My book club chose American Heiress: The Wild Saga of Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst [it physically hurts me to not put a comma after “Crimes”] (2016) by Jeffrey Toobin. I remember seeing a famous picture of Patty Hearst holding a gun during a bank robbery, but I never really had a good understanding of what had happened to her. I was looking forward to learning more.
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a sophomore at Berkeley, was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home by the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was beaten, threatened, blindfolded and locked in a closet. As months went by, she slowly joined the SLA: a perfect example of the Stockholm Syndrome. She was found and arrested after nineteen months and charged with numerous crimes.
This is unquestionably a fascinating story, with a lot going on in a very tumultuous time period. Toobin does a relatively good job with presenting a lot of information in an understandable and readable format. There were many facets to this story that I simply did not understand going into it. First, I always just assumed that Hearst had been kidnapped by some foreign terrorists. Little did I know that the Symbionese Liberation Army were primarily a bunch of discontented college students–not unlike Hearst herself. In fact, Hearst became a target because she was close by and unprotected. Other targets were deemed too difficult.
Second, 1974 was five years before I was born. By the time I was aware of anything, we were well entrenched in the 80’s. So, I was surprised by the violence that permeated the time period. Today we have protests and some riots that can seem pretty bad, but back then domestic terrorism and bombs were pretty common. “In 1974, [there were] 2,044 bombings, with twenty-four killed.” (12)
Toobin is not my favorite non-fiction author. What bothered me most about this book was that Toobin did not always present an objective portrayal of events. For example, there is no question that Toobin hates Hearst’s boyfriend at the time, Steven Weed. To be fair, Weed was Hearst’s teacher at her boarding school. He hooked up with her and then they moved to Berkeley together. It is unbelievably creepy, and I don’t know why this was not a bigger deal. Weed also acts reprehensibly towards Hearst and her family after the kidnapping. Talking to reporters while Patty Hearst is still missing, Weed says, “Oh, she’s pretty, you know, the prettiest of any of the Hearsts’ daughters. But then none of them are raving beauties. She’s a bright girl, too. Not brilliant, of course, but reasonably bright.” (90)
But Toobin goes after Weed for running away and leaving Hearst behind the night of the kidnapping, and that’s just unfair. A group of people charge into your house, wielding guns and hitting people. There’s no way he could have saved Patty. His best bet was to run and get help. I don’t blame him for that.
Toobin’s bias is most noticeable, however, in regards to Patty Hearst herself. It is clear that he thinks she becomes radicalized by the SLA as her kidnapping progresses and should be responsible for her crimes. Hearst was kidnapped, beaten, and threatened with death every day. Even when the SLA began treating her better, she was still facing death. She heard every day that if the police found them, they would come in shooting and kill everyone.
Toobin has very little sympathy for what she’s going through, and his conclusions often don’t match the facts he’s just presented to us. When Patty Hearst and a friend are pulled over by a police officer before she is arrested, she said later that she was so terrified, “I had to do everything in my power to stop myself from shaking with fright.” When she is finally arrested, she is so scared that she pees herself. But Toobin goes on to write, “The traffic stop provided a vivid window into Patricia’s state of mind–that of a woman who preferred the drama of guerrilla war to the safety of a police cruiser.” (218) Did he even read what he just wrote? She associated the police with murder and death, how could she possible think of a cruiser as safe?
I wish Toobin had been more empathetic to what Hearst had gone through. From the relationship with her teacher, to the sexual assaults that occurred while Hearst was kidnapped, to the violence and horrific conditions the SLA lived in, it was a lot. It would have added more to the story to understand the psychology underpinning her responses. Instead, Toobin mentions the Stockholm Syndrome in a couple sentences and that’s about it. So, not perfect, but worth reading.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.