By Stuart Nulman
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, $38.95)
The kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia “Patty” Hearst was one of the most notorious – and most reported – crimes of the 1970s.
From her kidnapping at her San Francisco home at the hands of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), to her transformation as “Tania” (and her machine-gun toting photo that is one of the most iconic images of that decade), to the Hibernia Bank robbery, to eventual capture in September of 1975 and subsequent sentence commutation and pardon, Patty Hearst and her abduction has come to symbolize the upheaval that dominated America during the early and mid-70s, as well making her the unofficial poster child for “Stockholm Syndrome” (when a kidnapping victim develops a sense of affection and sympathy for their kidnappers).
But throughout her 18-month ordeal at the hands of the SLA, the main question that is brought up regarding the Patty Hearst kidnapping is this: was Hearst a willing convert and participant in the SLA’s violent string of crimes, or was she forced and coerced to commit these crimes under the fear that her life was in constant danger? Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal analyst whose book The Run of His life is regarded s the definitive account of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, answers this question to good effect with his latest book American Heiress.
Basically, Toobin effectively argues that it was a bit of both circumstances that ruled Patty Hearst while she was in captivity. First, he believes that Hearst quickly became indoctrinated and influenced to what the SLA stood for – in creating a violent revolution against the establishment in California – as a means of rebellion against her life of privilege as the granddaughter of famed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst; basically, she felt her life with her parents (especially with her overbearing mother Catherine), and her upcoming engagement to university teacher Steven Weed was a sham and would have led to a life of drudgery and servitude to Weed (and admitted that she even contemplated suicide before the kidnapping took place). Second, that the Hearsts would agree to the demands of the SLA for her eventual release (which was in the form of a food giveaway to the underprivileged of San Francisco), because Patty was constantly living under the threat of death, which was always expressed by the SLA’s self-appointed leader Donald De Freeze (aka “General Field Marshal Cinque”).
Toobin uses his journalistic skills and legal knowledge to craft a complete, well-rounded examination of the Patty Hearst kidnapping case and its violent circumstances, thanks to countless interviews and access to court documents and letters that Hearst wrote during her 18 months in captivity. We get an inside look at the SLA, which was created in a San Francisco that was reeling from a very turbulent, violent period as it was in the midst of the fear that was brought about by the Zodiac and Zebra serial killings that gripped the city, and its rag tag members were made up of young adults from mainly middle class upbringings who were disillusioned by their relatively safe backgrounds, and were committed to a violent revolution (they were influenced by California prison inmate George Jackson and his two bestselling memoirs Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye); we find out how dysfunctional the Hearst family really was at the time of the kidnapping (and that William Randolph Hearst distrusted his sons so much, he willed that his newspaper and media empires were not to be run by them); and we find out what really went on during the period between the fiery, violent deaths of six SLA members in May of 1974 and Hearst’s arrest in September of 1975 (which involved travelling from one end of the U.S. to the other, and hiding in Pennsylvania and California, as Hearst was gearing her way of thinking from revolutionary to feminist); and how the ego of her lawyer F. Lee Bailey practically derailed her case when it went to trial in 1976 and ended up in a guilty conviction and a prison term.
American Heiress is a compelling, well-researched book that serves as a prime example of how the ideal true crime book should be written. It shows what motivates a small group of people to take up arms against the establishment (unrealistic as it may be) and kidnap a young, susceptible individual, who can be easily indoctrinated to their cause and help promote that cause to the outside world. Although the story is well told in this book, it still raises many questions to what happened during the Patty Hearst kidnapping case and why it happened, and how the outcome happened the way it did. As Toobin concludes in the book:
“Patricia Hearst was a woman who, through no fault of her own, fell in with bad people but then did bad things; she committed crimes, lots of them … But when she and her comrades were caught, Patricia was rational once more … A clear thinker, if not a deep one, Patricia understood that for her rich was better than poor and freedom was better confinement. She chose accordingly … The story of Patricia Hearst, as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending. She did not turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother.”
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Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.