“Season of The Witch”, further thoughts, by Bill Sargeant

The book was entertaining and connected the dots between former headlines.  It also defined an overall dramatic arc in that period of San Francisco history; the mid 60’s , through the early 80’s, which David Talbot divides into three sections.

In Summary:  The first section titled “Enchantment,” describes San Francisco incubating a subculture of young people who experiment with means of freeing themselves from the straight and narrow times of the 50’s.  Experiments in communal living and psychedelic drugs abound.  They express their new ideas in literature, fashion, and music which become emblematic for the counter-culture .   As creativity peaks, and the novelty wears off, the underbelly of negative forces, unleashed in all the new freedom, begins to dominate.  This brings us to the second section of the book; “Terror.”  More and more seekers arrive in San Francisco with flowers in their hair only to find needles in arms and desperation in the streets.  Throughout most of the 70’s,  San Francisco slips into further decline. The original idealism of the hippies is lost and wave after wave of violence wrack the city, defeating the politicians and the corrupt SFPD.  Each bottom is exceeded by the next, culminating in a nadir of the Jim Jones massacre and the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor, Harvey Milk.  Out of this low, “the right mayor for the times”, Dianne Feinstein, with the assists of others, takes charge and stabilizes the situation with which we arrive at the last section of the book; “Deliverance.”  Several potential calamities are averted and the city is able to catch its breath.  Spirits are further lifted when the worst team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49er’s, beats their rival, the Dallas Cowboys (self-proclaimed as “God’s team”), and goes on to win the Super Bowl.  San Francisco is back in form and demonstrates its true potential with the handling of the next crisis; AIDS.   Throughout the horrors of this epidemic, San Francisco fills the vacuum of indifference of the Reagan administration with funds, and innovative care.  Many heroes emerge from the ranks of health care, the gay community, and city government, and their responses serve as models to other cities and countries around the world.  One stellar example is ward 5B of SF General Hospital pioneering “the development of what later became known as patient-centered care.”  At last, San Francisco survives its trials, and rekindles its reputation as a destination for freedom and creativity.

David Talbot provides the thread of facts from which each event unfolds out of what came before it.  There are many dozens of individual stories told with carefully researched details which coalesce as if pixels, to form a clear and coherent whole.  As a reader who lived through the times and witnessed some of it first hand, I closed the book with a much deepened and enhanced understanding.


2 thoughts on ““Season of The Witch”, further thoughts, by Bill Sargeant”

  1. Hi, Bill. Thanks for posting as I still can’t figure out how to start a post. I am going to miss Thursday as I miss all Thursdays in 2014 as I am a volunteer librarian and the Zen Center. I read this book last year and really enjoyed it. I was hoping that when it was chosen for book group in might result in a kind of fill in the blanks kind of discussion, where members just talked about how they remembered things, from Bill Graham to Moscone to Feinstein. The author definitely picks an arc of triumph and there is of course always another way of viewing it. Feinstein certainly comes to mind. She slipped in to office by a fluke and has taken that to being probably one of the most powerful women in the world but would the majority of San Francisco embrace her?

    The book really sets the table for a great discussion of the details but also the overall nature of reporting history and how that shapes history. I don’t suppose we could think of a way to live blog the discussion. I could chip in from the Zen Center. Just a thought.

  2. Hi, again. Writing that last post about the Zen Center made me reflect on the fact that in reading the book I couldn’t recall a mention of the Zen Center. So I went down to the library and checked a copy of Season of the Witch out. I only cruised the index but looked under a number of possible subject headings and found nothing. I find this to be a major omission. The Zen Center came to be in the 1960s and was very much a product of the many seekers coming to San Francisco. In fact, Shenryu Suzuki came to San Francisco to service the Japanese Buddhists but found himself with a following of “hippies” who were interested in Zazen, best described as contemplative Buddhism and maybe more rigorous than merely listening to sermons and something his Japanese practitioners were not interested in, and he ultimately left to devote himself to his Western students.

    The story of the Zen Center also fits in nicely in that it has gone through many upheavals driven by cultural winds but today is a mature and thriving institution. In fact, the Bay Area is considered a very important, if not the most important, home of Buddhism in the West and much of this can be traced to the Zen Center. It is in fact a huge success story.

    I write not to criticize the book but to maybe jump start a conversation about what is and isn’t in the book and what that says about the book.


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