My sister Carolyn Layton lived in Bordeaux, France during the academic year of 1965-66 as part of the international study program through the University of California at Davis. There she met a young Frenchman named Alexandre, whom she planned to marry. When she wrote my parents, John and Barbara Moore, declaring her intent, she told Alexandre that she hoped she would have the courage to send the letter. She wrote:
He said “I’ll send it, and I’ll even shave to go to the post office and if you want I’ll play the harmonica while you finish it.” He is now humming “We Shall Overcome” for moral support.
More seriously, she expressed the hope that our parents would not be disappointed or upset. “This is certainly the most difficult decision of my life and the hardest.” A few months later, she resolved to return to California to finish school because she “decided that Alexandre is not the one for me.”
How different her life, and possibly the lives of hundreds of others, would have been had Carolyn married a Frenchman.
I recently came across about four dozen letters Carolyn had written our parents before her involvement in Peoples Temple. They included letters she wrote as a senior in high school, living apart from our family in 1963; from her years at U.C. Davis; from France; and from both before and after she joined Peoples Temple in northern California. What is remarkable about them is the consistent tone and style they had and – more significantly – how like the letters she wrote from Jonestown, which I collected for The Jonestown Letters (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), some of which appear on this site. They share the same chatty tone, the same descriptions of people she knows and events that occurred, and reveal the same interest in politics and international affairs. Little at the core appeared to have changed.
Yet I learned a number of things from Carolyn’s letters. After she finished her degree in International Relations, which emphasized political science, Carolyn wanted to pursue studies in philosophy. She expressed disappointment that Poli Sci courses at the University of Bordeaux tended to be historical rather than theoretical, since she was more interested in theory. She maintained an interest in communism, though she was able to be critical rather than doctrinaire. I also found the letter that had entered infamy in family lore: a five-page screed from our Aunt Mary to Carolyn, typed single-spaced, edge-to-edge, that railed against communists, students, civil rights workers, anti-war protestors, and everything else that my sister valued. Carolyn sent Aunt Mary’s letter to our parents, and even though it did not include her response to Mary, she told my parents:
I wrote and mailed a response to every major issue: communism, folk singers, race, the war in Viet Nam, and the U. of California… I guess one reason I was so mad is because, whether she knew it or not, every “rotten stump” she is describing is me and I’m proud of it. She and no one can destroy what I believe. In fact, she only solidifies it.
Carolyn’s political commitments turned into social activism when she joined Peoples Temple in 1968. Unlike the vast majority of those who became members, she signed on for political reasons. Although letters from Ukiah mention faith healings, letters from Jonestown discuss the dialectic, and her commitment to communism. Her activism masked an agnosticism, or perhaps atheism, that could be identified in letters from college.
Her steadfast loyalty to the cause of Peoples Temple – despite a lack of strong religious commitments – was evidence of what Steve Rose identified as a “Herculean conscience,” that is, “an overwhelming desire to do good” (Jesus and Jim Jones, New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979, p. 22). Rose says that the Herculean conscience:
recoils at the inequities in the world and is battered by the nuclear leaks, famine, torture, and reminders of individual madness.
While such a consciousness combats the destructive forces in the world, it may also turn paranoid, according to Rose, because it is not channeled or contained by an institution, whether political, religious, or social. This seems a fair description of many who were part of Peoples Temple, who wanted to do good and avoid evil – as Thomas Aquinas advised – but who lacked a structure of accountability outside the charisma of Temple leader Jim Jones. Thus, Carolyn and others could justify stealing documents, faking healings, lying about her whereabouts, or committing other unethical or illegal acts, because for them the ends justified the means. Carolyn could go from condemning the excesses of Soviet-style communism when she was in Bordeaux, to listening to Jim Jones praise Stalin and visiting the Soviet Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, to discussing a possible move to the U.S.S.R., because she believed in the rightness of the cause.
Focusing on Carolyn’s political perspectives provides only part of the picture, however, and her letters reveal what has long been known: her deep, romantic love for and attachment to Jim Jones. It was a shock when our family – my parents, my then-high-school-age sister Annie, and I – first learned of her relationship with Jones: she had secretly and quickly divorced her husband Larry Layton, and had taken up with a married man, a pastor at that! She justified the relationship by claiming that Jones’ wife Marceline was incapable of “relating to him sexually,” and that Marcie had been “brutally molested” as a child. She claimed that “Marcy and I have an amazingly close friendship in our own rights.” The reality of Carolyn’s love for Jim, however, seemed to obviate the need to rationalize what was basically an affair with a married man.
Carolyn could not understand our parents’ lack of approval of the relationship, at least not while she was living in Ukiah. A long letter, postmarked 11 March 1970, discussed her disappointment with the fact that John “couldn’t give me a simple statement that [Jim] was a man of character.” She was also hurt by Barbara’s exclusion of Jim in an off-hand reference to a party. She explained:
I guess I don’t feel you really know the misery I lived in before I met Jim. I searched and could never find a lover and a man of character that I found with him. I was many times suicidal, but very unable to share my despair with others.
She concluded by telling them of “the life-saving beauty that I have found,” and by asking John and Barbara to “say occasionally that you are happy for me.”
Another letter provides a self-analysis with Freudian overtones. “Although unintentional,” she wrote, “I believe an unhealthy situation existed in me with my love for Dad which created terrible guilt in me and the need to go from one man to another – never establishing lasting relationships. I felt because I didn’t deserve Dad, I didn’t deserve any good man. You have no idea of the suffering I have undergone until I met Jim.” She said that Jim sent her to a psychologist to examine her feelings, to make sure she was not transferring father-love to her lover. Her comments seem to ignore the fact that she had only a few relationships, and most of them were rather long-term.
Still other letters from Ukiah described the love developing between them. In one, she noted that their relationship “grows and grows, and our physical and intellectual communication becomes deeper when it is already perfect. They say ‘time changes all things,’ and for us it only makes our love more meaningful all the time.” I have never discussed my sex life with my parents, so it is odd to read Carolyn’s descriptions of bliss, fulfillment, and satisfaction. “Being together was paradise,” she exclaimed in one letter.
The letters defending her affair with Jim Jones ceased less than a year after they began, once it became clear that there was nothing to be done but to accept it or denounce it. John and Barbara chose acceptance, and thus maintained good relations with Carolyn. As a result, they frequently saw Jim as well as his three sons, Stephan, Jim Jr., and Lew. Carolyn considered the boys her family, and tried to develop rapport with them. This seems rather bizarre, considering that their first loyalty must have been to their father’s wife, their mother. It was probably inevitable that Carolyn should become pregnant by Jim, and give birth to another son for him. During Carolyn’s pregnancy, Barbara wanted to ask Jim if he would finally divorce Marcy, but John wisely told her to forget it. Marceline was “Mother” to the group, and as such had a special status that Carolyn could not usurp.
Both Marceline and Carolyn accrued power by virtue of their association with Jim Jones, though their influence was manifested in different ways. Marceline wielded moral authority, and was approachable in ways in which Jim was not: she was essentially the Virgin Mary to Jones’ God Almighty. You could talk to Marcy, and believe you were heard and that your message would be communicated to the higher-ups. Carolyn’s power, on the other hand, seemed less benign, less motherly and more official. Even though she seemed to have a much lower public profile than Marceline, she apparently exerted far more clout in day-to-day decision-making. Some have described a “cone of silence” that surrounded her, since casual remarks made in her presence were assumed to be reported directly to Jim.
I only have this information at second-hand, since I was not involved in Peoples Temple directly. But I can say that the reaction I get when people learn I am related to Carolyn differs a great deal from the reaction I get when people learn I am related to Annie: from a strained silence, to smiles and stories.
Mary Maaga wrote of the way women in Peoples Temple quickly advanced to leadership positions in the organization (Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998). Carolyn, as well as Maria Katsaris, Grace Stoen, Deborah Layton, Harriett Tropp, Linda Amos, Teri Buford, and a few others, progressed through the ranks by a combination of sex, ability, and ambition. Carolyn’s dominance in Peoples Temple corresponded to the depth of her personal commitment to Jim, and her political commitment to the cause.
In vain, however, have I listened for her voice on the audiotapes made by the Temple, and looked for her in documentaries and photos. Considering the amount of power she wielded, she is remarkably absent. In some respects, her power resided in her very absence, including from herself, in her total erasure as Carolyn and her substitute self as Jim’s closest aide. There are internal Temple documents, that reveal the depth of her involvement in all aspects of decision-making, including making plans for the deaths of 900 persons. Documents composed by my younger sister Annie show that she was part of that planning process as well.
I have said on a number of occasions that Jim Jones didn’t mix the poison on November 18; he didn’t place the order for potassium cyanide; he wasn’t involved in the logistics of preparation and planning. The deaths could not have happened without careful organization by a leadership group in Jonestown. Carolyn was certainly part of this group, and perhaps the most important person in it, aside from Jim. But she was not the only one. By sharing and encouraging Jim’s delusions, she was an enabler in a classic case of co-dependency. But I think that, ultimately, she was subsumed, just as other leaders were.
Imagine the power and the charisma of a person who can persuade you to accept his (or her) psychopathologies as your own! Jim Jones must have had tremendous magnetism to convince Carolyn and others that suicide was the only way out. And, of course, she incorporated those psychopathologies into her own worldview, and was responsible, in part, for the deaths of hundreds.
One encounters a funny, serious, insecure, loving young woman in the letters Carolyn wrote before her life in Peoples Temple. She retained some of that spirit when she relaxed at my parents’ home in Berkeley in the 1970s, before the move to Guyana. And it can be found in some of her letters from Jonestown, which are filled with enthusiasm for the community. For better and worse, however, she found her soul-mate in Jim Jones, and he found his in her. “He is the alpha and omega for me for all of eternity,” she wrote early in their romance. As it turns out, her words were more literally than figuratively true.
(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), and an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University.
(Rebecca is also the co-manager of this website. Her complete collection of writings which appear on this site are collected here.)