HOLT UNCENSORED #135
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 7, 2000:
'SEDUCTIVE POISON' LETTERS
I'm hoping to sit down with Deborah Layton to see why her book about Jim Jones (wait before you think of bloated bodies) is becoming popular with book clubs now that it's out in paperback ("Seductive Poison"; 350 pages; $14; buy online at WordsWorth Books in Cambridge, Mass. at http://www.wordsworth.com ).
Certainly they (the book clubs) don't think about bloated bodies when they choose this book, but before we get to that, Deborah talks about an event and its meaning that will haunt me for some time.
It happened after she escaped from Jonestown in 1978 and went to work for a stockbroker in San Francisco. A few years into the job, she was handling the phones on the trading floor of an investment bank when one of the stocks her firm had recommended took a dive.
Traders shouted furiously at each other while stealing glances at the founder and head of Deborah's company, a charismatic genius who had built the firm from scratch. Admired for his courage on the trading floor, he was feared as well for his violent temper and paranoia.
A call came in from the firm's biggest client, furious ove the tanking stock. The founder started to take the call when one of the company's sales reps admitted he had made a serious mistake in the matter.
The founder exploded. He slammed the phone down and shouted a string of obscenities at the associate, throwing desk objects and a chair out of his way. The other traders and sales reps looked at the floor.
Debbie was stunned. "I thought, 'My God, I've seen all this before. It's like a cult. Here were traders who made six-figure salaries and bonuses, yet they were cowering. Here was a founder who felt he owned us, and he did in a way. Loyalty was viciously enforced. If you dared to take a job elsewhere, he made it so that nobody would speak to you again. They'd cut you off. They'd threaten to ruin you."
The connection to Jonestown for Deborah was suddely so obvious she couldn't believe she hadn't seen it before. "One reason people stay in cults is that they don't want to leave the group they've known and worked so closely with for years - it's their family. And if you can't be held by love, you'll be held by threats."
But here was perhaps the most cult-like thing about that day: "Even with everybody cringing at the founder's temper and feeling generally downcast about the effect of this very intense and competitive job on their health and self-esteem, if you asked them how they felt about their jobs that day, they'd all brighten right up and say, 'It's fantastic. I love it here. It's the American dream every day.'
"That is exactly what we used to tell reporters and police when they came around at People's Temple - or when, in Guyana, I would take people into the capital by the boatload so they could testify about wanting to change their citizenship."
Debbie, too, would have said she was grateful for the stockbroker job. "Jim Jones had trained me well. I was the perfect employee - malleable, hard-working, frightened. And I was beholden to the founder. In the midst of a divorce, I needed the salary to keep the house and raise my daughter."
So she stayed with the megalomaniacal boss, increasingly depressed by parallels to Jonestown. "That pop-psych program called 'est' was big at the time. I remember these wealthy millionaires taking est weekend courses. I thought, 'What's the difference? Here I am, keeping everything about me a secret, yet these men think it's okay to give tons of money to be bashed around in major confrontations.' "
The event on the trading floor was the trigger she needed to write "Seductive Poison" and declare herself publically as a Jonestown survivor. The stigma of being a "Kool Aid Girl," as the joke went at the time, the disgust at the media's endless photos of the bloated bodies and the universal hatred of Jim Jones made writing the book as painful as it was cathartic.
"Working for Peoples Temple was like being in an abusive relationship," she says now. Jim Jones, who in the begining seemed so Christlike, had transformed the lives of many "lost causes" - getting them off drugs, out of crime, off the streets; turning them to politics, to religion, to family. In this he was praised by the press and embraced by the leaders of his time - Ronald Reagan, Willie Brown, George Moscone and many, many others.
But even as we watch him turn into a master manipulator and tyrant, we can see why someone like Debbie, a troubled teenager in and out of drugs herself when she joined the People's Temple at her brother Larry's encouragement, would stay on well into her 20s. She would rise in the ranks here, too, placing millions of People's Temple dollars in secret bank accounts in Europe and South America before returning to Jonestown to find her "family" of 900+ starving. She would also become a victim of Jones' sexual abuse before planning her own break.
One reason book clubs are gravitating to "Seductive Poison" is that Deborah Layton brings a human face to this tragedy. We tend to think of Peoples Temple members as poor or uneducated , but Deborah's case is quite the reverse. Her grandparents were wealthy intellectuals in Hamburg who escaped the Holocaust with a few priceless possessions - etchings of Pablo Cassals and Albert Einstein; a sculpture by Klimsch, commissioned art and jewelry.
Her father was chief of the Chemical Warfare in the United States in the early '50s and had such a high security clearance that the FBI, questioning Deborah's grandmother, scared the Jewish immigrant so much that she committed suicide in 1952.
As a result, Deborah's mother, Lisa, closed herself off in a cocoon of secrecy for most of her stormy marriage. After the three older children left the house, a chill between mother and daughter was not to warm up until Lisa, too, joined the People's Temple with Debbie years later. One of the heartbreakers of this book is watching Debbie and her mother become loving allies (broken up periodically by Jones, of course) until Debbie escapes. Lisa dies in agonizing pain from cancer because Jones himself has used her medications for recreational use.
The big question for any book group must be why it was that Debbie alone, among nearly a thousand Jonestown residents, was the one who planned and executed an escape - and what a nail-biter it is, as she races from one murderous threat to another, missing planes and hiding out as Jones' enforcers attempt to find her.
She credits her father's love with giving her the courage to strike out on her own or die in the trying. But it is the hidden parallel of her story to that of other cults - the Branch Dividians especially - that makes her experience doubly powerful. Just as she sees a connection between her charismatic boss on the stock exchange and Jim Jones, so does she point out what is to her a propensity for Americans to create leaders we want too much to love.
The press lionizes those who seem to have that charismatic appeal - John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, for example, will live on despite the passage of time and disclosures of problematic behind-the-scenes behavior. In the business world, we see even today how people like Steve Case, Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others are given larger-than-life status.
It's not that the whole world slavishly gravitates to people who are pictured on the covers of popular magazines. It's rather that Debbie, a child who rediscovered her mother inside the People's Temple, and now lives as a mother of her own teenaged daughter, has returned to show us connections we sometimes can't or won't see.
"I think cults pervade our society," she says. " We don’t know about them because they front as self-help groups or organizations devoted to doing good. As a mother I think pictures of models on women's magazine covers have created a cult of conformity. On MTV it's almost soft porn - beautiful women gyrating around send a message to all the little boys that’s what girls should look like. It's deadly."
Perhaps that's the final question for the book clubs: Given what happened to Deborah Layton at Jonestown and in the United States after her escape, it's sometimes difficult to know where the "seductive poison" in American culture actually resides.
What a botch I made of my by-now three attempts to steer readers to the marvelous website of Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. My apologies to everyone who tried clicking over there for a visit. The correct address is http://www.politics-prose.com - and many thanks to the staff at P&P as well for their patience.
About the number of people who signed Tim O'Reilly's "Open Letter to Jeff Bezos," protesting Amazon.com's use of software patents as weapons to stop competitors: The number was 7,500 within 60 hours, but by the time the column was sent out, as many readers pointed out, the number had grown to 9,000.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In response to Rob Riddell's letter. I posted an event on NetRead and I think it could be a very valuable tool for small bookstores. We don't have a large advertising budget but do some very interesting events. With the help of my Random House rep we are having Terry Brooks come to our store. It is part of a larger event (4 authors total). I had some questions about using NetRead and they fixed the problem and e-mailed me back quickly. The people are great. I saw our event at Yahoo! local events http://localevents.yahoo.com ). It should also show up in the Portland paper next week. The event is the 11th so we shall see if this helps bring in people. Even if it doesn't I think this is a good service for all us 'little guys'. So my advice is, if you do events at your store, check NetRead out.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Thank goodness for Tim O'Reilly and his nation of 7500 protesting supporters! I wish, with all of my being that he and his cohorts will bring an end to the kingpin Evil of all Evils, Amazon.com (perhaps, better referred to as Amazon.CON) . . . then, and unfortunately ONLY then, will Holt Uncensored abandon the weekly mudslinging, and resume offering its readers some truly useful information.
Holt responds: Hey! Let's not forget it's the READER who is getting mud-bespattered with every monopolistic - oh, never mind.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just read today's column and I must reply to the two letters in regard to my letter about selling on Ebay.
John Cunningham states that selling bound galleys or proofs cheats the authors out of rightfully earned royalties or sales. As I've mentioned, 99% of the market for these items consists of collectors--people who already have bought the hardcover, the mass market, the foreign editions, etc--who want to add another state of the book to their collections. Does John feel that the sale of used books (the garden variety you find in used book stores, Goodwills, etc) should include a royalty payment to the author as well? As you can see, this would get out of hand very quickly. Proofs are distributed by the publisher solely for the purpose of exciting interest in an upcoming book. Once that purpose has been accomplished, the proofs then become artifacts of the publishing process.
To Erwin Helms, who received a proof copy of a book from Amazon: ooops! I truly assume this was a mistake on Amazon's part (though far be it for me to mount a defense for them). Publishers send huge piles of proofs to the major chains and outlets, like B&N, Amazon, & Borders in the hopes that someone there will pick one up, read it, and shout out, "My God, this is the best thing I've ever read. Let's make this one work." And in truth, this occasionally happens. I would bet that someone saw a proof lying around and threw it into the inventory. This kind of circumstance is exactly why publishers print "Not for Sale" on the front of proofs.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank you for bringing Molly Ivins' new book, "Shrub," to my attention. I bought it, read it and would like to disagree with any reviewer who claims this book is screamingly funny. While it has Molly Ivins' characteristic colorful language, on the whole this book is rather alarming. I hope people who would consider voting for (or against) George W. Bush will read it.
If you live in Texas, this book is not funny, but sobering in its descriptions of Texas government and political choices that have been made at the expense of air & water quality, school funding, criminal justice, and the economic welfare of Texans.
The subject matter is heavy, but the writing style gets right to the point. I particularly like the footnote, in which Ivins refers to the behavior of the Austin press, which supported Bush in the gubernatorial race in the hopes that they would become Washington pundits when he became president . .
San Antonio Texas
Holt adds: It also turns out that George W. Bush has a penchant for malapropisms and grammatical tangles that equals the great Dan Quayle's. At http://www.tompaine.com , refreshing and often eye-opening "journal of opinion" on the Internet, the staff has been tracking such comments from Dubya as this memorable declaration: "There is madmen in the world, and there are terror." Or how about this statement made to David Letterman, who was recovering from heart surgery: "I'm a uniter not a divider. That means when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches as opposed to opening it up."
Editor's Note: Thanks to the many readers who have sent me the letter from Senator Barbara Boxer to constituents who have protested her stance on sales taxes on the Internet. It reads as follows:
I am writing to lay out my position on Internet sales taxes.
I am against new sales taxes on the Internet. I am not opposed to the current law which permits states to tax sales from Internet merchants within the state as they may currently do with purchases from brick and mortar stores.
For example, if I purchased goods over the Internet from a California business, then sales taxes would apply. If, on the other hand, I purchased goods over the Internet from a business outside of California, then no sales taxes would be paid. This is the system that currently prevails.
So, in summary, there are three broadly defined positions:
1 Some believe that there should be no taxes whatsoever on
Internet sales regardless of where the business is located.
2. Some believe the existing system should remain in place with states being permitted to tax Internet transactions for businesses located within the state.
3. Some believe that all Internet sales should be taxed, regardless of where a business is located.
My position is consistent with category two.
Thank you for the time you have taken to convey your thoughts to me on this issue.
United States Senator
Holt continues: This is the kind of frankly namby-pamby and reductive approach many politicians are beginning to take, so I thought I'd ask booksellers currently holding meetings with their state Board of Equalization on enforcement of sales tax laws for their opinion. Here are two responses:
Hut Landon, Northern California Independent Booksellers Association:
"Senator Boxer has not changed her position; she has merely added that she is in favor of lawful collection of sales tax within the state. While we are heartened that she claims to support existing laws, we are disappointed that she offers no position on the issue of nexus that is so crucial to the debate.
"We maintain that Internet companies with nexus in the state are ignoring the state's tax code law and that the Board of Equalization is shirking its responsibility by not enforcing that law. She mentions none of this in her new statement .
"President Clinton has spoken thoughtfully and insightfully about the problem of e-commerce resulting in lost sales tax revenue, most recently to the nation's governors earlier this week. Sen. Boxer has not addressed this issue squarely and remains aligned with the likes of John McCain on a subject of vital importance to local communities."
Andy Ross, Cody's Books:
"I also received a copy of Boxer's "clarification" of her original position. There are several points worth making. First of all, her new position is somewhat improved. But not much. She is now advocating the status quo. Sales tax on intrastate commerce. No sales tax on interstate commerce. Her previous position was a permanent ban on all Internet commerce, a position that is incomprehensible philosophically and practically.
"The new position seems to be without any explanation as to why this is the best policy. Truthfully, I cannot think of any cogent justification for such a position. But she makes no effort to explain herself.
"More important, it is interesting to note that her first position was heavily promoted. She issued press releases to all the media and posted her position prominently on her website. The revision has not been accompanied by a press release; it is not on her website; it is only a letter to some few people who protested her position. It seems that she is treating her revision as an embarrassing secret. So publicly, we must assume that her first position is still in effect.
"It is also interesting that her new position isn't really much better than the first. It continues to have the weakness of justifying discrimination against community based businesses. The fact that there is no policy justification seems to indicate that Boxer hasn't really thought this issue out. She is just responding to -- I don't know what. (political pressure from Silicon Valley?)
"What is most puzzling to me is that the Senator from California is supporting a position in which a favored status is given to non-California businesses competing against California businesses. Furthermore, since California is the largest market in America, her new position will induce ecommerce businesses to leave California and open offices and warehouses outside of California, so that they can sell tax-free into California. That is precisely what Amazon.com has done. This is a policy that will not help Californians.
"She has not addressed any of the objections to her policy, but the most telling objection is that the California Legislative Analyst's office predicts that the sales taxes lost to ecommerce will reach 1 billion dollars in 2003. That's enough money to increase school spending by $160 per student or to provide medical insurance to all children in California who are now uncovered. Those are values which Boxer espouses and values she has betrayed by her position.
"It would have made more sense for Boxer to support the position of President Clinton and the administration. This week our very cautious president has resoundingly endorsed the principle that states should be able to collect sales tax on all remote internet transactions. Instead, Boxer has adopted an illogical position more in keeping with Trent Lott and the Republican leadership than that of her own party.
"Her new position shows lack of thought and, quite frankly, lack of character."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While reading your Newsletter #124, I couldn't help writing a response to the phase, "I love my independent bookstore because ..." immediately. I thought I'd share with you the letter I mailed to Peanut Butter and Jelly Press in Newton, Massachusetts:
I love my independent bookstore because ...
... when I walk in, I am greeted with a friendly face.
... the owner knows me, and I know him.
... the fireplace located in the center of the store not only warms my bones, it also warms my heart.
... my children love the small, wooden table and chairs where they can sit and read to their heart's content.
... the store can special-order any book in print and get it within three business days.
... the children's section there carries the books that I read when I was a child.
... the store always participates in the local merchant activities throughout the year.
... the music in the store is soothing and not too loud.
... the antique furniture in the store reminds me that the printed word will always be there for me.
... the atmosphere reminds me to slow down my fast-paced life and get back to what is important in life.
... for 72 years, the store has carried not just best-selling titles from best-selling authors and best-selling publishers -- it carried thought-provoking titles from lesser-known authors and smaller, independent publishers.
... the staff stocks books written by local authors when the larger chain stores would not.
... the store answers the telephone during Christmas season.
... it's located in a building that was built in 1850.
And after they close their doors May 31, 2000, I'll always have the memories that the shop provided me: the Christmas Walks when they gave out free hot apple cider and free homemade cookies, the Fall Festivals with local authors doing book signings, a silhouette artist doing her magic, beautiful flowers planted in front of the building bursting with color throughout the year, and all the other things that made the shop such a wonderful place to be.
Holt responds: I was happily reading your letter until I saw that the store you are writing about is closing in May, is that correct? Can you tell us what store it is and where it's located? After 72 years, this must be a heartbreaker.
Al Brown replies:
Yes, sadly, our store will have to close its doors on May 31, 2000 (if not sooner). The name is Robin's Bookshop, and it has been in business since October 1, 1927.
Ironically, when we bought the store 3 years ago, we knew that there was a Borders coming to town; it opened 70 years to the date after Robin's was opened - October 1, 1997.
We bought the store because we heard it was going to go out of business in 1997. We bought it to save it. We bought it to try to preserve some of the fabric of our tiny town (Geneva IL is just west of Chicago about 50 miles). Even though we knew that Borders was coming, we thought that the people in this town would be supportive of our shop. This was not the case.
Now, we find out the following: Borders will erect another store 3 miles East of us to match up with the store that is 3 miles West of us. They, too, are scheduled to open October 1, 2000.
Also, there is now speculation that we are getting a Barnes and Noble store right down the street from us (about 1 block south). This is not definite, but seems more than likely. The developer is courting large, national retailers -- four of them -- to be in this complex he is trying to put together. When Borders broke ground 3 years ago, B&N pulled out of their option near that area West of here. At the time, there was a Crown out there as well, and Barnes & Noble figured they all would not make it. Since then, Crown pulled the plug on one of their nicer stores.
It's very sad. And people will cry when the word hits the street. Right now, we are trying to sell down the adult inventory at cost. But that's not even working. These same people who cry are the same ones that we see once a year (if that!). This business had been operating longer than all but one in this town - the other being since 1922. The store is located in the oldest building doing retail in this town -- completed in 1850.
People will miss the fireplace in the winter. They will miss the great children's section we have in the back half of the store. They will miss the small kindergarten table and chairs that date to the 1930s that the children sit at to read to their hearts' content. They will miss the small,children's antique rocking chairs, too.
They will miss the service we provided -- the personal service. The service that gets them books in two days, rather than in two weeks, which is what Borders will tell you when you special order a title there. The personal service that allows me to say, "Hello, Ruthie!" whenever Mrs. Glidden walks in the rear door (where our regulars come in). She is 85 years old, cannot drive a car and lives about two blocks away. She will be forced to stop buying books, or she will have to get a ride to the larger stores. She's been coming here for 72 years, because she was born and raised in this town.
Cathy Overton, who started a children's book club when she was 9 years old, will have to go to the other bookstores, too. She started that book club with Robin's help, and Robin paid her 10 cents a day.
People will miss us, but more likely, they will come like hungry wolves, making offers for the sign that's been hanging outside for over 70 years. They will be making offers for the signed print of this historic building that hangs above the fireplace. They will be making offers for the antique furniture that can be found in every room of the bookshop. They will even want the antique book press and the antique bindery piece dated May 7, 1907.
If I might add in a bit of my own two cents, Pat, this "franchising of America" ... NO ... "the world," is quite disturbing. Every town is going to look the same, feel the same, taste the same, wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, and, yes, read the same books that publishers, advertisers and retailers (that get subsidies from the other two) shove down our throats. Who will suffer? The American public, of course, but also the small publisher. The small author.
Who will carry the local author's poetry book after Robin's is gone? Borders? Barnes & Noble? Be real! This tiny town has been well-known in the past for its unique charm and character. People are moving here because of those qualities. Yet, after they move here, they gravitate to those stores that they had where they came from. And what will the result be? The little guys go. The big guys stay. Then those folks wake up in 15 years and ask, "What happened to our little town?"