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Book review: David Talbot's Season of the Witch 

San Francisco's crucible years

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance In The City of Love by David Talbot (Free Press, 406 pages, plus notes, $28).

As America experienced one wrenching change after another from the mid-'60s through the early '80s, no city embodied those changes, nor suffered more furor and chaos from them, than San Francisco. It was a period when the city's old Irish-Italian Catholic leadership gave way to the politically progressive coalitions that run, and define, the city today. Resistance to the changes was high, and the societal fault lines of the era became a chasm out of which all manner of craziness and violent frustrations arose.

Author David Talbot, who grew up in San Francisco and went on to found Salon.com, has written an account of those years from the perspective of what it was like to live there in the midst of the turbulence.

The gray city by the bay was Ground Zero for cultural revolutions, first noticed nationally in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood's explosion of hippiedom and its drug-filled visions of freedom during 1967's Summer of Love. That experiment in spontaneous ecstasy drew tens of thousands of young, often desperate hipsters from across the land. Within a year, Haight-Ashbury was a hellhole where the murder rate climbed and the sordid results of drug addictions strained the area's homemade safety net. It was also where a few young, drug-addled women came under the influence of one Charles Manson, before they moved to L.A. and future infamy.

In the years following the Summer of Love, the city saw thousands of gays and lesbians flock to San Francisco in response to the Castro neighborhood's growing national reputation as a place where the LGBT community could feel at home. Coinciding with disco and the sexual revolution, gay clubs and bathhouses proliferated, as did gays' resistance to police harassment.

In 1974, the city was rocked by the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by a bumbling, delusional far-left group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. The kidnapping eventually led to a nationally televised bloodbath in which Los Angeles cops killed several group members during a furious shootout. Hearst was later captured and imprisoned. Around the same time, the people of San Francisco were terror-stricken by the Zebra murders, a series of 14 killings perpetrated against whites by what turned out to be a rogue group of Black Muslims. If that wasn't bad enough, this was also around the time the late-60s serial killer known as the Zodiac Killer, who was never caught, popped back up and committed more of his seven murders in northern California.

And then along came Jones — Jim Jones, specifically, and his Peoples Temple. The leftist pastor preached racial justice, commanded the allegiance of hundreds, and creeped his way into a place of influence in the administration of San Francisco's new liberal mayor, George Moscone. When reports of extortion, beatings and financial shenanigans surfaced, Jones took most of his congregation to a compound called Jonestown in Guyana. Their deaths in late 1978 by a combination of mass suicide and "forced suicide" (i.e., murder), shocked the world, but it devastated the city of San Francisco, where many of the dead's family and friends lived — and where Democratic liberal politicians suddenly had a whole lot to answer for.

Incredibly, within 10 days of the Jonestown killings, distraught city supervisor (councilman) Dan White snuck into City Hall and assassinated both Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the nation's first openly gay city official. It marked the grim culmination of the battle for political control by a huge liberal coalition, fiercely resisted by the city's old guard, including White. The city was shell-shocked to the point of "a kind of numb surrealism," as one citizen described it. Dan White was eventually convicted of mere manslaughter, which led to more rioting.

Within three years, the AIDS epidemic swept through San Francisco, killing much of a generation of gay males who had transformed the city. Talbot says that — along with Mayor Dianne Feinstein's steady post-Moscone hand, and the civic celebrations of the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl victories — the city's full-bore response to the AIDS scourge is what (ironically) healed the city. A mobilization of medical and social services turned the city into a giant clinic — a move made necessary by the Reagan administration's refusal to even acknowledge that AIDS was a problem.

Talbot is a good writer who knows how to create a great story out of a kaleidoscopic collection of events. Despite a couple of stumbles along the way in the form of confusing chronology, Season of the Witch is a terrific piece of reporting and cultural history, filled with fascinating characters and, needless to say, plenty of action.

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