"American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst" by Jeffrey Toobin, 2016, Doubleday.
Patricia Hearst, 19, was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment on the night of Feb. 4, 1974. Three armed people burst into the apartment where she lived with her fiance, Steven Weed. They were due to be married in June but they never saw each other again after that night.
Weed was hit on the head with a sap and knocked nearly unconscious. Still, he was able to regain his wits and barreled out through the back kitchen door. He vaulted a fence and disappeared into the neighborhood. This account of Weed's escape was described on page three of the book and it took another 54 pages to find out what happened to him. I kept thinking, Weed is going to come back and fight the abductors with all his might. Hold on, Patricia!
Instead, Toobin followed Hearst, which I guess is to be expected. (She was bundled into the trunk of a car and driven away by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.) But I kept thinking, where’s Weed?
Turns out that after Weed escaped and ran out of the back yard, he shouted for help in the residential neighborhood, didn't get any, and came back around to the house where other students and neighbors were now collecting, only to find out that Patty was gone. His chance to be a hero came and went.
Based on more than 100 interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, Toobin recreates Hearst's life during the year and a half that she was on the run. I don't think I would have read this book had Toobin not been a staff writer at The New Yorker and therefore highly credible.
"The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown," he wrote. Having lived through that decade myself, I agree. She was kidnapped in 1974, arrested in 1975, and released from prison in 1979.
Toobin does a good job of putting the events of those months and years into perspective. Hearst's parents were blackmailed into funding several food give-away programs in the Bay Area while their daughter was being held. The give-aways, he says, were without precedent in American history, the result of a political kidnapping that was also without precedent.
Members of the SLA included Donald De Freeze, Bill and Emily Harris, Angela Atwood, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, Mizmoon Soltysik, and Willy Wolfe. All but the Harrises were killed in the infamous shoot-out with Los Angeles police in South Central L.A.
Patricia, Emily and Bill watched the South Central carnage on TV from a motel room in Anaheim. Toobin said it was the biggest police gun battle ever to take place on American soil and it was broadcast live on TV. The SLA suspects in the house on 54th Street crept into the crawl space to avoid bullets, tear gas and fire. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were exchanged during the hour-long battle in which all six were killed.
De Freeze was a low-level hood, Mizmoon an industrious librarian, Ling a spaced out sex worker, Camilla Hall a middle-class lesbian poet, Wolfe a confused anthropologist, Atwood an actress. They fumbled and bumbled their way through a revolutionary lifestyle and at times seemed to be a collection of buffoons. But they were not. A few months before the Hearst kidnapping, DeFreeze and two of his female followers murdered the Oakland Superintendent of Schools Marcus Foster, coldly shooting him down in a parking lot.
Maybe Hearst should be included in that SLA membership list. Toobin doesn't say.
"Few people in American history have been subjected to as dramatic a transformation of circumstances as Patricia Hearst," he writes. "In an instant her life of ease and privilege vanished, replace by an ordeal of pure terror. And then -- most remarkable of all -- she responded to this extraordinary trauma by becoming a member of the very group that took her freedom away. Or did she?"
She might have been convinced that she had more to fear from police and the FBI than from the SLA. That's certainly what she was repeatedly told by her captors. After the deadly firestorm, she saw how police might have treated her.
In fact, she was quietly arrested in 1975 in a San Francisco safe house. She was sent to prison but again she made history, receiving a commutation from one president (Carter) and a full pardon from another (Clinton).
Yet she participated in three bank robberies -- an innocent woman was killed in the course of one of the robberies -- she fired a machine gun in the middle of a busy street to aid her partners and she joined in a conspiracy to set off bombs.
"The prisons teem with convicts who were also led astray and committed lesser crimes," said Toobin, noting that she never acknowledged any wrongdoing.
She was released from prison after serving 22 months of a seven-year sentence, married her bodyguard, and moved to the East Coast where she was a mother, a wife, a dog lover and a bit of a campy matron (appearing in some movies).
In 2015, at age 60, Hearst's shih tzu won the top prize in the toy category at the Westminster Dog Show.
She did not cooperate with Toobin when he was writing the book. But perhaps he didn't need her cooperation because he bought 150 boxes of pertinent material from Bill Harris upon his release from prison. Plus, he had Hearst's published memoir and her testimony at trial.
I love the way Toobin wraps up the saga: "She did not turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother." And Weed? Last I heard, he was selling real estate in Palo Alto, Calif.
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at email@example.com
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