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Revisiting Patty Hearst

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'American Heiress' recounts famous kidnapping

When we're living through a ubiquitous cultural moment one of those events that holds the attention of just about everybody it can seem as if that moment will retain its relevance forever. However, the reality is that that is rarely the case.

Take the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. That sordid and spectacular tale had America riveted in the mid-1970s. The teenaged heiress was kidnapped by a group of self-styled subversives calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army and held for well over a year; she was swept up into the world of the SLA and became part of their cell, either by coercion or of her own free will.

And yet to people 40 years old and younger, the Patty Hearst story is little more than a footnote, a shorthand illustration of how weird that time was in America.

However, thanks to Jeffrey Toobin's new book 'American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst' (Doubleday, $28.95), a much greater understanding is granted both of the incredible story and the bizarre period in which it took place. Through scores of interviews and thousands of formerly secret documents, Toobin paints a vivid picture of the Patty Hearst narrative one that to this day remains unclear in numerous ways.

The date was February 4, 1974. Patricia Hearst was a 19-year-old college student living in California with her boyfriend Steve. She was an heiress to the massive Hearst family fortune, but content to live in relative anonymity. All that changed when a group of leftist radicals came to her door brandishing guns. They took her from her apartment and dragged her away from the only life she ever knew.

The disorganized and paranoid SLA made numerous demands of Hearst's parents Randy and Catherine, issuing parroted Marxist drivel that bordered on the nonsensical, all while thumbing their noses at one of the largest FBI investigations in history. Weird enough, but things got really strange not two months later, when an SLA communique included a tape of Patty announcing that she had changed her name to Tania and that she had joined the revolutionary cause.

What followed was one of the strangest stories of one of the strangest times in recent American history. Tania appeared to have the fiery zeal of the converted, but others believed that she had been brainwashed or otherwise threatened into participating. She wielded a gun during an SLA bank robbery. She gained the trust of her comrades, becoming their intimate both ideologically and physically. They bounced all over California and the country, somehow staying ahead of the FBI for over a year.

The story includes the largest police shootout in American history and the first-ever live breaking newscast. It also includes her three-ring trial, where arguments were made about her actual culpability in the commission of these crimes said trial is a large part of the reason that the term 'Stockholm syndrome' has since entered the lexicon.

It also includes a wide-ranging list of some iconic American individuals of the time. How can you not be fascinated by a story that includes names like F. Lee Bailey, Ronald Reagan, basketball star Bill Walton (yes really) and, of course, the Hearst family?

Most of us know the name Patty Hearst, but far fewer understand just how utterly this story dominated the mid-1970s. What Toobin has done is recreate that time, building a narrative from many scattered (and often contradictory) pieces of evidence. It's a masterful piece of nonfiction writing, bringing that compelling story to life with an exceptional level of detail. The story brings to life not just Hearst, but the many people in the saga's orbit the members of the SLA in particular are rendered clearly and unflinchingly.

As for whether Patty Hearst truly became an urban guerilla or just went along out of fear and confusion, we'll likely never really know. Too many of the major players are gone now, leaving only those with agendas to tilt the story with their preferred spin. Toobin generally manages to stay out of the way and let the evidence speak for itself (though it seems clear on which side he falls).

Toobin's book offers an unvarnished look at the toxicity of the post-60s counterculture, a mess of impotent rage, sexual disquiet and rampant egotism. We're talking about a time when there were hundreds of radically-motivated bombings every year; a time in which calling yourself a revolutionary was all it took to start becoming one. It was chaos the perfect storm for a story like that of Patty Hearst.

'American Heiress' is a well-researched, powerfully-written look back at some of America's past madness. Patty Hearst's is a unique story that could only have happened at that time in that place. For those who remember, this will be a fascinating reminder. For those who never knew the depths of the story, it's a chance for a deep dive into a small but compelling chapter of American history.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 11:15

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