwood had grown up to partially encase a stone, the meaning, if not the important information--birth date, family and given name, the date on which death occurred--remained.

But in the records of lives that Ms. Moore seeks to assemble and preserve this is just the sort of information that seems to shift, or refuses for some reason to be pinned down. Moore acknowledges that these are " not insignificant events, either:" Those who departed naturally during the brief span of time Jonestown tried to establish itself included Jim Jones' own mother. Lisa Layton comes from the kind of seriously prominent background that ideally wants their name published in a newspaper only three times--when born, married, and deceased. Moore claims Lisa Layton died on an unspecified date in "October," or "about three weeks before Ryan's arrival," which as a percentage is one-hundred percent off.

In a community so tightly bound that 900 could commit to die together by volition of  their own hand, over 3,000 members still remained to pick up the pieces. But a certain shame seems to be afoot. While anonymity can be put to good spiritual use, here it seems designed for a diabolical purpose. John Judge claims that the bodies all died face down and that is evidence they were repositioned after death, but I think it is evidence of something else.

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