Five years ago, California State Senator Jackie Speier was a woman who hoped she’d left heartache behind. It had been a long journey: Deep scars on her back, leg, and arm marked her as a survivor of the 1978 ambush in Jonestown, Guyana, that killed U.S. Representative Leo Ryan and four others. It had taken ten operations to put Speier’s shattered right thigh back together; two years of physical therapy had restored only part of the function in her right arm.
Six years into a happy marriage, Speier had weathered a different sort of pain. Trying for a second child, she’d endured two miscarriages. Then she adopted–only to have her infant son taken away when his birth mother decided to reclaim him.
By 1994, Speier felt the sorrow lifting. With their son, Jackson, 5, she and husband Steven Sierra, a physician, had just moved into their “dream home” near San Francisco; three months into another pregnancy, she hoped to concentrate on what mattered most–her family.
On January 25, 1994, she was driving through a rainstorm, on the way to Sacramento, when the car phone rang. It was the San Mateo police, reporting that her husband’s car had been struck broadside by a driver who’d careened through a red light. Speier phoned the hospital and spoke to a surgeon who was a family friend. “I could tell in his voice,” she says, “that Steve wasn’t going to make it.” After a brief stop at the hospital, she picked up Jackson at school. In the intensive care unit, the two held Steve’s hand one last time.
“After Guyana,” Speier says now, “I used to think that everybody got their fair share of grief. After all the other things happened, I thought, There is no fair sham of grief. You’re given what you’re given. But it’s important not to forget that you can survive.”
On this sunny day, Speier is clad in a smart purple suit; she’s had her morning cuddle with Jackson, now 11, and Stephanie, 5, and left them with the live-in sitter at their house in the suburb of Hillsborough. After finishing another long commute (a two-hour drive each way), she’ll be home to kiss them good night.
Though Speier sees herself as just another working mom, others regard her as a heroine. “People I’ve never met come up to me m say what an inspiration I am,” she confesses. “The fact that people gain strength from seeing I’m still standing–and still have a sense of humor–makes me feel good.”
How has she prevailed? “My faith has played an extraordinary role,” says Speier. “And friends and family helped; I found that you have to smother yourself with support. You have to persevere. I had a choice–to wallow or to forge ahead. I forged ahead.”
Raised in a blue-collar home, Speier learned to cope with obstacles early on. She and her brother had few extras–when she wanted to join Girl Scouts, there was no money for a uniform. Caught tip in “the sense of hope and action” that John F. Kennedy brought to the White House, she set her sights on a government career. “I had a dream that I wanted to be in the State Legislature,” she remembers. A scholarship student at University of California, Davis, Speier made it into Hastings College of Law in 1973. Law degree in hand, she joined Representative Ryan’s staff.
It was her commitment to public service that nearly cost Speier her life. A number of Peoples Temple cultists in Guyana had come from Ryan’s district, and he agreed in 1978 to investigate reports that they were being held against their will. That November, a party including Ryan and Speier interviewed cult leader Jim Jones at his Jonestown compound. When the two-day visit ended, several converts begged to leave with Ryan–a defection followed by the suicides, and murders, of more than 900 others.
The attack at the airstrip in Port Kaituma was swift and brutal: Hitmen opened fire while Ryan’s group was still on the tarmac. When five bullets tore into Speier, then 28, “I said a prayer,” she remembers, “and waited for the lights to go out.” Instead, she struggled through the night; the next day, she was barely alive when a Guyanese Air Force plane arrived.
At Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, DC, doctors found that her right leg was almost blown away, and that a bullet had damaged the radial nerve in her right arm. Two bullets are still lodged in her body, her arm aches constantly, and her leg will never look the same: “It took me a long while to feel comfortable in a bathing suit. But I didn’t want plastic surgery. I said, `No more–this is who I am.’”
That strength of spirit served her well; in 1980, Speier ran flit supervisor in San Mateo County and won. Soon after, her work brought her to Steve/He was on staff at the county hospital, and she was on a task force to evaluate evidence collection in rape cases. “On our first date,” she laughs, “he came m my house with an amazing bottle of wine–and a video of a mining session on examining rape victims.” Steve “had an extraordinary zest for life,” she says. “Everything was one hundred percent–he was absolutely optimistic, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. I just remember laughing a lot.”
She was 37 when they married, and Jackson arrived 11 months later. Two miscarriages followed, and she and Steve were thrilled to adopt a child in 1993. Ten days later came the awful phone call–their son’s birth mother had changed her mind. “It was very, very tough,” Speier says. “I felt like someone had torn my heart out.” (She has since helped to amend the state law that allowed birth mothers six months to reconsider–reducing the grace period to four months.)
Speier says that Steve’s love–and her faith in God–pulled her through. Together, they decided to focus on their blessings: “We took trips, we had fun–we didn’t put tiff spending time together,” she says. Her unexpected pregnancy with Stephanie “was such a gift,” Speier says. On the night before Steve died, Speier remembers, her husband and son presented her with a single rose.
For Speier, losing Steve was the cruelest blow. “His death,” she says, “was so much more profound than anything I’d gone through.” In the darkest days, friends flocked to her with advice, sympathy, and “about fifteen copies of the book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Speier says, laughing. When Stephanie was born, “it was so bittersweet–a roomful of family and friends came to the hospital, and in the birthing room we had my favorite picture of Steve,” she says.
Like many other widows, Speier was forced to face harsh financial realities. “For all the preaching I did to women’s groups about being in charge of your money, I didn’t do it myself,” she says. “Steve had let his life insurance lapse, which forced me to sell our house to avoid financial disaster.”
Speier found lucrative private-sector jobs after she reached her State/Assembly term limit–one with an organization that helps find jobs for the disabled, and another as a vice-president of a media company. Last year, she ran for the State Senate–and captured 79 percent of the vote.
These days, keeping Steve’s memory alive for Jackson and Stephanie is tine of Speier’s most important missions; she sometimes cries herself to sleep because she knows how hard it is for them without their father. Over the years, she has created albums full of letters and photos of him, along with a video set to Steve’s favorite song, “What a Wonderful World.”