Jeffrey Toobin tells the story of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Patricia “Patty” Hearst.
Patricia “Patty” Hearst.

Mike Nelson/Getty Images

A friend of mine attended Berkeley High School in the late 1970s, and there he witnessed the disruption of a mandatory assembly at which candidates for student body offices were supposed to be making their campaign speeches. A punk provocateur using the nom de guerre of Jennifer Blowdryer took the stage; bereted and fatigued, Blowdryer brandished a toy machine gun and shouted, “Death to the fascist insect who preys upon the life of the people!”

To anyone living in Berkeley, California, at that time—and for most of America as well—the iconography being sent up in this performance was unmistakable: The weirdly catchy “fascist insect” line was the exhortation with which the Symbionese Liberation Army closed all of its bombastic communiqués. The beret and gun automatically invoked Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress kidnapped by the tiny militant leftist group in 1974. Two months into her 19-month captivity, Hearst announced via audiotape that she had changed her name to Tania and joined the cadre; the SLA released an indelible photograph of her posing in the beret-and-gun getup in front of the group’s hydra-headed serpent logo to the press. So when my friend watched that display at his high school just a couple of years later, he and his classmates saw a deadly earnest image of revolutionary violence and crime converted into political kitsch. That was the volatile, overheated world of the Bay Area of the 1970s: Everything spoiled so fast.

Jeffrey Toobin’s new book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, does something I wouldn’t have thought possible before reading it: It comes down too hard on the SLA. True, the “army” was a pack of jokers, a handful of pseudo-Marxist white kids led by a delusional black man, Donald “Cin” DeFreeze, who rarely left his apartment because he’d recently escaped from a California state prison. (Toobin notes that authorities “made virtually no effort to find him” despite the fact that he had a record of violent crime.) Toobin characterizes Cin as a “junior varsity” George Jackson, the charismatic prisoners’ rights activist and author of the 1970 best-seller Soledad Brother. “In almost every respect, DeFreeze was a lesser man,” he writes: “not as intelligent, not as good-looking, not as strong, not as charismatic, not as competent. To paraphrase Marx, if George Jackson was tragedy, then Donald DeFreeze, as Cin, was farce.” Holed up in his room, mainlining cheap wine and newspapers, Cin nursed fantasies about his significance as a community leader and grudges against anyone he perceived to be discounting him, from Black Panther leader Huey Newton to Marcus Foster, Oakland’s dynamic new black superintendent of schools.

Jeffrey Toobin.
Jeffrey Toobin.

Robert Ascroft

One thing the SLA was not, however, was the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. Cin and two of his gun-wielding followers assassinated Foster and wounded his chief aide in a parking lot the year before the Hearst kidnapping. Their ultimate goal—a muddled vanguardism in which they imagined their actions would spark a general uprising—might have been preposterous, but after Hearst signed on to their mission, they planned and executed two bank robberies almost without a hitch, all while eluding the biggest manhunt in American history.

Hearst did not cooperate in the writing of this book and has made her displeasure with it publicly known, yet Toobin frames American Heiress as a tribute to her resilience: what he sees as the “rational” response of a determined survivor to a string of extraordinary challenges. Nineteen years old when she was kidnapped, Hearst was already engaged to and living with Steven Weed, who had been a math teacher at the private girls’ school she attended. She wanted him because her schoolmates all regarded him as a catch, but once landed Weed proved to be someone that nobody (including Hearst herself) liked very much. With an insufferably nerdy arrogance, he believed himself smarter than just about everybody and insisted that Hearst organize her own life around his needs. He became notorious for jumping out the window (admittedly in search of help) during the kidnapping. Hearst has said that she felt suicidal over their engagement, and yet somehow she couldn’t manage to free herself from it despite the fact that her parents had no great liking for the match.

For a period of weeks after her abduction, Hearst was kept in a closet in a safe house outside of San Francisco and blindfolded whenever necessary to prevent her from being able to identify her captors. Gradually, the restrictions on her loosened as the “comrades” (as Toobin calls them) allowed her to listen to the radio or watch television reports on her kidnapping. They gave her books, particularly George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, and the more sympathetic members talked to her at length about their lives and beliefs. They impressed upon Hearst that her parents weren’t trying hard enough to get her released. (Randy and Catherine Hearst attempted to meet the SLA’s fantastical demands for a massive food giveaway to the poor, but few people realized that Randy had limited direct access to the Hearst fortune; his own father had tied it up in professionally managed foundations.) The SLA warned Hearst that, while they had no desire to hurt her, the FBI would quite willingly risk her death in a shootout should their location be discovered. (The fact that, later, all but two of the original group died in just such a siege in Los Angeles only confirmed this.) Within a few weeks, Hearst gave every appearance of being a committed insurgent, photographed by security cameras during one of the bank robberies and firing a weapon from a parked vehicle.

After Hearst’s arrest in 1975, she exchanged letters with the comrade who had been her most recent lover; Toobin managed to obtain those previously unpublished letters, which confirm that she remained, however briefly, a true believer even after she had no reason to fear anyone in the SLA. Her own lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, failed to convince a jury that Hearst participated in the SLA’s crimes only because she believed she would otherwise be killed. She was sentenced to seven years in prison. (She served 22 months until the sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.) One of the most disputed aspects of Hearst’s captivity surrounds her allegation that she was coerced into having sex with Willy “Cujo” Wolfe and DeFreeze, as well as other SLA men. The two surviving members of the original group, married couple Bill and Emily Harris, insisted that Hearst initiated the relationship with Wolfe and never had sex with DeFreeze at all. Toobin tactfully refrains from drawing a firm conclusion of his own but does point out that “according to modern conceptions of consent, it is difficult to imagine how anyone in Patricia’s situation could be deemed to have voluntarily slept with one of her kidnappers.”

But Toobin also doesn’t quite endorse the widespread belief that Hearst was “brainwashed,” a concept that many psychologists regard as dubious. Toobin chooses to view the whiplashing switchbacks of Hearst’s behavior as signs of her “independence,” but in spite of this she comes across as a young woman with a highly contingent identity. Hearst, like quite a few people at her age, seemed inclined to shape herself around the beliefs of the strongest personality in the room. And she passed through a series of extraordinary rooms. She appears as the only ordinary person in a parade of weirdos, creeps, fanatics, scoundrels, idealists, firebrands, and outright maniacs—a chameleon struggling across a landscape of plaid. Previously, the best-known book on Hearst (beside her own memoir, Every Secret Thing), journalist Shana Alexander’s 1979 Anyone’s Daughter, argued that Hearst was a kind of young everywoman, whose training in conventionally pliant femininity made her the ideal victim, susceptible to any version of authority she encountered.

Today, what Hearst and her story seem to reflect best is the apocalyptic mood of the 1970s, particularly in the Bay Area, where, “to a degree that can scarcely be imagined today,” Toobin writes, “the bomb became a common mode of American political expression,” the preferred action of radical groups like the Weather Underground. (The SLA’s penchant for shootouts was less common, especially among white militants.) In 1974, there were 2,044 bombings in America, killing 24 people. The SLA—with their revolutionary clichés and incoherent agenda—were terrorists by any contemporary understanding of the term; what they sought above all was media attention and a reputation as uncompromising badasses. But they believed themselves to be soldiers, “urban guerrillas” (the profession Hearst claimed when she was arrested) loosely modeled after Fidel Castro, who really did succeed in overthrowing the Cuban government. If you moved in certain circles back then, circles that were not small, the people around you took it for granted that the existing order in the U.S. was about to topple at any moment.

Toobin does attempt to capture this mood in “Nervous Breakdown Nation,” an early chapter of American Heiress, but it’s difficult to convey to a contemporary readership. The violence (Hearst was kidnapped at the same time the Zodiac and Zebra killers were terrorizing San Francisco), disruption, and extremism were so continuous that this came to seem a new form of normality. Yes, the SLA were idiots who didn’t have a viable plan for changing the world, but Toobin leans so hard on the meaninglessness of their agenda that he creates the impression their idiocy was obvious to everyone around them. “In truth,” he writes of the SLA’s proclamations, which they demanded be published in full in Hearst newspapers, “the rhetoric mean little. The words were scarcely understood by the SLA members who uttered them and totally ignored by the public who heard them.”

But as American Heiress itself demonstrates, this is not quite true. The venerable underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb cheered on Hearst’s conversion to radicalism and resulting crime spree, and plenty of people were willing to help Hearst and the SLA during their year as fugitives from the FBI. After the Foster assassination, black and leftist groups, and leaders like the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and Jane Fonda denounced the SLA (much to the comrades’ bafflement and fury), but those who helped them ranged from Nation of Islam members to fellow radicals to journalists. This wasn’t only because everyone to the left of center mistrusted (with excellent cause) the FBI: It was also because they recognized the SLA as still clinging to the far edge of a continuum that they belonged to as well. Yet because Toobin rarely lets pass any opportunity to heap scorn on the SLA’s “thought,” personal behavior, and long-term planning abilities (the stupidity of which is perfectly obvious anyway), the instances where they received help and support seem simply unfathomable.

And they would be, for most people, only a year or two later, when almost everyone began to come out of the 1970s as if from a dream. One day you’re the alarming emblem of how drastically a child of American privilege can turn on the world that made her and seek to burn it to the ground, and the next, a witty, bratty teenager has turned you into the butt of joke. If not for the dead—the five SLA members killed in the Los Angeles shootout; Marcus Foster; Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer killed during the group’s second robbery—it would be hard to believe that it had happened at all.

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

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