Carolyn Layton: Jonestown’s “American Gothic”

Jonestown Organizational chart
Jonestown Organizational chart

I met Carolyn Layton in March 1970 when I first attended Peoples Temple Christian Church in Redwood Valley, California. She was slim, with light brown hair, always pulled back in a clip. I never saw her with her hair hanging freely. She was pleasant enough when I approached her, but never initiated a conversation. Occasionally, I would see her smile but her usual expression was more detached, with her mind on something somewhere else. Just like she didn’t let her hair free, she seemed tight and not about to let herself flow freely.

Carolyn reminded me of the woman in the American Gothic painting by Grant Wood. Some of the early members of Peoples Temple had that same aura about them, that grim Pentecostal or hard-driven essence. Many of the members I met that March were from Indiana and had come from the Midwestern plains, and in that sense, she fit right in.

I was around Carolyn in many different settings for the next eight years, but never got to know her much better than those early impressions. From a distance, I saw her interact with others in Jim’s innermost circle, and with Jim and his children. And as I watched her, I found out more about her. She had been married to Larry Layton and moved with him to Potter Valley. They joined Peoples Temple together, but separated soon afterwards. She soon became Jim’s confidant and was close to him almost all of the time. She still rarely smiled and was never frivolous, but she seemed very much a part of the organization surrounding Jim. I didn’t find out until twenty years after the tragedy in Jonestown that Carolyn had been Jim’s longtime mistress. She seemed dedicated to his wishes, but I never knew exactly what she did. She looked as exhausted as we all did, but more solitary. I never saw her with one best friend, and she never seemed relaxed with any of Jim’s other secretaries. Her closest and most obvious bond was with Jim.

The exception to her solitude was her relationship with her sister, Annie Moore, who moved into the Temple out of high school. Annie had an infectious exuberance and engaged everyone around her at all times. She wasn’t showy or phony at all – just delighted with her life and wonderfully inclusive. Annie was smart and artistic and brought out the humor and warmth in every gathering. She also brought out the best in Carolyn.

In the mid-1970’s, I did see Carolyn unwind a bit around Mike Prokes. Much of that was probably due to Mike, because he was determined, engaging, and curious.

Carolyn seemed to be most comfortable when she was on a “mission,” a term used by the secretaries when they were working on one of Jim’s mystery instructions. For those of us on the outside of Jim’s circle, the responsibilities of the secretaries were blurry and mysterious. Still, some of the other secretaries were much easier to get to know, and had their own distinct personalities. Sharon, Sandy, Karen, Maria, and Terri were approachable and entertaining in their peculiarities. As with Carolyn, though, there was never any question about where their loyalties lay, as they would jump to accommodate Jim’s wishes without hesitation.

Carolyn disappeared for several months in late 1974. Jim told us first that she had been on a “mission” to help in some emergency, and later that she was serving time in prison in Mexico. When she came back, she had a small baby, Kimo. She looked the same, but seemed happier and more content. I thought she was very pleased to be back home. There was never any discussion about how she got pregnant, but we were left to assume that she was raped in prison. It was another subject that was never discussed publicly. She returned to her role as Jim’s right-hand assistant. She looked official, but remained in Jim’s shadow.

We started the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in late 1974, and put most of our resources into it over the next few years. In March 1977, I joined roughly 50 others in Guyana. About eight of us stayed in Georgetown, with 40 in Jonestown working in construction and planning. By November 1978, there were 1,000 Temple members living in Guyana. On November 18, 1978, the day 918 of us died, there were nearly seventy were in the Georgetown house, and two dozen others scattered from other places in Guyana, to Venezuela, to a boat on the Caribbean.

Beginning in the summer of 1977, Jim spent almost all of his time in Jonestown. The settlement was about 24 hours by boat from Georgetown, and that’s how most of us traveled back and forth between Jonestown and the capital. Jim was in communication with the outside world only via ham radio, through which he could listen to the news and remain in contact with our members in California through coded messages.

But there was no check on his paranoia. There was no ego in the Temple strong enough to take him on, no one to redirect him. He became more and more mentally ill, and started taking drugs for real and imaginary ailments. During the daytime, he would launch public harangues over the loud speakers. In the evening meetings, he became more and more threatened by other points of view. He took any criticism or desire to leave the community as a direct assault. He assumed that he was the center of everyone’s world. Everything was personal.

The secretaries knew of Jim’s imbalance and his obsessions early on. As early as Redwood Valley, Jim had behaved atrociously in his relationships with Marceline as well as with Carolyn, but it was kept secret from the rest of us. And since the secrets were so closely held, it was impossible for the rest of us to see the danger he posed. Unbelievably, we survivors are still learning astounding things that went on with Jim!

I am not sure at exactly what point Jim lost total control. I do not know when the secretaries who surrounded him, shielded him, and got him his drugs, took over totally. I believe that for at least the last year, Jim was only the intermittent leader. His staff propped him up and made him and the rest of us think he was the manager and leader. It was possible to pretend that he was in charge and making good decisions because his staff banded together to cover up the truth.

But it took its toll. Mayhem and suspicion reigned in Jim’s inner circle. Two members in the top echelon opted out and left. Others became caught up in his insanity, especially doctors and nurses. In that insanity, Jim had decided death for everyone was better than any of the alternatives: trying to keep Jonestown going; returning to the racist, capitalist society in the US which we had once fled; or splitting up Jonestown’s population, with some – including him – going to Cuba.

About this time, Jim’s mental illness and physical disability became more apparent to the community. There was some movement to install a triumvirate of new leadership, with Jim relegated to the background, no longer the sole or even primary decision-maker. Had the secretaries supported that plan, possibly the deaths would have been averted.

So what happened with his secretaries? And where was Carolyn? Over the years, she had become Jim’s most trusted companion. She was highly intelligent and she was tough. She came from a great family. She had her younger sister with her and a new son. What happened?

In a memo to Jim entitled “Analysis of Future Prospects,” likely written in late 1978, Carolyn speaks of the necessity for Jim to retain custody of John Victor Stoen – thereby revealing how far she has succumbed to Jim’s obsession with John – and then lays out the alternatives she probably knew he would reject. Her final point is how to manage the “final stand” of poisoning everyone.

As the video of Congressman Ryan’s visit to Jonestown shows, Jim was incoherent and rambling. He was clearly under the influence of drugs. Who could he count on to carry out his plan as he had orchestrated it? Early on, he had been a hands-on manager and undoubtedly had detailed instructions about how to lead the final day. But by November 1978, he was incapable of implementing the plan. He had to rely on his secretaries. He had to rely – among others – on Carolyn.

After thirty years of my own research and my conversations with other survivors, I have come to the conclusion that those closest to him were the ones who followed his deranged instructions and set the stage for the deaths in Jonestown. He was no longer competent to pull it off, but he managed to get others to do it. Were we all crazed? Were some more crazed than others? Were some pre-disposed to listen and remain loyal to a madman? Were some more culpable than others?

I know Jim Jones was a genius because I watched him over the years in so many settings – speaking of character, answering critics, leading us to a Promised Land here on earth. He carried us a long way. But, from early on, he left clues about his damaged core. His secretaries, with Carolyn at the helm, never strayed or questioned his thinking. They followed him to the very end. He could never have brought down the whole community without them, the ones who knew him the best, the ones who saw him with all his faults.

Carolyn was a person who just carried the label “sane” as she moved around. She was never wild, crazed, unbalanced. She was smart and articulate, and had a lot going for her and started out searching – just like you or me – for a good life in the most altruistic sense.  But she was corrupted by Jim’s ego and manipulations. Jim’s need for escalating control over his flock was manifested in his total control of his group of secretaries. The amazing and scary part of that was that the secretaries were indeed unique and mostly idealistic personalities, but he somehow gained control. In the end, they did much more than just follow instructions of a loving leader. They knew him to be a madman, and they took over when he was unable to take the last steps of the plan. And they were the “sane” ones.

The Emperor had no clothes, but he had taught us not to notice. Those closest to him should have had the greatest perspective and the loudest voices to go with the greatest access. I have to wonder if at the end, they even knew that anything – everything – had gone so horrifyingly wrong.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)