From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author of The Nine and The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a sophomore in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”
The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing—the Hearst family trying to secure Patty’s release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the bank security cameras capturing “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty’s year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the term “Stockholm syndrome” entered the lexicon.
The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1,500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst and re-creates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors’ crusade.
Or did she?
About the Author
JEFFREY TOOBIN is the bestselling author of The Nine, for which he won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, The Oath, Too Close to Call, A Vast Conspiracy, and The Run of His Life, which was made into the critically acclaimed FX series The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the senior legal analyst at CNN.
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Table of Contents
1 Nervous Breakdown Nation 13
2 From Inside the Trunk 19
3 The SLA 31
4 The Point of No Return 48
5 Prisoner of War 65
6 Not Just a Bunch of Nuts 81
7 Three Hundred Bald Men 97
8 "I'm a Strong Woman" 112
9 The Birth of Tania 126
10 Stay and Fight 140
11 Common Criminals 157
12 Showdown at Mel's 172
13 Live on Television 187
14 Apocalypse on Fifty-Fourth Street 199
15 "The Gentlest, Most Beautiful Man" 215
16 Jack Scott Makes an Offer 229
17 Road Trip 239
18 The Streets of Sacramento 258
19 Death of a "Bourgeois Pig" 271
20 Feminist Bomb-Making 281
21 Freeze! 290
22 "There Will Be a Revolution in Amerikkka and We'll Be Helping to Make It" 309
23 "Your Ever-Loving Momma and Poppa Care About the Truth" 321
24 More Excited Than Scared 332
25 The Search for Old McMonkey 350
26 The Verdict 366
21 "Favoring the Rich over the Poor" 378
Authors Note 407
Selected Bibliography 421
Photo Credits 425
"The kidnapping of Patricia Hearst," writes Jeffrey Toobin, "is very much a story of America in the 1970s." But in his gripping new book part strange-but-true crime epic, part cultural history the veteran legal reporter presents a case with unsettling overtones for an unsettled nation almost fifty years older. American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, traces the intersection of a strangely assorted group of radicals who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army and the nineteen-year-old granddaughter of the legendary newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Drawing on thousands of pages of archival materials including hours of FBI interviews with suspects Toobin painstakingly and compellingly reconstructs the events that unspooled when the Berkeley-based SLA first abducted Patty Hearst from the driveway of her home, from their demands of food donations to the poor in lieu of ransom, to their announcement that Patty had renounced her former life to join their armed cause, to an infamous San Francisco bank heist, and the apocalyptic gunfight between the LAPD and SLA. Having missed out on the confrontation, Hearst and two others fled and found sanctuary among fellow radicals. When the FBI finally tracked Hearst down in 1975 more than a year and a half after her abduction her conversion looked to have been total, aiding in bomb-making plots and in another bank robbery that caused a teller's death.
Hearst's subsequent trial featured yet another shocking twist the assertion by the defense that their client's transformation had been wholly a matter of psychological manipulation on the part of her captors, and that her life as a fugitive and participation in SLA crimes was the result of a program of brainwashing. The resulting controversy over Patty Hearst's intent and culpability have only added to the sense of enigma around her case, and American Heiress offers it as a perhaps unique case study in the question of how far any one of us is capable of changing ourselves to match a shift in the reality around us.
Toobin is not only a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and legal affairs correspondent on CNN but the author of multiple bestsellers including The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, and The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson. Just before the release of American Heiress, Jeffrey Toobin spoke with me by phone about his research, what brought him to the Hearst case, and how the strange atmosphere of early '70s California resonates with an anxious USA in 2016. - Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: What brought you to this? Was there a specific moment when you thought, "Patty Hearst; I want to write about that story."
Jeffrey Toobin: It's actually a very straightforward story. I wrote a piece for The New Yorker a couple of years ago about this jail in Baltimore that had been taken over by a gang called the Black Guerrilla Family, and the history of the Black Guerrilla Family, which started, it turns out, in the California prisons in the 1970s, which were a big hotbed of political activism. I got interested in that story, and I went to lunch with my editor at Doubleday, Bill Thomas, and I was telling him about that, and he said, "But what about Patty Hearst?" Because the SLA also came out of the California prisons.
BNR: You write that prison activist George Jackson, the author of Blood in My Eye, is something of a link between those movements . . .
JT: He was actually the founder of the Black Guerrilla Family. So my immediate reaction when Bill suggested that was, "Oh, there must be a million books about Patty Hearst." So he said, "Well, go check it out." And I found that, in fact, nothing has been written about Patty Hearst for decades, that there were a bunch of books that happened in the immediate aftermath, and then nothing. So I thought, "Wow, there really might be something here," and I started looking into it, and I realized that the story was much richer and more evocative than I had expected.
BNR: As I began reading it became clear how little I knew or remembered and I suspect this is true of most people today about the SLA. The name, the Symbionese Liberation Army, itself almost resisted sort of interpretation. They couldn't have picked a name that was more of a kind of cipher for the idea of vague radicalism.
JT: In fact, as I write in the book, the name is a good reflection of the absurdity of the whole SLA enterprise. There is no such word as "symbionese." They didn't liberate anyone or anything. You can't really call a dozen people an army. But the name has, you know, entered into American history because of this bizarre case.
BNR: The SLA formed around an escaped convict, Donald DeFreeze, who became known as Cinque, and was made up largely of white younger people, some of whom had been working in the prison education movement in that time, getting further radicalized and getting attuned to the idea that the Revolution will have to be led by black Americans, by people who have been imprisoned. But what you present is this group that's a chaotic amalgam of radical fervor, a half- baked Bonnie-and-Clyde outlaw fantasy, and cultlike dysfunction. Was it just chance that this is the group that became the most notorious of all those leftist radicals of that period?
JT: I don't know if I would call it chance. They committed the only political kidnapping in American history, before or since. So it's not surprising that their name is remembered. That is a sinister, important accomplishment. What they had no way of knowing is that their target was in a restless moment in her life that found her receptive to joining with these lunatics.
That's what turns this case into an American epic, the transformation, disputed though it is, of Patty Hearst.
BNR: What's fascinating about the story, in your careful retelling here, is that she goes from victim to protagonist she really does become the figure who makes this such a notorious and lasting kind of event in our history. She takes over the story.
JT: The lunatic politics of the SLA are subsidiary to the broader and really important questions of: What is free will? How do people decide what they do? The question of Hearst's conduct is really the mystery at the heart of this case.
BNR: You're very careful as you walk through and lay out all of the evidence in the quest for the solution to that mystery. The books is structured so that you both tell the story from the various viewpoints that illuminate it and eventually lead the reader to the court case, giving us the evidence that the juries in the various cases had, and also all the evidence that they didn't have. You're very careful not to draw a final conclusion yourself or to explicitly say that you do about the truth or falsity of Patty Hearst's claims in her trial. But you do leave us saying that there's bigger game here, which is the question of what does it mean that she could change from one person to another person, another person almost directly opposed to that earlier personality, and then change back.
JT: That's right. I do think that I am pretty clear that I don't believe that Patricia was coerced into committing this extraordinary list of crimes that she did over almost a year and a half. I think that she did join the SLA. She did voluntarily rob banks and set up bombs and shoot up a street in Los Angeles. I don't think she staged her own kidnapping. But I certainly believe that she was a voluntary participant in a lot of crimes.
BNR: As you point out, that looks very clear in retrospect. It is interesting, then, as you do, to revisit that case for the commutation of her sentence that was made, and, interestingly and fascinatingly to me, driven forward or given extra strength by the tragedy of the People's Temple.
JT: Right. One of the things that interested me the most in the book is that the overall atmosphere of madness in the United States in the mid-1970s, especially in the Bay Area, and the People's Temple, was a classic demonstration of that.
BNR: You also note that her kidnapping happened right on the heels of a string of the Zebra murders in San Francisco.
JT: The Zebra murders, which I knew nothing about before researching the book. Can you imagine if a group of Black Muslims decided just to murder random white people on the street, which is what happened, how that would be responded to today? It's just unbelievable how crazy it was. The People's Temple forms a sort of bookend to the whole story. Jim Jones tries to get in on the action.
BNR: He wanted his group to distribute the food for the poor, which the Hearsts bought as an SLA ransom demand.
JT: Right. And then later, the fact that he led all of his followers into suicide persuades a lot of people that brainwashing is real, and Patricia should have her sentence commuted, which it was.
BNR: Is this the last gasp of a kind of 1960s- based idea that there will be a real left-wing revolution, or is it more of a zombie afterlife of those movements?
JT: I think it's a combination of the alienation of the post-'60s counterculture, which, you know, after the end of the draft, saw most middle-class kids fade away, and only the hardcore remained. And then you had the example around the world of other revolutionary movements, like the Tupamaros in Uruguay, like the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, which the SLA very clearly modeled themselves on.
BNR: I want to talk about that famous photograph of her that the SLA stages right when she is announcing her joining. You call it "the Mona Lisa of the 1970s," What does that image come to represent for people now? In other words, have we overlaid too much glamour on top of this?
JT: What gives the book, I think, contemporary resonance is that, you know, terrorism is nothing new in the United States. We are very scared of ISIS today. But in fact, there was more terrorism in the '70s. That photograph also I think shows that outlaw glamour is a concept that's been around for a long time.
BNR: Let me ask you a little bit about what it was like to put the book together. There's an element of historical reconstruction that you had to do, that must have been quite different than writing about, say, the O.J. case.
JT: This is the first book I've written that is really at the border between journalism and history. I covered the O.J. case in real time.
BNR: So you had your own experiences and interviews and notes to build that book from.
JT: Yeah. I was a kid during the Hearst story, and essentially had no firsthand knowledge of it. So it was completely reconstructed from the sources that were available to me. Fortunately, I found that not only were there a lot of documentary sources that had never been tapped, but also that there were a lot of people still alive who wanted to talk.
BNR: Who for you were the most revelatory people that you spoke with?
JT: I don't really want to sort of rank my sources. I was able to speak to people in all parts of the story. FBI agents. Prosecutors. Defense lawyers. SLA members. Crime victims. The crazy bystanders. People who had weird tangential connections to the case, like Jane Pauley and Lance Ito. It was an eclectic, fun experience.
BNR: What aspect of the story yielded the most surprise for you, where you might have had one expectation about it that turned out to be different?
JT: I think, to me, the biggest revelation was Patty's lost year, which is the period after the shootout in May of '74 until her arrest in September of 1975, when the incompetent FBI had no idea where she was and she was participating in this extraordinary terrorist offensive that went on for some time, until she was caught. I think that period to me was the most extraordinary and interesting.
BNR: It's a period in which she's both doing that, and she's falling in love in a very real-seeming or real way with one of her fellow terrorists, basically.
JT: Yes. She did it twice, first with Willie Wolfe, then with Steve Solia.
BNR: You remark that there's a throughline in all of her relationships, that these are figures who provide sort of protection and authority she winds up . . .
JT: Yes. Steve Weed, her teacher, her kidnapper, her protector, her bodyguard.
BNR: Whom she winds up married to for the rest of his life.
BNR: You've remarked on the fact that the Hearst case confronts us with the history of homegrown American terrorism, at a moment when our sense of the word is strongly associated with the idea of foreign terrorists. During the time this was all happening, the sense of real panic in the culture surrounding these events, the sense that lots of the rules of engagement between the political class and ordinary people, between the media and the people who they report on and serve, are all in tremendous and terrifying flux. Some of that seems unhappily familiar right now. As you were working on this, did you see this speaking at all to our particular moment, not just with regard to something like terrorism, but with regard to the mood of the country?
JT: I think it's a combination. I do think that if you believe, as many people do, that events are shimmering out of control, it may be helpful to know that things have been worse in the past. But I don't want to pretend that I wrote this book as sort of like a guide to contemporary life. It's mostly just an extraordinary story from the past that has one woman at the mysterious heart of it.
August 3, 2016
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting theoretical perspective on 70s radicalism. Worth reading!
I learned so much of this Era.
In American Heiress, author Jeffrey Toobin explores the Patty Hearst kidnapping case and Hearst’s surprising choice to join her kidnappers as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (“SLA”). While Hearst remained a member of the SLA, she had many chances to escape her captors, but didn’t, instead taking part in several bank robberies and attempted bombings of police stations. After finally being captured and put on trial for her involvement in the SLA, she renounced her life as a revolutionary almost immediately. Hearst’s case has come to be considered a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome. Toobin explores this classification in regards to Hearst’s actions and offers instead the suggestion that Hearst is a rational being who simply acted consistently with whatever was in her best interest. Toobin notes in his acknowledgments that, having purchased a large cache of SLA writings and trial documents from member Bill Harris, he reviewed over 150 boxes of documents for this book in addition to other outside sources. This depth of research provided a very intimate portrait of the disturbed and at times almost comically chaotic mindset of the SLA. Toobin also does a thorough job of setting the cultural backdrop of the kidnapping in the 70’s with its political turmoil and the affinity that radical groups of the time had for bombing. Having been born after this time period myself, a lot of this was news to me and I found the time period and the case itself quite interesting. The one surprise I had upon reading this book is how little sympathy I felt for Patty Hearst in the end. Considering the kidnapping she went through and the crazy inept group the SLA was, one would think she would present a more pitiful character, but it was hard to understand her actions. It just seemed like Hearst had so many opportunities to walk away, but instead seemed to enjoy her role as a revolutionary. It puzzled me, but then I imagine that is how victims of Stockholm Syndrome come across. Admittedly, this is my only exposure to the case and Toobin makes a convincing point that, while the kidnapping was no doubt a terrifying experience, Hearst soon acted in her own interest and wholeheartedly embraced the SLA. Though conflicting evidence throughout the case makes it impossible to know anything for sure, Hearst’s actions and general demeanor make it difficult to understand her even after she left the SLA. An intriguing if somewhat lengthy seeming read. Disclaimer: I received an advanced ARC of this book from the publisher on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Great read. Hearst comes across as a shallow person without deep feelings about any person or thing. She subverts and adopts the ways of any nearby authority. Thus, she badmouths to her kidnappers, her fiancée and mother. For this reason, and the excitement of her new life, she does not escape when she has the chance. When a new authority comes along in the form of the legal system she quickly dumps her criminal associates, and the lover to which she had expressed undying love. And does the thing her personality compels her to do. She marries a cop.
Oh you trivia friends of mine (and you know who you are), I got some major ammo out of this book. It's crazy. I lived during all of this. I knew the girl was kidnapped and that she said she was brainwashed. I had no idea it went on as long as it did. I remember the picture. I remember she married her bodyguard. I remember Squeaky Fromme trying to kill Ford, but not Sara Jane Moore just 17 days later. Creepy I know more about the Manson case than this one. Well, now I know a LOT about this one. It's amazing the connections that are involved in all of this. At first, I thought I was going to be bored, as it started out a little slow. There was also a little redundancy. However, for the most part, I thought this was a great book. I can also see how she was just bored with her life and hey, here comes something new and different. She is a year or two older than me, so yeah, I can totally relate to what she did. The big question - didn't a lot of us do that? Did all of us get that second chance? I think this was be a great debate book for a book club. There's also a lot of researched information in here and I definitely recommend it for those who love to absorb and learn interesting facts! Thanks to Doubleday Books and Net Galley for the free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
So strange when it happened. For Patty it ended well. The bank thing was so odd...