Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot (Free Press, 480 pp., $28)
“In the San Francisco Bay area you see the young beset and preyed upon by vultures, wolves, and parasites: dope peddlers, pimps, lechers, perverts, thugs, cult mongers, and ideological seducers,” recognized longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer in 1968. “Everywhere you look you can see human beings rot before they ripen.” Though he was a towering figure during San Francisco’s Aquarian era, Hoffer somehow never finds his way into the pages of David Talbot’s Season of the Witch, his new history of San Francisco in the years between 1967 and 1982. A blue-collar intellectual, Hoffer identified the city’s developing pathologies in real time. But Talbot, founder of Salon.com, doesn’t see San Francisco clearly, even in retrospect.
“No other American city has undergone such an earth-shaking cultural shift in such a short span,” Talbot writes of his adopted hometown. The declaration is tough to gainsay. In the 15 or so years from the Summer of Love to AIDS, the Bay Area saw the birth of the Manson Family, Black Panther ambushes, Altamont, the Zodiac and Zebra killings, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford, Peoples Temple, and the Milk-Moscone murders. The sixties high delivered an awful seventies hangover.
Whether it’s a coked-up Huey Newton murdering a prostitute for calling him “baby,” a pill-popping Jim Jones orchestrating mass suicide, or acid prophet Charles Manson seducing stray hippies in the Haight, chemicals are a common denominator here. Talbot doesn’t overlook the influence of narcotics in propelling the city’s social changes. He just reverses the narrative by celebrating the people who take drugs and condemning the government that prohibits them. “The Central Intelligence Agency and the military had long been fascinated with LSD and other psychedelics as potential mind control weapons,” Talbot cryptically notes. He suggests that the intelligence agency may have introduced hallucinogens to eviscerate fledgling radicalism. But he doesn’t consider the flip-side: far-out ideas couldn’t have won such a following without a softening of minds and wills through far-out drugs.
Dodging reality, Talbot imagines that the radicals’ deadly acts were in fact engineered by the reactionary opposition. The Symbionese Liberation Army’s mid-seventies crime spree—which included the Hearst kidnapping, the assassination of Oakland’s schools superintendent, and several dramatic armed robberies— becomes, in Talbot’s telling, the product of “a double agent” of the CIA and Colton Westbrook, “a man with a shadowy intelligence background” who ran “a center of mind control experimentation” in California’s prisons. Westbrook mentored SLA leader Donald DeFreeze, whom, according to Talbot, real radicals pegged as “a provocateur” because they “immediately suspected a government plot.” Repeated drive-by intimations to this effect, without documentation, make history what the author wished for, rather than what happened.
Even as apolitical an event as the San Francisco 49ers’ 1981 Super Bowl run, which becomes the “redemption” referred to in the book’s title, becomes an occasion to float a conspiracy theory. “Some Kennedy assassination researchers have alleged that [Cowboys owner Clint] Murchison played a key role in the plot against JFK,” Talbot states in non-sequitur fashion (the 49ers beat the Cowboys to make the Super Bowl that year). “On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, after he was told about the president’s assassination, [Cowboys Coach Tom] Landry kept on running the Cowboys’ practice drills as if nothing had happened just nine miles away in Dealey Plaza.” He doesn’t say if Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Navy man Roger Staubach lurked atop the grassy knoll.
The author’s questionable judgments, rendered throughout, fatally weaken his credibility. “While sex was readily available,” Talbot gushes of the sixties-era Good Earth commune, “predatory behavior was not allowed. ‘Relations between the sexes were incredibly equal,’ said Diane Jaffe, a beautiful, self-possessed fourteen-year-old runaway who became [the ex-con commune leader’s] lover.” In what moral universe is a relationship between an eighth-grader and an ex-con not “predatory”?
Similarly perplexing are Talbot’s criticisms of law-enforcement interest in a hippie clinic. “[D]ark forces preyed on the struggling clinic,” Talbot writes. Such as? “The police were a constant, harassing presence.” The author then unwittingly explains the cops’ interest in the clinic. A speed dealer and his sidekick henchman—the other “dark forces”—started volunteering at the clinic, an epicenter of addicts, and “soon it became clear that they intended to take over the clinic and use it as the base of their drug operation.” And those predators wearing badges and blue? Talbot writes that the clinic’s leader sought their protection.
Neither cult leader Jim Jones nor his officeholder enablers—Mayor George Moscone, Supervisor Harvey Milk, Assemblyman Willie Brown—win Talbot’s sympathy. “When Jones staged his grand escape, he did not simply destroy over nine hundred lives and plunge thousands more into bottomless grief,” writes Talbot of 1978’s mass-suicide of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple in the Guyanese jungle. “He poisoned a language of social justice. Everyone who had joined hands with his crusade, whether for opportunistic or idealistic reasons, was now contaminated by Jonestown.” The reader suspects that the author regards the poisoning of “a language of social justice” as a graver sin than the poisoning of 900 human beings.
“It takes a reckless kind of soul to tear down monuments and torch bridges, to shake the dead grip of the past,” Talbot writes. “But by the end of the sixties, the revolution was entering its Jacobin phase, and the wreckage was growing wanton. If the revolution liberated the human imagination, it also unleashed humanity’s demons. San Francisco—capital of the new world—was descending into its Season of the Witch.” To transcend that season, San Franciscans necessarily wrestled with causes, lest they risk repeating the effects. Talbot hasn’t done this. He fantasizes that President Ronald Reagan spread AIDS to the Castro, that the CIA unleashed psychedelic drugs in the Haight, and that the San Francisco Police Department murdered the mayor and a homosexual supervisor in City Hall. Talbot’s ideological obsessions spawn more delusions than LSD.
Season of the Witch is an amazing story relayed by a flawed storyteller. In addition to founding the San Francisco-based Salon, the author also served as an editor for both the Bay Area-based Mother Jones and the San Francisco Examiner. He is marinated in the times and the town. But to be a product and a chronicler of cultural anarchy is perhaps a conflict of interest. What should they know of San Francisco who only San Francisco know?