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

Money talks…

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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

TBR Thursday 187…

Episode 187

I’m getting a bit worried that my postman may have been abducted by aliens – there has been a distinct dearth of parcel deliveries so far this year. The result is a massive drop in the TBR – down 2 to 225! It’s worrying…

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Factual

This is one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I remember the Patty Hearst story from when it happened, when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by it without ever fully understanding what it was all about – in fact, it may well have been that vagueness that made it so intriguing…

The Blurb says: Domestic terrorism. Financial uncertainty. Troops abroad, fighting an unsuccessful and bloody war against guerrilla insurgents. A violent generation gap emerging between a discontented youth and their disapproving, angry elders.

This was the early seventies in America, and it was against this backdrop that the kidnapping of nineteen-year-old Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Front – a rag-tag, cult-like group of political extremists and criminals – stole headlines across the world. Using new research and drawing on the formidable abilities that made The Run of His Life a global bestseller, Jeffrey Toobin uncovers the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath in vivid prose and forensic detail.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail via NetGalley. It feels like too long since I randomly picked a book based purely on the blurb, with no prior knowledge of either it or the author. I suspect I shall either love this or hate it – I’m hoping it’s the former!

The Blurb says: As dusk approaches, a former surgeon goes about closing up his dilapidated clinic in rural India. His day, like all his days, has been long and hard. His medical supplies arrive late if at all, the electrics in the clinic threaten to burn out at any minute, and his overseer, a corrupt government official, blackmails and extorts him. It is thankless work, but the surgeon has long given up any hope of reward in this life.

That night, as the surgeon completes his paperwork, he is visited by a family – a teacher, his heavily pregnant wife and their young son. Victims of a senseless attack, they reveal to the surgeon wounds that they could not possibly have survived.

And so the surgeon finds himself faced with a preposterous task: to mend the wounds of the dead family before sunrise so that they may return to life. But this is not the only challenge laid before the surgeon, and as the night unfolds he realises his future is tied more closely to that of the dead family than he could have imagined.

At once dustily realist and magically unreal, Night Theatre is a powerful fable about the miracles we ask of doctors, and the fine line they negotiate between life and death.

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Fiction on Audio

I’ve often been tempted by Conn Iggulden’s books and the subject matter of this one sounded particularly appealing. So since I had some Audible credits to use up, I gave into temptation. I’ve sneakily started listening to this already and am loving it so far – Geoffrey Beevers is doing a wonderful narration…

The Blurb says: “I have broken my vows. I have murdered innocents. I have trod down the soil over their dead face with my bare heels, and only the moon as witness. I have loved a woman and she ruined me. I have loved a king and yet I ruined him.”

The year is 937. England is a nation divided, ruled by minor kings and Viking lords. Each vies for land and power. The Wessex king Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, is readying himself to throw a spear into the north. Behind him stands Dunstan, the man who will control the destiny of the next seven kings of England and the fate of an entire nation. Welcome to the original game for the English throne.

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Korean Crime

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I don’t get many unsolicited books from publishers except for vintage crime, but this popped through my letterbox a few weeks ago, and it looks like fun. The blurb makes it sound quite dark, but the quotes on the cover and early reviews suggest there’s lots of black humour in it. I’m intrigued…

The Blurb says: Reseng was raised by cantankerous Old Raccoon in the Library of Dogs. To anyone asking, it’s just an ordinary library. To anyone in the know, it’s a hub for Seoul’s organised crime, and a place where contract killings are plotted and planned. So it’s no surprise that Reseng has grown up to become one of the best hitmen in Seoul. He takes orders from the plotters, carries out his grim duties, and comforts himself afterwards with copious quantities of beer and his two cats, Desk and Lampshade.

But after he takes pity on a target and lets her die how she chooses, he finds his every move is being watched. Is he finally about to fall victim to his own game? And why does that new female librarian at the library act so strangely? Is he looking for his enemies in all the wrong places? Could he be at the centre of a plot bigger than anything he’s ever known?

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?