AMERICAN HEIRESS tells the bizarre story of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
Do you remember the Patty Hearst kidnapping? I certainly do! It happened while I was in the seventh grade, and it was the major news story of 1974, at least until Nixon resigned. It got even more attention than the latest hilarious craze: streaking. That kidnapping was a crazy story of countercultural revolutionaries run amok and had more twists and turns than a snake.
Patricia Hearst, grandchild of ultra-wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was first kidnapped from her apartment by a group calling themselves the “Symbionese Liberation Army.” It was an interesting title. “Symbionese” is not a word, and that was one of the first things I remember hearing about the story after Patricia was taken.
What happened next, after Patricia was forcibly removed from her home at gunpoint, is still a source of some debate. Her parents were instructed by the Symbionese Liberation Army to give food packages to the poor as a “good faith gesture” to ensure the 19-year-old’s release. Meanwhile, they kept Patricia locked in a closet, blindfolded, where she was justifiably terrified. Some of the kidnappers took turns sitting outside of the closet door and subjected her to anti-American and Marxist harangues. These were violent people, involved in not only this kidnapping but others, carjackings, bank robberies, and even a murder, yet they didn’t like “society” and wanted to “transform” it. (Into what?) Patricia, stuck in a closet, had no choice but to listen to this stream of nonsense. Within a few weeks, the case took its first incomprehensible turn when Patricia claimed she had decided to join that “Army” of the people who had kidnapped her, and didn’t wish to be released. What the…?
Even as it happened, the country was captivated by the seeming mystery of it. I recall a very horrible tape playing on the radio of Patricia calling her parents “those pigs the Hearsts,” not long after they gave away a fortune in food to the poor to try to ensure her safe return. I was twelve years old – and appalled. Why would Patricia turn against her own parents, who had spent a fortune on the food giveaway in the hopes of “ransoming” her, and toward her kidnappers? Why would she side with this spooky, shadowy Symbionese Liberation Army, anyway, after they burst into her house with a gun? Did she really mean what she said, or was it possible that she had been brainwashed?
And just as the rest of us, all over the country, were wondering about those questions, the situation became even more convoluted about a month later: Patricia took the revolutionary name of “Tania,” then joined her new “comrades” in robbing a bank! There was even a security tape to prove it.
Last weekend when I saw Jeffrey Toobin’s book, AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patricia Hearst, had come out in paperback and was sitting on a table at my favorite Barnes & Noble, I eagerly bought it. It’s an impeccably researched book – bravo, Mr. Toobin! – and brought back a flood of memories. I can vividly recall reading about the case in a “Weekly Reader” in my mint-green-painted 7th grade Social Studies class, though I can’t remember much else of what we read that year in that little publication; seeing another article about it at my grandfather’s house, in a magazine that had Patricia as “Tania” on the cover, holding a gun; watching the news footage when a house that was surrounded by the FBI was burning down, with many of the “Army,” but not Patricia, still in it…
Nobody knew what to make of Patricia’s “transformation” into a “revolutionary” at the time, and no one is sure what to think about it even yet. Yet Jeffrey Toobin’s book brings up a whole other mystery about the case of which I wasn’t aware until I read it. The so-called “Symbionese Liberation Army” turned out to be comprised not of legions of units of soldiers but of eight young discontented assorted nuts. There had been ten, but two were in jail for a murder they didn’t commit. It was three of the members who kidnapped Patricia who were the real murderers.
These people were the oddest collection of malcontents imaginable. The leader, for example, is a prison escapee, often drunk, who was believed to be a schizophrenic by a prison psychiatrist, so you can imagine what kind of people were his acolytes. The descriptions of each one are fascinating to read, though reminiscent of watching a train wreck, where you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away, either. AMERICAN HEIRESS is a page-turner and a jaw-dropper. What a cast of characters! And after reading about the members of this, ahem, “army,” there’s a new riddle to add to all the others about the unreal saga, and it’s this. How did those eight lunatics manage to summon the logic to pull off any crimes in the first place, with guns, yet, without anyone shooting themselves in the feet?
This book needs to be made into a movie!