Kate’s Review: “American Heiress”

28007903Book: “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” by Jeffrey Toobin

Publishing Info: Doubleday, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”

The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing — the Hearst family trying to secure Patty’s release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty’s year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” entered the lexicon.

The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors’ crusade. Or did she?

Review: I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my usual stomping grounds were also in upper middle class areas. One of those neighborhoods was one that I could bike to, to hit the local Barnes and Noble, get a Starbucks mocha, and maybe go see a movie. This neighborhood also happened to be the same neighborhood that Sara Jane Olson, aka Kathy Soliah of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was found in after decades on the lam. My parents, both former anti-war protestors and pinko liberals of the 1960s and 70s, were pretty stunned, and when they explained who Soliah and the SLA were, I was stunned too. It was around this time that I was first introduced to the story of Patty Hearst, the heiress to the Hearst Fortune who was kidnapped by the SLA, only to join up with them. Sure, Hearst has kind of entered the pop cultural zeitgeist after all these years, that famous ‘Tania Picture’ pretty recognizable to even those who don’t necessarily know the significance of it. Hell, I had this picture on my bedroom door in high school (in vague protest of local gun legislation, but I digress). But outside of knowing the very basics of the case, I knew very little about Patty Hearst outside of this photograph. So when “American Heiress” ended up at my library, I decided it was time to learn more.

Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker, tells a comprehensive and detailed story not only about Patty and her kidnapping, but the crimes that the SLA committed before, during, and after, the trials and scrutiny that Patty faced, and the social and political climate of the United States in the 1970s. Gone were the idealistic days of the 1960s, and the 1970s was a time of much anger and frustration, as well as uncertainty. Nixon had recently been exposed for his corruption with the Watergate Scandal, gas prices were astronomical, and tensions were high. The Symbionese Liberation Army fancied itself a revolutionary group, but was less akin to peaceful protest and discourse, and more interested in bombs and murder (including the assassination of school superintendent Marcus Foster). Toobin does a great job of profiling our main players in the SLA, and his profiles are expansive and in depth. He also does a very good job of profiling Patty and her life pre-kidnapping. She was a student at Berkeley, engaged to an older man, and already feeling a little bit unappreciated and approaching a stagnancy. His descriptions of all these factors, as well as explanations of various societal events and views, all mix together to bring the reader right into this setting. I could almost feel the tension in the air.

What I also liked was that Toobin was pretty good at presenting a lot of this neutrally and seemingly without a conclusion he wanted the reader to draw. That may be in part to the fact that Patty Hearst didn’t have anything to do with this book, and declined to work with him on it. Because of that, Toobin has to work with other sources. He still managed to present a well thought out analysis of many factors within this crime. One of the biggest turns of the crime was the fact that Patty ‘joined’ her captors and began to commit crimes with them, releasing propaganda images and films denouncing her former life. She was eventually tried and convicted, in spite of the defense’s arguments that she was suffering from Stolkholm Syndrome. Eventually she was pardoned by President Carter. Toobin has really set out just to tell the story as it was, and how the SLA could have influenced her choices to cooperate. While the SLA didn’t have the competence to actually systematically brainwash her, it was, in a way, their short sightedness in their plan that may have led to her cooperation. They kidnapped her with no plan, and were constantly threatening her life and waffling with what to do with her. Because of this, through a need to survive and adapt, it could be argued that Hearst decided that to save herself, be it consciously or not, she needed to become one of them. But not once does Toobin go so far as to suggest that there is no responsibility there. After all, he also points out that she was angry with her parents for how they seemingly handled her kidnapping, and felt that they had turned their back on her. And by the end, I don’t really know where I fall in the argument. I jumped between ‘If she wasn’t a Hearst, or a white woman, or rich, she would have been in prison for far longer than eighteen months’, and ‘this poor girl was a complete victim and was completely railroaded!’. I still don’t really know where I stand, but I appreciate that. It shows that Toobin knows that it’s almost too complex for any solid answers to come out of it, especially after all this time. Honestly, it’s a combination of all those things. She was certainly a victim. But many victims don’t get the luxury of being seen as one.

The book is a little dense, so I hard a slower time getting through it, but in it’s density we get a whole lot of really interesting facts. I had no idea that so many familiar names were involved in this case. This runs the gamut from perhaps obvious people, like Ronald Reagan who was the Governor of California of the time (who said some pretty wretched things about poor minorities in relation to this case, surprise surprise), to the less obvious like Desi Arnaz (who was a family friend of Patty’s parents and whisked them away on a vacation to help them take their mind off of things). While sometimes this book could get a little off track with these things, I found it all pretty engrossing.

I think that true crime fans would like this book, but so would history buffs, and possibly even people interested in psychology and sociology. Patty Hearst is still around, making public appearances here and there, be it at the Westminster Dog Show or on TV. I don’t think anyone can really know everything about her outside of her, and she isn’t going to address it anytime soon. Nor should she have to. That said, Jeffrey Toobin does a great job of postulating and assessing various factors in her kidnapping fairly and in an insightful way. “American Heiress” was a good read, and I’m happy I know more about the poor girl whose chilling photo was on my bedroom door.

Rating 8: An in depth and interesting book about a notorious crime that never goes for sensation or salaciousness, “American Heiress” looks at the Patty Hearst Kidnapping through many lenses.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Heiress” has not been out long, and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It can be found on “Fresh Air 2016”, but I think it would also fit in on “California True Crime”.

Find “American Heiress” at your library using WorldCat!

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