Thursday, March 8, 2018

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

Today I'm looking at a book that talks about an event I only knew of through the final line to Warren Zevron's song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, the kidnapping and conversion to terrorist of Patricia Hearst in the 1970's. For many people this was a truly bizarre and confusing event. A member of the prominent Hearst family gets kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical group that people have only heard of in connection to the murder of Marcus Foster, a local and highly popular superintendent of schools.

After a series of incoherent messages with the only clear demand being the Hearst family bankroll the distribution of food to needy people in California, the SLA breaks off contact only to resurface with Patricia Hearst, their captive, now a member and involved in a prominent bank robbery. The majority of the nine members die in a shootout with police in Los Angeles, but for more than a year Patricia Hearst and two other survivors manage to evade capture for over a year. It's almost by accident that Patricia gets arrested and after serving less than two years of a seven year prison sentence, she gets a commutation from president Jimmy Carter.

Overall these events seem strange and confusing, but if Toobin does anything right, he manages to put everything into context and make it much more understandable for the reader. What emerges is a narrative not of random events and brainwashing of heiresses, but a young woman who goes through what might charitably be called a rebellious phase. By the time of her kidnapping, Patricia saw her future as largely fixed. She was a trust fund heiress so there was no need to work for a living, and she was already engaged to be married. Despite going to UC Berkeley her life had become confined to a narrow domesticity which threatened to dominate the rest of her life. Patricia Hearst may have gone on to become just another of the socialite set of baby boomers except her world was violently interrupted on February 4th.

For someone who felt trapped by life and was yearning for something different and meaningful, is it any surprise that Patricia came to adopt the ideology of the SLA? Toobin makes it very doubtful that they brainwashed her. Aside from one murder, one kidnapping, and a handful of bank robberies the SLA failed to do almost anything correctly and the disparate political opinions, some of which weren't terribly developed, meant the SLA had more a broad outline rather than a specific platform. Indeed, once the SLA kidnapped Patricia, Toobin points out they seemed utterly at a loss for what to do with her and quickly lost sight of whatever ransom demands they might have had.

But with individuals in the SLA talking to Patricia about political philosophies she hadn't even encountered and reading from socialist and communist texts, they probably presented Patricia with an alternative to the narrow lifestyle she had seen before her. So while it's somewhat surprising, it's understandable why Patricia may eventually join with her kidnappers. Toobin also dismantles through several examples, including times Patricia could have very easily escaped, why Patricia's argument that she joined the SLA out of fear for her life simply doesn't hold up under inspection.

Following her arrest, her desire to rejoin the life she had before her kidnapping is even less surprising. The conditions of the SLA were quite terrible, going from bad to worse and at some points resorting to eating horse meat and beans. The comfort and security of her privileged lifestyle would have been a powerful lure to Patricia, especially with the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence looming.

Finally I, and it seems Toobin, are left with mixed feelings about the commutation and later pardon of Patricia Hearst. On the one hand, Patricia definitely showed that she had recognized the wrong of what she had done, and had reformed for her crimes and would become a productive and law-abiding member of society again. On the other hand, she definitely only got such treatment because of her family's extensive connections and it can quite cynically be seen as the rich escaping justice. It's a hard question and since it's all in the past it's largely irrelevant, but it does reveal a divide all the more prevalent today.

The story of Patricia Hearst is important because it reflects deep issues in the United States that are still affecting us today. The civil rights movements of the 1960's morphed into the violent countercultures of then 1970's, along with a variety of other bad events for the United States. High oil prices, a stagnant economy, a corrupt president, and a decline in law and order saw the seventies become a decade of despair and frustration. The surge of modern conservatism, with its roots in Ronald Reagan, saw its beginnings as a reaction to the violent counterculture of the 1970's, and we are still dealing with those result to this day.

This book is an interesting look into a troubled time of American history and how it had profound effects not only in the immediate, but long term as well. I think it's worth your time to investigate.

- Kalpar

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