When I first started teaching at my current school, one of the math teachers sent out an email inviting new staffers to be part of a Friday evening literary club. I thought this was really cool. I mean, who knew math teachers liked books? I don’t like math, I figured the hatred was generally mutual. There wasn’t any book mentioned in the email, just the name of a restaurant I didn’t know (I work nearly an hour away from where I live). When I went to ask a long time member of my department about it, she gave me this smile that made me feel a bit stupid. Turns out that literary club was teacher code for going out drinking on payday Fridays. Now, my school is not some sort of Big Brotheresque mini-state that has me checking everything is double plus good before I send out an email. It wasn’t the administration the club was formed to fool, but rather it was cover so that a student who might happen to see our email if they passed by our desks wouldn’t realize that their teachers were all getting soused down the road.
While I am still not sure whether or not math teachers like books, I do know that some of them are fun to get a margarita with on a Friday night. In honor of the camaraderie that brought us closer as a staff, I thought it would be fun to label my Friday posts, which will all be about the books I’m reading after the hallowed event, which sadly, doesn’t happen very often anymore.
I’ve been on a HUGE non-fiction kick ever since I started teaching an advanced English class which centered on teaching students to do close readings on non-fiction texts. Up until this point I’d taught about 90% fiction in my English classes. Sure, I’d throw in some excerpts from biographies and memoirs from time to time (mostly because they were in the lit anthology and I found them interesting), but I figured since the vast majority of what they read in every other class was boring ol’ non-fiction, I might as well be the bastion of imagination and creativity. I’d read some good non-fiction (Angela’s Ashes, Confederates in the Attic, Notes From a Small Island), but nearly all of it had been for a class or thrown at me by my best friend who worked in a book store. I never really ventured out of the fiction section on my own.
At the end of the year I was allotted a bit of money from the gifted funds to purchase some books for my classroom library. Knowing how hard it can be to read a book about a subject you don’t really care about, I tried to pick stories I thought would appeal to teenagers and still have some literary merit. So I ordered stories about murder, drugs, scandals and Bill Bryson (what can I say, he actually started my love of non-fiction).
Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton was one of the books I picked up. Since I don’t let my students read a book I haven’t read first (that way I’ll know when they are trying to BS their way through their assignments), I figured I’d better get started on it. I’d read another book from a Jonestown survivor when I was in college. It was called The Onliest One Alive. I read it in college because it was assigned to my boyfriend and I thought it sounded interesting. While it offered a very different perspective than Layton’s book as Catherine Hyacinth Thrash was elderly, African American, not one of Jones’ inner circle and actually in Jonestown the night of the mass suicide, but hid and therefore avoided the laced Flavor-Aid.
Layton’s novel, which explains how someone could get so sucked into the world of Jim Jones that they would not only give him all their money and move to Guyana with him, but help him break the law, snitch on their friends and family, intimidate and threaten those who left the “church,” as well as allow themselves to be raped by Jones (and then to stand publically and say they had begged for it), left me so sad. Not just for the cruelty the loyal suffered in Jonestown. Not just for the unthinkable grief that must befall a mother as she gives her trusting infant poison and watches him die in her arms. No, it was a deeper sadness. It is a sadness that as human beings there are those of us who are so lost and so unhappy that they fall prey to horrible monsters like Jones. It is a sorrow that comes from knowing thousands of people were so alone and so desperate for acceptance and love that they believed outrageous lies (like all men are truly homosexuals except Jones) in order to be a part of something. It also breaks my heart that anyone could treat his fellow man so poorly. I’m not just talking about Jones, but also about friends who reported on each other for no real reason. I’m thinking of children who placed boa constrictors around the throats of their parents and left ailing parents behind. I’m thinking of women who were raped by Jones and then allowed the same fate to befall their sisters. I’m thinking of mothers who slit their children’s throats because they were not in the compound to take the drink.
As I was reading Layton’s story, I kept shaking my head, wondering how on earth she could possibly have swallowed all the lies she was fed and not realized they were lie. I kept telling myself I was far too smart to fall for an organization like Jones’. While I do believe that is true, I don’t think Layton was stupid. I also had to remind myself that she was still a teenager when she found herself at a meeting of the People’s Temple. She was taken there by her brother and sister-in-law, family members she loved and trusted. She’d had such a troubled childhood she’d even been sent away, and when she met Jones, he told her how loved and special she was. He made her feel important and safe and valued. Then, I remembered my own adolescent struggles. While they were not as unsettling as Layton’s, I was overweight, had thick glasses and was a total teacher’s pet. I felt like the ugliest duckling in the world, especially next to some of my friends who were truly stunning. I thought about how easy it was for me to take any scrap a boy threw me that resembled love and thrive on it. While I didn’t date much, I definitely dated boys who did not treat me right and I let far too many toy with my heart all because I thought I didn’t deserve them. While my scars were never as serious as Layton’s and I never put myself or anyone I loved in a life threatening situation, suddenly, it became a bit easier to see how someone could fall into a monster’s trap. Especially one who seemed to be sainted.
Overall, I really enjoyed the read. While Layton is definitely a victim (as were most in the People’s Temple), she doesn’t try to wiggle out of events she was culpable for. She admits her guilt and wrong doing. Definitely worth the read.