‘American Heiress’: Jeffrey Toobin explores the weird but fascinating case of Patty Hearst
July 31, 2016 12:00 AM
Jeffrey Toobin's latest is a close look at the Patty Hearst saga.
By David Wecht
What prompts a multimillionaire heiress to take up arms, literally, as part of an urban guerrilla group engaged in bank robbery, kidnapping and even murder? What leads a privileged young woman to join a cause with a bunch of violent and perhaps psychotic revolutionaries?
Most readers under 50 have never heard of Patty Hearst. But in the mid-1970s her kidnapping and recruitment by the Symbionese Liberation Army — and her extended flight and eventual arrest — captured the nation’s attention and fostered fervent debate across the political spectrum.
In February 1974, the University of California junior and granddaughter of newspaper kingpin William Randolph Hearst was seized at gunpoint from her Berkeley apartment by an odd group of Bay Area radicals. These self-chosen few were consumed with anger, determined to kill the “fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people” — said “insect” apparently being anyone deemed wealthy, or merely “bourgeois,” or complicit in “oppression” simply by living an average life in “Amerikka.”
"AMERICAN HEIRESS: THE WILD SAGA OF THE KIDNAPPING, CRIMES AND TRIAL OF PATTY HEARST"
By Jeffrey Toobin Doubleday ($28.95).
The ragtag assemblage that kidnapped Patty Hearst was led by a lifelong hoodlum and Black Power wannabe named Donald DeFreeze, who guzzled plum wine and preferred to be called “Cinque.” He escaped his California prison and capitalized on the revolutionary fantasies of several white San Francisco-area ultra-leftists to form a cabal that he labeled the Symbionese Liberation Army, a creative if absurdly inarticulate adaptation of the noun “symbiosis.”
Why did DeFreeze and his acolytes turn to violence? Why did they grab Patty Hearst? What did they want? Why did Hearst — epitomizing Stockholm Syndrome before the term had been coined — throw in with the group and join them in their bloody rampage of armed bank robberies and kidnappings? What did Hearst do in her year and a half on the lam? When she brandished and fired her gun, was she an eager SLA soldier or just a hopelessly coerced and threatened young woman with no choice in the matter?
These and other questions are taken up ably by the brilliant and prolific Jeffrey Toobin in his new book, “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.” Mr. Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker and senior legal analyst at CNN, recounts in meticulous detail the stories of Hearst and her family, DeFreeze and his disciples, and the array of FBI agents, lawyers, fellow travelers, and others who flit in and out of the picture.
It is a remarkable story, skillfully and engrossingly told. Mr. Toobin turns his critical lens on every player in the cast. Nothing and no one escapes his scrutiny. Why was the San Francisco Bay such a cauldron of lunacy in this period? Why did Hearst’s parents stumble in their initial reactions to the kidnapping? Why did the FBI bumble the investigation so badly for so long? Why did Hearst fall in line so gladly with her captors? Why did F. Lee Bailey, America’s most famous lawyer at the time, roll the dice and put Hearst on the stand at trial? Why did Jimmy Carter commute her sentence? And why, by golly, did Bill Clinton pardon her ?
“American Heiress” raises questions about wealth and power, about violence and groupthink and human nature. Throughout, Mr. Toobin, the author of “The Run of His Life,” a book that was turned into the Emmy-nominated FX series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” is fair-minded in his storytelling. Even for those readers who've long since forgotten the Patty Hearst saga, or who grew up long after it ended, this account is well worth the time and attention.
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will host Mr. Toobin at 7 p.m. Aug. 8 at Carnegie Lecture Hall. He will read from “American Heiress” and answer questions about this fascinating case. Tickets, $34, can be bought online or at 412-622-8866. Cost of admission includes a book.
David Wecht is a justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Any views expressed here are his, and are not offered on behalf of the court.
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