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

Money talks…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. I was in my early teens at the time – old enough to be aware of what was going on in the world but still young enough not to always fully understand it. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

Toobin begins by describing the kidnapping itself, which is effective in concentrating the reader’s mind on the fear Hearst must have felt at that moment, whatever her later actions may have been. He then backtracks to tell the story of the Hearst dynasty – Patty was the granddaughter of the newspaper magnate, William P Hearst, immortalised in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. It was therefore assumed that her family would be enormously wealthy and to a degree they were, although William P had left his money tied up in ways that allowed his children to lead pampered lives without having control of the capital. As was relatively normal then, Patty wasn’t fully aware of her father’s financial position so, like the members of the SLA, probably thought he had easy access to far more cash than was in fact the case. So his later inability to meet the SLA’s ever-increasing demands may have made her feel that she had been deserted and betrayed by him.

Marcus Foster – educator.
Murdered by the SLA prior to the kidnapping of Hearst.

Toobin then introduces us to the selection of misfits and oddities who made up the SLA. I never understood in my youth what the SLA was all about – who were the “Symbionese” and what were they trying to liberate themselves from? As Toobin describes it, it seems my vagueness on the subject is not so surprising after all. The leader, Donald DeFreeze, was a black man who had been “radicalised” in prison by a combination of the rhetoric of the Black Panthers and white, middle-class, left-wing students rebelling against their parents and The Man, man. DeFreeze and his two original followers – both female, both his lovers – drew up a kind of vague, incoherent manifesto, proclaiming themselves as a vanguard of the revolution against the fascist state and gave themselves a made up name, derived from the word “symbiosis”. They attracted a few more wannabe revolutionaries, all white, several of them theatre people, and they all liked to dress up and play soldiers and have copious amounts of sex to prove how much more politically mature they were than previous generations. It all sounds so silly and childish in retrospect, and Toobin makes it pretty clear they were a bunch of sad, insignificant losers. But with guns.

Myrna Opsahl
Mother of four.
Murdered by the SLA during a bank robbery in which Hearst willingly participated.

“Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.” – reportedly said by Emily Harris, murderer and one of Hearst’s fellow “revolutionaries”.

As Toobin tells it, the hope and innocence of the ‘60s had turned darker in the ‘70s, and in San Francisco the Summer of Love had been superceded by crime-filled streets, and the twin horrors of the “Zodiac” serial killer and the “Zebra” murders, carried out by a gang of black men randomly killing white people as a perverted kind of fightback against racial injustice. He talks about the disconnect between generations, and shows the widespread sympathy many on the left felt towards the low-level terrorist tactics of the counterculture, for a while, at least.

Jeffrey Toobin

Toobin then goes into detail on the events leading up to the kidnapping, and on Hearst’s long period in captivity. Hearst refused to talk to him for the book, but he had extensive access to other people and to primary source documents relating to the legal cases that followed. It seems clear that Hearst was radicalised in turn, and there will probably never be a definitive answer as to how much fear affected her, initially at least. But within a few months, she was gun-toting with the rest of them, willing to steal, bomb and kill for the cause, though subsequently it became clear she was equally willing to sell out her former fellow revolutionaries and go back to her pampered life when it suited her.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. I tried hard to maintain some level of sympathy for Hearst, but I see in my notes I’ve described her as “basically just a stupid, spoilt, violent, murderous little brat” so I guess my attempt to be non-judgemental failed. Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for poor little rich kid Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. Highly recommended.

The man who gave Hearst a full pardon following her conviction for armed bank robbery.
Money talks.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

37 thoughts on “American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

  1. I remember the Heast kidnapping, too. Her behaviour seemed very odd at the time but perhaps we understand more about radicalisation now. I’m not a fan of true crime but may have to read this one. Great review!

    • Thank you! Yes, I think we do, but that didn’t work in her favour with me, because I couldn’t help feeling that if she was worthy of a pardon, then logic dictates all the recent terrorists claiming radicalisation should be pardoned too, and I’m not ready to accept that. In fact, as I was reading it there were a couple of terrorist attacks in various parts of the world, one being hailed as the murderers having been radicalised by Muslim extremists, the other presented as the killer having been radicalised by anti-Muslim white supremacists… I came to the conclusion radicalisation isn’t an acceptable excuse, or the world ends… Haha! Sorry! I hope you enjoy the book if you read it! 😉

  2. I think I remember reading something about her having a lower IQ after being captured than what she had before being kidnapped, and using an unsuccessful ‘brainwashing’ defence. Amazing how the victims are forgotten but the rich or famous criminals’ names become almost myths. I’ve just finished a book about Lord Lucan, exactly the same in that the victim’s name is almost forgotten.

    • Yes, she also lost a lot of weight. I’m no expert obviously having only read one book about it, but I didn’t get the impression Toobin bought the brainwashing defence, and nor did I. I thought it was more a case of teenage kicks taken to extremes. If they hadn’t had access to guns, they’d probably just have graffitied a few walls… After the last true crime book I read, it made me think about how we concentrate on the killers rather than the victims, which is why I decided to include pictures of the murdered rather than the murderers this time. You’re right – I can’t remember the name of Lucan’s victim…

      • The jury (or judge?) didn’t buy the brainwashing defence either. It sounds more like peer pressure.
        Using the photo of the victim is a far more respectful choice than of the well-known murderer, but a publisher is always going to use the famous person’s image for better sales I suppose.

        • No, I felt she was totally unconvincing – she could have left at any point for months, but chose to stay, and as soon as she was caught she sold out her “comrades”. Yes, and the picture of her with the gun is so iconic, unfortunately.

  3. I’ve read multiple stories of this kidnapping. Although she did a lot of crimes, I thought the pardon was fair. If she hadn’t been kidnapped, she wouldn’t have done any of these things. And we may never know the extent of the radicalization, and the brainwashing that must have been done to her.

    • It’s certainly arguable about the pardon. My feeling was that I doubt anyone would have wanted to pardon the black working class leader, DeFreeze, if he’d lived, and yet he too was radicalised during a period of imprisonment (and in America he’d have been highly unlikely to have been put in prison if he’d been white and rich). I think, whether we intend to or not, we look to find excuses for girls, especially if they’re pretty, rich and, in the west, white. All terrorists these days are claimed to have been radicalised by some group or other, but few of us want to pardon them. And I honestly felt the SLA were just a bunch of hippies with guns – I doubt they had the skills to brainwash anyone.

    • Thank you! I really only remembered the headlines so it was intriguing to have my questions answered. It’s a fascinating story whether you end up sympathising with her or, like me, think she got off too lightly.

  4. Oh, that case dominated the news at the time, FictionFan, and it’s a fascinating one on a number of levels. I’m not surprised you found yourself caught up in the story. I’m glad Tobin was able to be even-handed about it; I very much doubt I’d be as good at that. And it sounds as though the book evokes the times and atmosphere, too, and that’s great. Glad you enjoyed it as well as you did.

    • I was very impressed by Toobin – I’ve only come across him before as a talking head on CNN where he always seems to me to talk a lot of sense too. I did find the case fascinating, and there was so much I’d either forgotten or never knew, like the woman who was murdered during the bank robbery. I knew they’d carried out robberies but it was that murder and their casual reaction to it that removed the last vestiges of sympathy I had for Hearst. Like M Poirot, I don’t approve of murder… 😉

  5. I remember the Patty Hearst case being all over the news. It’s a tough call between what may have been done to her and the things she did. I don’t agree with the ‘money talks’ thing when it comes to justice though.

    • I started out ready to be sympathetic, but I came to the conclusion, admittedly on the basis only of this one book, that she’d bought into the thing willingly rather than being brainwashed. It must have been frightening for her at first, but they gave her plenty of opportunities to leave and she chose to stay, and in fact seemed to become one of the most fanatic of them. Yeah, I’m betting no-one would have pardoned the black working class leader if he’d lived to be convicted…

    • He mentions it but doesn’t go into it in depth. I think he said the courts didn’t recognise it as a defence at that time. She claimed she’d been brainwashed and terrorised into behaving as she did, and really it came down to whether one believed her or not, and I’m afraid I didn’t in the end, and neither did the jury. But who knows? I doubt we ever can be really sure…

  6. I remember hearing about the case, but not understanding it, since I was a kid at the time. What a mess. But it sounds like the book was intriguing at least. Reading it would probably make me hostile, however.

    • I must admit it made me angry, especially because there were a couple of terrorist attacks while I was reading so my sympathy towards people claiming they’d been radicalised was even lower than usual. It is a fascinating case, though, and the book is very well put together…

  7. I vaguely remember this being on the news, but even kids who grow up to be journalists don’t pay a lot of attention to stuff that feels far away, ha! I suppose it’s a good thing for someone to tackle a chronology and background on the events of that time, but I just don’t think I could force myself to read it. She just seemed like you said, a spoiled, stupid, violent little brat to me!

    • I think I was at the right age to be fascinated by this story without really understanding it. I still find it fascinating, but the glamour certainly wore off as I read about what they were really like. Yeah, I’m afraid I ended up with no sympathy for her – I doubt a bunch of crazy hippies could have talked anyone into being an accessory to murder unless she already was willing to behave like that…

  8. I was a teenager at the time and I remember knowing about it, but not really caring. (does that sound horrible??) I’m sure it’s because I didn’t really understand or take the trouble to learn more. I’ve actually learned more from your post than I ever knew about it before! I’d forgotten, too, that Slick Willy gave her the pardon. There have been many presidential pardons over the years that I’ve questioned, but then they don’t ever ask for my opinion. 😉

    …and folks like to talk about how terrible things are in the US/world these days? Just read history. (not that I’m making excuses for despicable behavior, ever)

    • Ha! No indeed, I’m still like that about some news stories. We can’t care about them all or we’d go mad! I didn’t know she’d been pardoned till I read the book, and I was kinda disgusted by it. Whatever was done to her was no excuse for her later behaviour. I hate the whole idea of pardons actually – it’s so open to abuse.

      Haha – you’re singing my song! I’m always reminding people that things used to be even worse than they are now. I don’t think I ever convince them though… 😉

  9. Oh lord, she got a full pardon for this? From Bill Clinton? Will wonders never cease! LOL

    This does sound really absorbing, even though I’m not familiar with this crime (before my time!), although the name Patty Hearst definitely rings a bell.

    • Yep! I used to be a Bill Clinton fan back in the day, not knowing much about him, but the more I learn, the more I begin to understand why so many people seem to dislike him.

      I knew very little about it although I remember it being in the headlines – it’s a fascinating insight into that whole “counterculture” era.

    • It really came home to me when reading The Adversary – the murderer in it enjoyed his fame so much that I felt uncomfortable about giving him extra publicity. This one was a fascinating insight into the whole “counterculture” thing…

  10. I am only vaguely aware of Patty Hearst’ story – I was surprised that she was alive and went on to live a normal life! For some reason, I thought she had died as a young woman. It seems so strange that she could have been a part of those crimes and then just returned to her former life. What happened to the other members? Were others pardoned? Surely some of them could argue that they were brainwashed too.

    • It was partly the speed and enthusiasm with which she returned to being a “bourgeois pig” that made me feel she hadn’t really been radicalised. I’m not aware she devoted her life and wealth to helping those “poor” and “victimised” people she’d been willing to kill for. Most of the gang were killed in a massive shootout with the police and FBI, which led to a horrific fire in the house they were holed up in. Hearst and two others weren’t in the house at the time, so survived, and went off to join up with another group for a bit of bombing and suchlike. They were all gradually caught at different times, some not till years later. The others didn’t get pardons as far as I know. But their daddies weren’t millionaires…

    • Thank you! I enjoyed finally learning what it was all about, never having really understood it while it was all happening. Yes, I was impressed by the book – must look out for his other ones. Apparently he’s writing one about the Mueller investigation!!

  11. ‘It all sounds so silly and childish in retrospect, and Toobin makes it pretty clear they were a bunch of sad, insignificant losers. But with guns.’
    Loved this! Really enjoy reading your reviews 🙂

    • Thank you! This is really well written and goes into just about the right amount of depth, I thought. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.