Taking Tania

Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army on this day in 1974, beginning one of the strangest tales of the American counterculture. Though Hearst herself has faded from view, glimpsed only in the odd John Waters movie (Pecker, Cecil B. Demented, A Dirty Shame) or newspaper account (when showing her French bulldog, for instance), her story continues to attract interest and interpretation. The following is excerpted from William Graebner’s Patty’s Got a Gun (2009):

Who was this young woman whose ordinary life and colorless courtroom appearance had been punctuated with nineteen months as captive, bank robber, gunfighter, radical revolutionary, feminist, and fugitive? Was there something extraordinary in Patty’s background or makeup that could explain the variety of roles she had taken on in so short a time? Or was this protean Patty a sort of mirror image of the ordinary Patty? And, if that were true, were all ordinary people vulnerable, or open, to such dramatic transformations?… If Patty had in some sense been taken over, if she had been brainwashed, turned into a zombie, converted under duress, or otherwise deprived of free will and full consciousness, were other, ordinary Americans, regardless of race, class, gender, and circumstance, just as vulnerable? Should they understand themselves, deep down, as potential victims or as free agents?

Subtitled “Patty Hearst in 1970s America,” Graebner’s book places the familiar photo of Hearst as gun-toting “Tania” in a variety of cultural frames, testing for a good, or just period-perfect, fit:

Had Patty been tried in 1965, she would surely have been acquitted, judged to be nothing more, and nothing less, than the unfortunate victim of kidnapping, rape, and physical and mental torture. Had she been tried in 1985, she would surely have been convicted, steamrolled by the Reagan revolution, judged to be just another person who had failed to take personal responsibility for her acts. The moment of her conviction, in March 1976, was somewhere in between….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.