American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin (Book Review)

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: americana, journalistic, as-seen-on-tv, true-crime, non-fiction, social-commentary

I knew very little about this case going in to this book. I was 12 when Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and all I remember of anything political during that pre-CSPAN era was being extremely put out when the Watergate hearings preempted my favorite TV shows for, like, ever.

The basic facts: In 1974, heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by a radical guerrilla organization calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army, appeared to begin sympathizing with them and joined them as a soldier, committed numerous crimes as their member, then defended herself at trial by claiming she had been brainwashed and went along with them because she feared for her life.

The basic question: Was Patricia Hearst, in truth, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome?

In the nomenclature of the times, what a trip. This exhaustively researched, unputdownable analysis of the entire case is a vibrant portrait of 70’s San Francisco and the Berkeley counterculture well-set in historical context. Factoid 1: The police shootout with the SLA in Los Angeles remains one of the biggest in American history and was the first instance of a live broadcast of breaking news. Factoid 2: The 2010’s and the 1970’s share similar sociopolitical goings-on, including economic woes, highly active movements for gender and racial equality, mistrust of the government, wealth, and the “Establishment.” The years 1972, 1973, and 1974 averaged 1,987 domestic bombings per year with an average of 24 people killed each year. Now we don’t have bombings; we have mass shootings. I’m not saying they’re directly parallel, but I think it’s interesting and would like to know more about it.

The drawback is that Patricia herself refused to cooperate with Toobin as he researched and wrote the book, but I feel he did his best to present her claims regardless and to keep his account judicious. Toobin used not only Patricia’s own memoir Every Secret Thing as source material, but transcripts of hours and hours of interviews she gave to others, interviews with hundreds of officials, witnesses, and people who knew her personally, FBI and police case documents, attorneys’ papers, private investigators’ reports, and court testimony to fill in what Patricia herself would not tell him.

If you don’t know much about the case and want to draw your own conclusions, stop reading this review and read the book instead. I recommend it highly. My own opinion follows.

So. Was Patricia Hearst brainwashed? Only she will ever know for sure, but I seriously doubt it.

I think she was a rich-girl rebel. At 16, she hooked up with her 23-year-old teacher, who turned out to be the fiance possessed of such incredible dickheadedness during the kidnapping and aftermath. I think that once she realized the SLA did not intend to kill her, that they were willing to accept her as one of their own, she took the whole thing as a lark. I think Toobin nailed it when he wrote that Patricia Hearst was sensible to the moment and always saw exactly where the butter on her bread was. I call bullshit, Patty, for the simple reason that I would have been the same way. I was also a self-centered, rebellious twit, easily blown by any wind, a sucker for the glamorous and the shocking, and embracing what was most expedient for me at any given time. For a period of roughly four days when I was 19, I thought Scientology was cool. Revolutionaries do have a romantic draw, and Che Guevara was hot. I get it. So, I see you, Patty, because if I’d been in your shoes, I might well have done everything you did, and for all your wrong reasons. At least I can admit it.

I understand the theory of Stockholm Syndrome and don’t deny it out of hand. I remained open-minded throughout the descriptions of Patricia’s time with the SLA and tried to put myself in her shoes. The entire time I read I kept asking myself, was she brainwashed? I doubt the SLA capable of it, honestly; they reminded me of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. They were led by a black man who fancied himself the general of a black army but managed to recruit no black members, they had no clear agenda, they were so whack that other radical left organizations shunned them, they didn’t even know what they intended to do with Patricia once they had her. Months later, as she fled the manhunt during a cross-country drive with sympathetic people unrelated to the SLA, Patricia steadfastly refused their offers to help her get home. She refused to go home when the SLA told her she should go home. I laughed out loud when one kidnapper compared holding Patricia hostage to O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief.

But…was she brainwashed? In fear for her life?

I can buy it through the Hibernia bank robbery. That could have been the test Patricia said it was, the first time since being taken that she was out in sunshine and fresh air, surrounded by armed kidnappers who said they’d kill her if she looked at them cross-eyed. The problems come up after that, when she was no longer under watchful and unblinking eyes, out and about buying groceries and stealing purses and casing banks on her own like any normal urban guerrilla does all day.

The turning point for me was the shootout at Mel’s Sporting Goods, when two comrades went in to shop and Patricia was left alone in the car, with a crapton of weapons and the keys in the ignition, and she chose not only to stay but to narrowly miss killing at least two bystanders while providing covering fire for her comrades.

The clincher was that her Stockholm Syndrome seems to have magically cured itself virtually overnight once she was arrested, looking down the barrel of life in prison and realizing how much she’d missed mascara and not eating horsemeat. Only then did she say she was terrified and browbeaten the whole time and start referring to the SLA as “them” instead of “us” and drop her brother-in-arms-lover like a hot rock. Turns out the life of a revolutionary is not really all that glamorous, I guess.

And I’m not angry that she came out of her trial pretty sweet or that her lawyer got her immunity for a second bank robbery that included murder. The lawyer is supposed to get the best deal possible for the client, and that’s what her lawyer did. But it’s galling to hear her claim she was persecuted because her name is Hearst and the “fascist pigs” were only after her, and then to remember that only the bourgeoisie she claimed to despise have access to top-drawer lawyers and two presidents, one for a sentence commutation and the other for a full pardon.

Brainwashed? Under duress? Ultimately, the only evidence I saw that Patricia was not doing what she wanted to do is her own say-so; every single other circumstance and witness says otherwise.

I considered reading Patricia’s book for balance but then I watched (painfully, because I cannot stand Larry King) a lengthy interview where in her country-club-eye-rolling-I’m-so-terribly-bored-by-all-this-daahling diction, she brushed off her own actions and refused to take a single iota of responsibility for anything while lambasting other SLA members for exactly the same thing. I think that anyone with the introspection capacity of a gnat, who had taken part in the things she did, would feel bad, feel guilty, feel ashamed, feel terrible about it, whether they were under duress or not. She doesn’t. She is completely without affect and shows not a whit of remorse. Victim all the way. Ugh. I still might read her book at some point, but right now I feel I’ve heard enough.

YMMV of course, and if you believe her story, I don’t blame you. Patricia Hearst is a chameleon, if nothing else. Read it.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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