40 years after surviving Jonestown, Rep. Jackie Speier talks about trauma, politics

Congresswoman Jackie Speier at her desk in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Little A Publishing.)

She was shot five times and left for dead in the jungles of Guyana. She lost her first husband in a fatal car accident. She experienced difficult miscarriages, and had an adopted child she loved reclaimed. She lost elections.

But Jackie Speier, undaunted, hasn't let personal tragedy or professional challenges stop her from rising through the ranks of elective office to her current position as representative for California's 14th Congressional District, which runs from parts of San Francisco as far south as East Palo Alto on the Midpeninsula and San Gregorio on the Coastside.

Her new memoir is titled: "Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage and Fighting Back," and was released earlier this month.

In the book, Speier talks about surviving the Jonestown massacre, in which more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones died after drinking poison in Guyana, a country in South America. Speier, then an aide for Congressman Leo Ryan, was shot when she went with Ryan to South America to investigate the San Francisco-based cult. Ryan and four others were shot and killed.

In advance of her appearance at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Dec. 2, The Almanac spoke with Speier to discuss her book, her storied political career representing San Mateo County, and the state of the union.  

Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: One of the themes throughout your book is that of resilience through personal tragedy - of which you've been through a lot. What has helped you move forward through difficult times?

A: Well, I refer to the three "F's": family, friends and faith. And I've relied heavily on all three. We all have a difficult understanding of what people need when they're going through trauma. In our society, we are reluctant to offer help. We tend to back up and wait for some sign. But the message in the book, in part, is that you've got to ask for what you need, and reach out to people who can be helpful to you, because they clearly want to be.

The other message is that we're much stronger and more resilient than we think we are. It's surprising what we can overcome.

Q: What was it like for you to revisit the memories of Jonestown 40 years later?

A: So many lives were lost when they shouldn't have been. It's always jarring and emotionally difficult.

Q: In the book you talk about your political mentor Leo Ryan and his "experiential" approach to legislation. How did his approach impact your approach to legislation - based on both the issues you've experienced on a personal level, and issues you've made an effort to go out and understand through experience?

A: I would say it's impacted me greatly on both levels. When I adopted a baby and the birth mother took the baby back, I realized the heartache associated with losing an adopted child is great. While the birth mother had every right to take the baby back, in my case, if it's six months down the road, is that realistic (to give the baby back)? When my husband was killed in an automobile accident, I wanted to make sure people had auto insurance, because while I was able to scrape together the money for his funeral, many other people (couldn't). And if we had a requirement that everyone carry at least minimum auto insurance, then there'd be money to pay for the funeral costs. So I carried legislation that required proof of auto insurance at the time of registration, and then a low-cost auto insurance policy in California so that everyone could afford auto insurance.

So (my personal experiences) absolutely have impacted the way I legislate.

In terms of how I've been experiential, I took a page from Congressman Ryan's book and I spent a night in a high-security women's state prison when I was still in the Legislature. I spent the night at a local homeless shelter to appreciate the impact of what homelessness is in the area. I've taken the Food Stamp Challenge and lived on $4 a day of food. I think it really helps to inform our decision-making if we have those experiences.

Q: So what do you do to ensure you remain independent? 

A: My luxury is that I came very close to death and survived, and so I have a fearlessness that I probably wouldn't have, had I not encountered the experiences that I've encountered in my life. I guess I'm more prepared to stand up and speak out because I don't have anything to fear. Once you've looked death in the eye, you're not afraid of much anymore.

Q: What do you think politicians can do to alleviate the Bay Area housing crisis?

A: I think it's (taking) steps to make sure that Section 8 housing vouchers are used. There was a period of time when they weren't being used, and it was the equivalent of two or three apartment buildings. So I worked with many of the apartment owner associations to try and get them to participate. I think that what we need to do is regain more affordable housing that is accessible through mass transit. 

High-speed rail can be a part of that solution. I think of the people who can be an hour from their job on rail from San Francisco to Silicon Valley on Caltrain. If we have high-speed rail, you can get from Fresno to Silicon Valley in an hour, and all of a sudden there's many more opportunities for affordable housing within a reasonable time frame of your work. Obviously, these solutions aren't enough. From a federal level, the tax credit is basically what developers rely on to build senior housing and workforce housing - if we don't protect those, there won't be any housing built. As it turns out, the tax credits pay for about 60 percent of the cost to develop (housing).

Q: Does that mean you would support the Dumbarton rail line being rebuilt?

A: Absolutely. I was responsible for the program that created the Baby Bullet express Caltrain service. That reduced the number of cars on 101 and 280 substantially. It reduced the commute from San Francisco to San Jose by almost 50 minutes.

Q: You have been a county supervisor, a state legislator, and now a congresswoman representing this area. Can you walk me through how your role as a representative of the area has changed?

A: Having served on each level of government, I realized the power (of each). In many respects, the state Legislature is more effective at responding to the interests of the public than Congress. (Congress is) so steeped in the institutional setting (and) maintaining the status quo, where in many respects, the state Legislature has become as an incubator for innovation and change in California. And I loved my years on the (county) Board of Supervisors, since you only have to count to three (votes to approve items).

Q: You've called the November elections a "pink wave." How do you think having more women in Congress will change its dynamics?

A: I think women tend to want to compromise and move the ball forward. Sometimes we get so fixed on political machinations that it's all about winning battles instead of winning the future. I think for women's issues in particular, whether it's paycheck fairness or the Equal Rights Amendment or repealing the "pink tax" - I look forward to trying to get all that legislation passed.

Q: What did you do earlier in your career when it was less common for women to be in positions like yours? How did you get naysayers to take you seriously as a politician?

A: Well, one of the things I learned early on was that the reason why women weren't getting elected had more to do with other women than it did men. We needed to recognize that for women to get elected, we needed to support women. I think that losing really prepared me to win. I encourage people to not be afraid to run. I'm what I call a "three-time loser." You can learn a lot from losing and you just never give up. You keep moving forward. You don't let anything get you down.

Q: What's your point of view on how the split in the Democratic Party between more establishment and more progressive members will play out? Is it good or bad for the party?

A: It's the nature of our party. But we've also seen it in the Republican Party, where they had their Freedom Caucus and then the moderates. So it's all part of politics. We just need to come to common ground in times that there is a solution. We all share the same values. It's just oftentimes how something is being implemented that needs to be reconciled between two or three different interest groups.

Q: What are your biggest concerns right now regarding some of the tech companies in your district and how their actions relate to democracy?

A: Tech has been the darling of the economy for a very long time. They've enjoyed a very positive run. There is growing interest in Congress to look at regulation. It's even coming out in Silicon Valley, the recognition that self-regulation isn't working. So there's going to be some efforts to develop some forms of regulation, whether it's around truth in advertising and campaigning, or the size of companies and whether it becomes monopolistic. I think all those issues will be looked at. 

We've got some great companies. They employ lots of people in our region. They're doing very innovative things, so I don't want to see that dampened at all, but a certain level of regulation is appropriate and I think everyone needs to feel confident that their privacy isn't going to be breached. 

I mean, Marriott just announced that 500 million people had their privacy breached and their passports identified, so, you know, we don't necessarily get it right. We've got to anticipate that everything is hackable. So how do we protect personal, identifiable information in a way that makes it less susceptible?

Q: You've been tough with Pacific Gas and Electric Company in the past. How do you think PG&E should mitigate the wildfire threats its infrastructure poses?

A: I would just say when they argue that undergrounding utility wires in high-risk areas is too costly, ask the 50,000 people who lost their homes in Paradise how costly that is, or the insurance companies that are going to be picking up the tab. So there's got to be some better techniques, whether there's a substance you can spray out there, which is something they're looking at, or insulating the wires, or whatever it is - there has to be some steps taken that are smarter technologically than the PG&E of yesteryear.

One thing I'll say in PG&E's defense is: When the transmission lines exploded in San Bruno, so many people lost their homes and lives. I introduced a bill to make them much more accountable, and they responded, even though the bill never got passed in Congress. They installed automatic and remote shut-off valves in high-consequence areas, which is where seismic action could take place. They developed plans to work with local first responders. They informed persons who live within so many feet of a transmission line. I mean, they're capable of doing the right thing. I just don't know if the leadership today is willing to do that. It's somewhat out of my jurisdiction now that I'm on the federal level.

Q: What's the latest on the ME TOO Congress Act you co-sponsored, which would overhaul how harassment claims are handled within Congress?

A: We're in final negotiations with the Senate. It will be probably 80 percent of what the House version was, and I have a commitment from my Republican colleagues that we'll come back next year and ensure it's 100 percent in terms of its impact on the House.

Q: Which modern political figures do you admire most?

A: John Lewis, Madeleine Albright and Benazir Bhutto.

Q: Where do you like to go in San Mateo County nowadays? 

A: I would say the coast is where I gravitate to - any excuse to go down to Half Moon Bay or Pacifica, or Pescadero. I, like everyone else, love that we have this magnificent coastline right at our doorstep.

About the book

 "Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage and Fighting Back," is 240 pages and was published Nov. 6 by Little A Publishing. It is available online through Amazon, among other retailers. 

This story first appeared online at


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