Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of the newspaper magnate who inspired Citizen Kane, was kidnapped from her apartment in February 1974 by a group of far-left crackpots who thought of themselves as revolutionaries. They called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and they had little to no idea what to do with their heiress once they had her. Thanks to their lack of foresight and a badly botched FBI investigation, Hearst’s ordeal dragged on an on until something curious started to happen. Patricia, who had always had a contentious relationship with her family (especially her conservative mother) began to sympathize with her captors. This lead to an unfathomable image, the teenage millionaire participating in a bank robbery, machine gun at her hip, loaded and ready to fire.
Jeffrey Toobin, whose The Run of His Life was an excellent breakdown of the O.J. Simpson trial, pins down as many facts as possible concerning Hearst’s kidnapping, captivity, and her apparent conversion. In a straightforward but compelling style he conveys the facts in a way that only heightens the insanity of the situation. He provides enough historical context to explain how this was something that could only have happened in America at that time.
As someone who knew only the bare basics of the Hearst story, I was glad to learn the details. During the year and a half that “Patty” was away, her story intersected with a staggering number of strange and fascinating characters, from the original SLA members to leftist bombmakers to (in a limited capacity) NBA superstar Bill Walton.
American Heiress works as a deep dive into a very specific moment in history, and as a window into what an era of corruption, violence, and lack of trust can lead to.