With three children and one of my closest friends living there, I visit San Francisco often. Walking its steep streets is a cardio workout for an aging heart and a journey back to a time when the city was the capital of an alternative America, where I first heard the Grateful Dead in the summer of 1966. David Talbot’s Season of the Witch tells San Francisco's story from the aromatic innocence of 1967’s “Summer of Love” through the AIDS epidemic that infected over half the city's gay population 20 years later, but which, Talbot argues, “also had a strange power to heal [as] acts of human grace, in the midst of unspeakable anguish, began to help close San Francisco’s deepest wounds” – scars from its harrowing years of bombings, murders, kidnappings and hatred.
I had forgotten many events that had seemed so vivid then, and I hadn’t realized how interconnected the light and darkness had been – never knew, for example, that Jim Jones, who forced 909 followers to drink Kool Aid laced with cyanide in a Guyana jungle, had not long before been a major political force, delivering money, votes and other, more personal favors to the city’s most progressive leaders, including George Moscone, Willie Brown and Harvey Milk – and murdering Congressman Leo Ryan, the one politician who responded to the cult members’ growing cries for help.
It’s a story of how easily we fall victim to Utopian dreams and of what strength we can summon in the face of tragedy.