Jonestown Heroes

by Philip G. Zimbardo

Richard Clark
Photos Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

Debbie Layton and Richard Clark were survivors among the 918 Americans citizens who died in the mass suicides and murders that took place in Guyana on November 18, 1978. Debbie came from a relatively affluent, educated Caucasian family in Oakland, California. Richard came to San Francisco from his humble African-American origins in Mississippi and earned his living pressing clothes in a Los Angeles laundry before heading off for the jungles of Guyana as an enthusiastic believer in Jim Jones’ utopian vision. They both became my personal friends when they arrived in the Bay Area after having escaped the horrors of the Jonestown nightmare. Both qualify as heroes in different ways, Debbie as a whistleblower and Richard as a Good Samaritan.

Debbie joined Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple congregation as an 18-year-old. She was a loyal follower for many years and eventually became the Temple’s finance secretary. As such, she was entrusted with moving millions of dollars out of Jonestown to deposits in secret Swiss bank accounts. Her mother Lisa and brother Larry were also Temple members. But over time she realized that Jonestown was more like a concentration camp than the promised utopia where racial harmony and a sustainable lifestyle would prevail. Nearly a thousand faithful members were subjected to hard labor, semi-starvation, and physical and sexual abuse. Armed guards surrounded them and spies infiltrated their lives. Jones even forced them to practice regular suicide drills, called “White Nights,” that frightened Debbie into understanding that he was actually preparing them for a mass suicide.

At great peril, Debbie decided to flee Jonestown and bring the message of its potential destructive power to concerned relatives and to the government. She could not even alert her sick mother to her escape plan for fear that her emotional reaction that might tip off Jones. After executing a complex set of maneuvers, Debbie did escape and immediately did all she could to alert authorities of the abusive conditions at Jonestown and to warn them of what she believed was imminent tragedy.

In June 1978, she signed an affidavit to the U. S. Government warning of a potential mass suicide. Its 37 detailed points began: “RE. The Threat And Possibility Of Mass Suicide By Members Of The People’s Temple. I, Deborah Layton Blakey, declare the following under penalty of perjury: The purpose of this affidavit is to call to the attention of the United States government the existence of a situation which threatens the lives of United States citizens living in Jonestown, Guyana.”

Six months later, her Cassandra-like prediction was eerily validated. Sadly, her pleas for aid were met with the skepticism of government officials who refused to accept that such a bizarre tale could be true. However, some concerned relatives did believe her and encouraged California Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate. Reporters, a television cameraman, and some relatives accompanied Ryan on his visit. About to return home with a positive evaluation of what he had been duped into believing were ideal living conditions, Ryan offered his protection to several families who took the opportunity to defect. But it was too late. Jones, by now in a very paranoid condition, believed the defectors would reveal the truth about Jonestown to the outside world. He had the congressman and some of his entourage murdered, and then arranged for a fruit drink laced with cyanide to be administered to his weary followers. His infamous last hour speech is available on line at the Jonestown website.[1]

Debbie Layton has written an eloquent account of how she and so many others were trapped by the persuasive lures of this diabolical preacher man. Jim Jones’ Lucifer-like transformation from benevolent religious minister to angel of death unfolds chillingly in her book, Seductive Poison.[2] I have argued elsewhere that there are remarkable parallels between the mind control tactics used by Jones and those depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, that might make the Jonestown phenomenon a field experiment of the most extreme mind control imaginable – and perhaps even sponsored by the CIA. [3]

I helped counsel Richard Clark and his girlfriend, Diane Louie, after they returned to San Francisco, having escaped the mass suicide. Richard was a simple, pragmatic man, a slow speaking but sensitive observer of people and places. He said that the moment he got to Jonestown, he could detect that something was seriously wrong. No one was smiling in the Promised Land. Everyone was hungry in the supposed land of plenty. People whispered and never laughed. Work not only came before play, but also never left time for play. Jones’ voice boomed over the compound day and night, in person or on tape. Couples were segregated into different barracks, and sex, even among married couples, was forbidden without Jones’ approval. No one could leave because there was no way out from the midst of a jungle in a foreign land thousands of miles from home, and nothing they could take with them even if they did escape. The leadership had made sure that personal possessions and passports were confiscated the moment anyone new arrived in Jonestown. Richard immediately recognized a violation of expectation going on, between the promises of a socialist utopia and the reality of an authoritarian concentration camp.

Richard Clark hatched a plan. He volunteered for a job that no one wanted in the “piggery” in an isolated part of the sprawling compound. The place was ideal for him to escape Jones’ mind-numbing rhetoric, and to seek out a path through the jungle to freedom that he explored further day by day. Once he had slowly and carefully laid out his escape, he told Diane about it and said that when the time was ripe, they would flee together. In defiance of Jones’ extensive spy system, Richard made the decidedly risky decision to tell members of a few families about the planned escape.

On the morning of Saturday, November 18, Jones ordered everyone to take the day off in celebration of Congressman Ryan’s return to America with the message about the good works being accomplished in this agricultural socialist utopia. That was Richard’s exit cue. He assembled his party of nine – the Evans family of Julius and wife Sandra and their three children; Leslie Wilson-Wagner and her son Jakari; Diane Louie; and himself – and pretending they were off on a picnic, he led them past the armed guards through the jungle. By the time they reached safety at the town of Matthews Ridge 30 miles away, every one of their friends and other family members was dead. He was like a black Moses leading some of his people out of Hell.

Richard Clark died recently of natural causes, knowing that he made the right decision to trust his intuition, street smarts, and his “discrepancy detectors.” But most of all, he was pleased that he had saved the lives of those who followed him, an ordinary hero, out of the heart of darkness.

(Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo is a professor emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. This essay is extended from a section of his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007. Also see his website: http://www.LuciferEffect.com. He may be reached at drzimbardo@gmail.com.)

Notes


[1] Jim Jones’ final speech, November 18, 1978 is available on this site.

[2] Layton D. (1998). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown survivor’s Story of life and death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Doubleday. See also her website.

[3] Zimbardo, P.G. (2005). “Fictional concepts become operational realities in Jim Jones’ jungle experiment.” In On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. A. Gleason, J. Goldsmith, & M. Nussbaum (Eds.), pp.127-154. Princeton: Princeton University Press. See also  Sullivan, D., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1979, March 9). “Jonestown survivors tell their story.” Los Angeles Times, View section, Part 4, pp. 1, 10-12.

Last modified on February 22nd, 2014.
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