I’ve lived in the Bay Area almost all my life, yet I’m always finding out that there’s still so much I don’t know about where I live. That’s why I was excited to read David Talbot’s Season of the Witch which chronicles San Francisco from the Summer of Love to 1982 when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl. After reading the book, I am reminded of the lyric by Grateful Dead frontman – and Bay Area native – Jerry Garcia: “What a long strange trip it’s been.” Included in the trip of course, is Peoples Temple and Jim Jones in the 1970’s.
Talbot does an excellent job portraying San Francisco in the late sixties, how people rose up and created places for teenagers/young adults to go to, how the drug clinic in the Haight helped people get clean, and how Huckleberry House became the first runaway shelter in the country. It was also when a young, charismatic minister named Cecil Williams took over Glide Memorial Church. So it seemed a natural fit when Jim Jones – an idealistic minister who preached racial quality and social justice – brought the Temple to San Francisco in the early seventies and acquired a church on Fillmore Street for its services. However, as Talbot notes, it would soon take a darker turn.
For example, Talbot writes that Jim Jones Senior secured women for then-candidate George Moscone for sexual acts. Since Mayor Moscone died so violently, he has reached martyr/saint status, so it’s difficult to hear about his infidelity. As Talbot points out in the book, saying one thing and doing another is typical of San Francisco politics.
Talbot also tells about Harvey Milk’s ambivalent alliance with the Temple. Milk admitted to aides that he thought the Temple was “creepy.” Since this has been detailed before in A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres published last year, and Randy Shilts’ biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, this wasn’t a surprise, but further confirms the argument of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Talbot also touches on the fact that the deaths of Moscone and Milk so soon after the Jonestown tragedy meant there was no real investigation examining their alliances and connections with Peoples Temple.
Talbot spends two chapters on Jonestown, one on its last days, and the other on the immediate aftermath. Although he reveals nothing new in the first chapter, he does a wonderful job setting up the suspense of Congressman Ryan’s party coming, people defecting, the shootings on the airstrip, and finally Christine Miller standing up to Jim Jones. You know what the outcome is going to be, yet it’s still a shock that it happens.
Talbot also touches on the murder/suicides of Sharon Amos and her three children. However here is when Talbot falters: he claims a young man grabbed one of the Amos children and saved her. Sadly, this was not completely true. The girl in question was Stephanie Brown, a 10-year-year unrelated to Amos. While this mistake is a minor one, it does give the reader the false impression about what happened.
The aftermath chapter is heartbreaking, especially since it was woven in with the Moscone/Milk murders. Indeed, as Talbot notes, the events were so close together that some people thought at first the assassinations were the work of the rumored Temple hit squad. One story is illustrative of the chapter. Jim Jones, Jr. started attending memorial services for the Jonestown dead, but stopped after a grieving family member confronted him and asked “Why are you alive?” He replied “I don’t know.” The simple exchange shows how hard it was for Temple members to come back to grieving families and to be known as “crazy cultists.”
The month of November 1978 may have been the nadir in the City’s history. As Talbot writes so convincingly, it wasn’t until the 49ers’ championship season of 1981-1982 that the City began to recover from the dark days of 1978 and the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
The author provides updates in the lives of many people he writes about, like Patty Hearst and Cleve Jones, and notes the passing of many people who made the City memorable, like Herb Caen and Bill Graham. However, he does not provide a coda for Peoples Temple/Jonestown survivors. Many of them have found forgiveness and serenity after so many years, and it would’ve been nice to see it all come full circle.
As a whole, though, Season of the Witch is an excellent book. Talbot shows that time and again San Francisco is “the City that knows how”: when we do something different, the whole nation follows. Even at our darkest times, light finally comes in. It’s not easy, capturing a city’s spirit. Talbot does it, and he does it incredibly well.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is Irises. Her previous writings are collected here. She is also the author of the two recently-published collections: a book of essays, Take What You Got and Fly with It; and three short stories in I Woke Up In Love This Morning. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)