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On a February evening in 1974, 19-year-old Patricia Hearst — a student at the University of California, Berkeley — was kidnapped from the apartment she shared with her fiancé Steven Weed. Her abductors were a ragtag band of revolutionaries who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). They had targeted Hearst because of her powerful family name.
The kidnapping took all of four minutes. But the off-ramp from this young woman’s life — as a captive, fugitive, defendant and finally prisoner — would stretch into years. Each phase of her story would tunnel through the decade’s politics and pop culture. More than 40 years later, it’s still hard to answer the question: Was Patty Hearst a victim, or a victim who also became a revolutionary?
To keep you turning pages, a real-life crime drama needs to resonate in ways that reach far beyond the actual crime. You want singular details like chance meetings, near-misses or lucky breaks, but you also want a larger context, such as how the crime emerged from its era, and if it in any way changed its era.
In “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” Jeffrey Toobin hits all these elements. A staff writer at The New Yorker and senior legal analyst for CNN, Toobin is also the author of six previous books, including “The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” (the basis for the recent FX miniseries “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson”).
Toobin signals the book’s theme in the first sentence of the first chapter: “The kidnapping of Patricia Hearst is very much a story of America in the 1970s, not the 1960s.” This is a key distinction — the early 1970s were a chilly contrast to the Summer of Love 1960s. The Watergate scandal was upending Washington, there were long, angry lines at gas stations, and many cities were plagued by violent street crime. In California, Gov. Ronald Reagan became even more of a law-and-order leader as bombings by groups like the Weather Underground became commonplace.
The men and women of the SLA, most in their 20s, had drifted together from varied backgrounds of petty crime and a warped idealism. Convinced that small groups of radicals would attract one another to form a huge wave of revolutionaries, they ended each of their many communiques to the media with an all-caps: “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE.” Their views may have been risible, but their actions were deadly. In her first terrifying hours as a hostage, Hearst realized her captors were the same group who had, the previous November, murdered the superintendent of the Oakland school system.
Initially blindfolded and locked in a closet, Hearst, according to Toobin, “faced her situation with courage and intelligence.” She was a savvy judge of character, able to think strategically and to distinguish the different personalities among her captors, as they brought her food and eventually had long conversations with her. SLA members believed in free love (Toobin describes their group as a “counterculture John Updike novel”), and Hearst became part of that, with no option to say no.
But Hearst proved a tough survivor, as the SLA moved from one cockroach-infested dwelling to another, eluding the authorities. How could a bunch of amateurs continuously outfox the professionals? Toobin notes that in 1974, the FBI was basically “white male agents [in] … crew cuts [who] knew little about the radical underground.”
The FBI and local police also made careless mistakes, even before the kidnapping. That January, the SLA had fled a house, leaving piles of incriminating papers, including a list of kidnapping targets. There were names of corporate executives — and Patty Hearst. The authorities never warned anyone on the list; the SLA chose Hearst because she was the most vulnerable.
Toobin has a fluid but focused writing style that steadily moves you through the months: the massive and disastrous Hearst family food giveaway demanded by the SLA as ransom; the increasingly assertive tone of Hearst’s taped messages sent to radio stations; the notorious bank robberies; the massive Los Angeles neighborhood shootout in May 1974 that killed six SLA members and triggered Hearst’s months’ long, cross-country phase as a fugitive. Interspersed with real-time events are background stories on all SLA members, as well as Patty’s parents Randolph and Catherine Hearst.
Throughout the saga, Toobin emphasizes that Hearst was often left alone, but she always chose to stay: first with the original SLA members as a captive, then with a reconfigured SLA as a fugitive. “American Heiress” provides many contextual details, but leaves room for you to decide reasons why. Hearst is shown as a young woman with the contradictions of many 19 year olds. She rebelled against her family’s traditional values, but settled into a numbingly domestic relationship with the older Steven Weed. (Weed is an exceptionally unsympathetic character. During the kidnapping, he ran from the apartment after yelling, “Take anything you want.” Hearst has never spoken to him again.)
Given the extreme environments she was in, who can truly know whether Hearst took on the mantle of urban guerilla, or was so terrorized by thoughts of the FBI gunning her down that she stayed with the current reality she knew. And yet, she participated in one bank robbery in which a woman was killed, and helped to plant bombs at a police station (fortunately, no one was hurt). As the country became more conservative, Hearst began to be perceived less as victim and more as a spoiled, rebellious kid. Toobin theorizes that her polarizing saga may have helped to fuel the late-‘70s backlash against the left, which also propelled Reagan into the White House.
“American Heiress” also illustrates the shift in the 1970s toward a more celebrity-focused culture (People magazine debuted a month after the kidnapping). In this increasingly media-aware environment, the SLA crafted every event with an eye to maximum exposure. They even gave Patty a portable TV so she could watch her own television coverage.
The reason there’s a famous black and white photo of Hearst brandishing an M1 carbine is that the SLA chose the Hibernia Bank to rob because it had the new security cameras. Toobin describes the iconic image of Hearst, with its “outlaw glamor,” as “a kind of Mona Lisa… capable of as many interpretations as the larger tale of her captivity.”
You may find yourself in a similar situation as you read “American Heiress,” wondering if Hearst formed true bonds of friendship or love with her captors, or if her survival skills were so locked on overdrive she became a consummate actress toward people she despised.
Although Hearst refused to be interviewed for “American Heiress,” Toobin gained access to an extraordinary array of original documents, including material from defense attorneys, private investigators, FBI interviews with witnesses and with Hearst, and full transcripts of all the trials. He’s brought together an impressive amount of information to form a highly effective and moving story.
Ultimately, Toobin offers admiration and respect for Hearst, but minimal sympathy. He contrasts the power of her influential name, which garnered her a reduced sentence and a presidential pardon, with prisons that “teem with convicts who were also led astray and who committed lesser crimes.”
Like so many other passages in the book, to this statement I found myself thinking: True. And yet...
Jeffrey Toobin will be discussing "American Heiress" with WBUR reporter David Boeri at the Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 6 p.m.
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