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


Mr. Booklog and I listened to this audiobook on our trip to Iowa and back to Virginia a week later. Because it is an amazing story recounted flawlessly, we drove happily along the tiresome interstates.

In 1974 the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst (best known to the world through the fictional Citizen Kane) was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley and held in a closet by members of a small group that called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. Their rhetoric was extreme and nonsensical and their only action before that date had been the murder of a black school superintendent which earned them the denunciation of the Black Panthers. Within a month or so, she became an actor in the group and was captured on camera brandishing a gun during a bank robbery. About four months after she was kidnapped, five members of the group died in a fiery shoot-out with police. Emily and Bill Harris and Patty were not present and evaded capture for more than a year after that. Almost immediately upon her capture, she reverted to her previous life and claimed her actions were to save her life. She was tried and convicted of the bank robbery, but served less than two years. 

I had a distant connection with a member of the SLA. Not long after we arrived in Bloomington, Indiana in 1971, I began volunteering at a coop daycare center supported by Indiana University. We volunteers never met because the schedule was arranged so that we were always paired with a parent. One of the other volunteers at the time was Bill Harris. He appears to be one of the most ridiculous and pathetic characters in this book. Toobin's view of him is captured in this quote, "Like approximately no one else on earth, Bill thought the world needed to hear what the surviving members of the SLA thought." One last point about the 1970s in Bloomington: It is an interesting commentary on the times that people without children volunteered at daycare centers. 

One of the most compelling questions from this saga is that of Patty Hearst's guilt for actions during the time she was with the group. Toobin does a good job (as far as I can tell) of laying out all the facts. She appeared to embrace their rhetoric, she did not escape when she might have, and she had a role in various actions, including two armed bank robberies (one where a woman was killed). Toobin stressed that from the time of her capture, the SLA told her that the danger to her life was not from them, but from the FBI. Her decision to join them made sense to her as a matter of self-preservation and eventually I think she could no longer separate herself from them. Toobin writes about the Stockholm Syndrome, the phenomenon of the captive becoming empathetic with the captor. This became widely known and was based on an event in 1973 when bank robbers held captives in a vault for nearly a week in Stockholm.

Her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter so that her time in prison was reduced and at the end of Bill Clinton's second term, she was pardoned. Toobin refers to these two presidential actions as an indicator of her wealth and position and notes that others worthy of these actions wouldn't necessarily receive them. But it must be remembered that it was because she was wealthy and well-known that she was kidnapped in the first place.

The experience of listening to this book with Jim brought back memories of a very different time and we heard factual information that we either didn't know or had forgotten. The large number of politically motivated bombings in California was surprising to us. What a strange time it was.

 Jeffrey Toobin, The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, Doubleday, 2016, 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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