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A Congresswoman’s Tenacity and Zest for Life

Posted on Thursday, April 7th, 2011.

Earlier this year, we were delighted when Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who represents California’s 12th District, was able to take time out of her undoubtedly hectic schedule to come to the San Francisco StoryBooth to record a conversation with her longtime friend and advisor, Brian Perkins. The two talked candidly about her life, career, and harrowing near-death experience as a young aide to the late Congressman Leo Ryan, who was killed in 1978 on an investigative Congressional trip to look into allegations of people being held against their will at the Jonestown colony in Guyana. Congresswoman Speier, who was also shot in the attack that killed Ryan, was 28 years old when she accompanied him on the fateful trip.

Though she’s now talked publicly many times about the trip and the horrific attack that almost took her life, the images are still vivid in her mind. She recounted having a bad premonition about the trip, but deciding it was worth the risk; investigating the allegations of wrongdoing at Jim Jones’ now infamous colony was of utmost importance to Ryan. In addition, Rep. Speier saw few women at the time in positions of power undertaking such important roles in international affairs. She felt a sense of responsibility to be part of the fact-finding group. What they found at Jonestown was at first “impressive,” she told Mr. Perkins, describing the infrastructure they’d built. Soon, however, the uglier sides of the situation became clear. They were slipped notes from people wanting to escape back to the U.S. She mentioned that Jim Jones was clearly high on speed and other drugs during their meetings with him.

In a tragic turn of events, as they prepared to leave back to the U.S. with defectors from Jonestown, the group was ambushed. Congressman Ryan was shot and killed, the first time a member of Congress had been shot in the line of duty, until the horrific attack on Representative Giffords earlier this year. Speier was shot five times at point blank range. She lay on the ground in shock, playing dead, just “waiting for the lights to go out,” saw her grandmother’s face in her mind (her “shero”), and said an act of contrition “like a good Catholic girl.” Miraculously, even though she received no medical attention for twenty-two hours before their rescue, she survived through the night-thanks in part to Guyanese rum brought to her by other survivors. “I felt like I was being wrapped in a flag”, Ms. Speier said of their rescue by a Guyanese Medi-Vac team. She says she remembers this moment every time she says the Pledge of Allegiance.

True to the StoryCorps experience, Congresswoman Speier shared some of the more personal moments related to her surviving the Jonestown shooting. Even though the recovery process was long and hard, as Ms. Speier told Mr. Perkins, “in a funny sort of way, it was a gift,” a gift that gave her “a zest and zeal for life.” She promised herself she’d never take another day for granted. In fact, just two months into her recovery she ran to fill Congressmen Ryan’s congressional seat to continue and honor the work – and tenacity – of her late mentor. Though her bid was unsuccessful, she continued on her political path, serving on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and in the State Legislature, until several years later when she was elected to the U.S. Congressional seat she now proudly holds.

You can listen to an excerpt of this interview, as edited and produced by KALW in San Francisco.

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