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

February 18, 2017


For most people, the Patty Hearst story is summed up in a single photo. Patty, standing in the lobby of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a machine gun.


That iconic image shocked the world. Hearst, the wealthy granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, had been kidnapped from her Berkeley home in February of 1974 by a radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

When Patty showed up in the bank heist photo two months later, some speculated that she had been brainwashed. This was five years after the Manson trial, so the notion of brainwashing was fresh in the cultural psyche. In fact, when she was finally captured and tried for her part in the robbery, the foundation of the defense was that Hearst had been brainwashed by her captors.

Toobin is clearly skeptical of the brainwashing defense. Hearst comes off as a privileged, confused, pliable mind. The theory I walked away with was that she had everything she could ever need except a purpose. And when the SLA came along, as confused as their ethos was, at least they believed in something. Hearst bought into it. Enough to rob a bank. Enough to spray bullets across a street in broad daylight outside of Mel’s Sporting Goods. Enough to open herself emotionally and physically to members of the group.

Toobin painstakingly recounts the Hearst story almost moment by moment. I kept thinking that it seemed like a Coen Brothers movie. The would-be revolutionaries were hapless and inept, but filled with dangerous ideas and a willingness to kill and die for their ill-conceived cause. In fact, several key members of the group did die for the cause in a shootout with the LAPD’s newly-formed SWAT unit in May of 1974.

The SLA was of the moment—the Bay Area in the early 1970s was a tumultuous and violent place. Toobin makes the point of the country: “America at this moment combined international turmoil, economic collapse and high-level depravity. The historian Rick Perlstein wrote of this period, ‘America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history.’”

The Hearst story is interesting as a bit of sensational trivia, and Toobin’s account of the story is thorough and engaging, but the most interesting aspect of the story is how it captures the bizarre spirit of that particular era. The country still reeling from Viet Nam, the revolutionary upheaval of 1968 splintering into its various micro-movements, the disillusionment and absurdity and San Francisco’s particular flavor of crazy—there is a confluence of all of this in the Hearst story. Jim Jones makes a couple of appearances, as does the Nation of Islam. F. Lee Bailey, here at the beginning of the “celebrity lawyer” era, was the defense attorney who would make the case for brainwashing.

I would recommend this book along with Helter Skelter (Charles Manson) and A Thousand Lives (Jim Jones) to anyone interested in this peculiar decade in history. They capture a desperate search for purpose, for change and for belonging. They are of California and of the moment. They each show idealistic notions perverted in the most macabre ways. And though it may be a stretch to generalize beyond the central characters, these stories all seem to point to a time when, maybe, the American Dream went a little crazy.


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