Carolyn Layton was a mother too

I recently transcribed the Analysis of Future Prospects, a memo that Carolyn Layton wrote to Jim Jones in late summer 1978, for the Primary Resources section of the site. Even before I began, I had already read about her and heard about the “zone of silence” that surrounded her in Jonestown because members were afraid that she would pass anything they said on to Jim Jones, how she put the Cause before everything else, and how she was a “hardliner” within the organization. A superficial reading of the memo could reinforce that perception: the author seems like a cold administrator who did whatever needed to be done without asking too many questions and with a minimum amount of fuss. By the time I finished the text, however, I got a feeling that there is more to the story of Carolyn Layton.

The language of the memo is very matter of fact. It lists various solutions to the predicament Jonestown is in and weighs them against each other. In the same tone, it discusses how the death of the community can be planned for. This is very much in keeping with the usual perception of Carolyn Layton: dispassionate about the death of everyone in the community, including herself.

As the text draws to a close, though, there is a slight shift, an indication that the matter is not so cut and dried. Carolyn makes an almost casual suggestion that she does not believe Jim Jones will embrace, but nevertheless she tries pitching it again: “One alternative you have never seemed to seriously consider is you and the children going to Cuba.” What that sentence tells us is that Jim and Carolyn must have talked about it before, and that Jim dismissed it. But she’s not ready to give up on it yet. In spite of the impression we get from the literature and other primary sources, Carolyn does seem to care what happens to her son Kimo Prokes and to John Victor Stoen, and she would rather have them live away from her in a remote country than to allow them to die.

Moreover, Carolyn cares about what happens to the community as a whole, because she knows that if Jim Jones is no longer in Jonestown, the pressure on the community (and the Guyanese government) will decrease and there will be no need for a final stand: “if you were not the focal point here, perhaps government agencies would stop honing in on the project here and some heat would be taken off the government here.” If Carolyn can get Jim to leave Jonestown, she may yet be able to prevent the death of the community. The only way to bring that about is to construct a scenario in which he will not lose face in the eyes of the outside world, the community or himself. We know from other sources – Q 042, the tape made during the final hours of Jonestown, is a good example – that Jim Jones puts great emphasis on his willingness to stand by his community through thick and thin. Carolyn’s suggestion of sending the children with Jim Jones – contrasted with other ideas such as returning to the States or allowing unhappy residents to leave – understands that need for Jim to present himself in the best possible light. His act of leaving the community could be construed as Jim Jones sacrificing himself for his community. More than that, the destination of Cuba represents the opportunity for a much longed-for victory over the Concerned Relatives and the perceived worst enemies of the organization, Grace and Tim Stoen, because it would be almost impossible for them to retrieve John Victor from the communist nation. What Carolyn offers with her seemingly casual suggestion is a loophole that Jim can use and still keep his promises to the community and his self image intact.

The fact that the suggestion does not come until the very end of the memo – after all of the other options have been discussed and after Carolyn has declared her willingness to die herself – should not be interpreted as a sign that she is not serious about the idea. Quite the opposite. She knows that there is a possibility that her suggestion will be seen as a treacherous and selfish attempt to save her own life and that of her child.

She therefore carefully words the suggestion in a casual way as if it were truly an afterthought, instead of an outline of a plan for the community to survive. There is nothing to lose by following her suggestion, she says, even as she acknowledges the negative effects that will follow from Jim’s departure: “I know that the order in this place would go to hell without you, but it may go to hell anyway if the agencies close in and the government capitulates.” Once again, in my opinion, she is showing him how his departure is a sacrifice – his sacrifice – in order for Jonestown to go on.

It is a sacrifice for her as well. She makes sure to point out that living away from her son, Kimo, would be “a hell of a life” but that she will be willing to bear it, not for herself, but for the children, because as she says “at least I suppose the little guys would have a chance.” A little later in the text she again emphasizes that she does not make the suggestion for her own benefit when she concludes that she “was just trying to think of a way the little boys could have a dad for a while” and that she “would rather be dead than have this kind of separation” but that she “would do it for the lives of the little guys if there is any possibility that it might work.”

Rather than reinforce the view of Carolyn as a cold administrator who drove the community over the edge, then, the memo challenges it. Here Carolyn-the-mother speaks through Carolyn-the-administrator as she tries to influence Jim Jones and shift the weight from dying to living. I do not think that Carolyn is working in any conscious strategic or subversive way, but rather that she naturally and unconsciously balances her desire to save her son and the community with the mode of speaking and negotiating prevalent in Jonestown at the time. Even consciously thinking about a suggestion that would favour one child over another child in the community would be anathema, let alone articulating it. This of course does not clear Carolyn of her share of responsibility for the events on 18 November, but rather it is an indication that she, at least at this point in time, was weighing her options. Carolyn did care.

In the end her fierce loyalty to Jim Jones and the Cause triumphed, and when the decision was made, she did what she thought she had to do and saved her son from a life without Jim Jones in the most tragic way. Carolyn Layton was not just an administrator, she was a mother too.

(Rikke Wettendorff is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles on this site is here. She may be reached at Rikke@Wettendorff.Net.)