Unfree Radical

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst BY Jeffrey Toobin. Anchor. 480 pages. $29.

The cover of American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst

As almost anyone over age fifty and almost no one under age thirty will remember, on February 4, 1974, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment by a small, strange group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA was less an army than a club; it consisted of one black man and fewer than a dozen young white men and women; its most cogently stated aim was to bring “death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.” At the time of her kidnapping, Hearst was nineteen years old. A granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the real-life Citizen Kane and founder of today’s multibillion-dollar Hearst Company, Patricia was heiress to a pedigree unique in American history. She had grown up wanting for nothing, though she was apparently an indifferent student at the series of elite girls’ schools she attended. She was, it turned out, a better student of the SLA. Just two months after vanishing, Hearst reappeared alongside her captors, heavily armed, on the security cameras of San Francisco’s Hibernia Bank. Witness accounts have her shouting at the customers, who had been ordered to lie on the floor, “First person puts up his head, I’ll blow his motherfucking head off!”

Hearst’s rapid transformation from kidnap victim to armed bank robber is still a matter of interest and debate—or so Jeffrey Toobin and his publishers hope. The extent to which Hearst was or wasn’t coerced to fall into line with the radicals has proved difficult to determine; in fact, Hearst’s accounts of her involvement with the SLA have rendered the very meaning of coercion impossible to pin down. Since the kidnapping, Hearst has clocked countless hours appearing to explain herself, always under controlled and peculiar conditions. There were the propagandistic tapes she recorded with her kidnappers, in which she dissed her parents (“Pig Hearsts”) and declared her allegiance to the men and women who had dragged her from home at gunpoint wearing nothing but a bathrobe and panties (“I have chosen to stay and fight”). After her arrest on multiple criminal charges stemming from her activities with her kidnappers turned comrades, there were hours spent being interviewed by FBI agents, then hours spent testifying at trial that all her crimes were coerced, then a lengthy, putatively tell-all memoir (Every Secret Thing, published in 1982). None of these explanations seemed quite sincere, just as neither the radical Hearst raising a clenched fist nor the demure Hearst wearing a string of pearls seemed quite sincere. The FBI didn’t believe Hearst’s spin that she committed her crimes out of fear for her life, and they charged her. The judge and jury in her trial didn’t believe it, either, and they convicted her. Nor does Jeffrey Toobin believe it. Throughout American Heiress, his account of the kidnapping and its aftermath, he repeatedly asserts Hearst’s lack of fear for her life and her genuine embrace of her kidnappers’ cause.

Nevertheless, Toobin places Hearst’s decades-old memoir, FBI interviews, and trial testimony at the center of his source material, relying on them so heavily that citations of the memoir alone make up close to a third of his endnotes. This is a strange sort of cherry-picking for a writer of Toobin’s stature, and for anyone familiar with the case it casts large swathes of the book into doubt. The mystery has never been whether Hearst committed her crimes but how she felt when doing so. In other words, was she a consenting criminal or not? We’ve never known, and we still don’t. Toobin, in a prosecutorial mood, attributes feelings to Hearst throughout his book, sometimes agreeing with her testimony, and sometimes refuting it, depending on whether it conforms with his stated belief about her criminal activity (that she was into it). Hearst did not cooperate with Toobin, though the author did, he explains in a lengthy yet murky author’s note, interview “people who knew Patricia and who were with her during the relevant periods.” Toobin does not identify any of these interview subjects, nor the insights they gave him; his notes only cite the secondary sources, “for simplicity.”

Patricia Hearst’s mugshot, 1975. FBI.
Patricia Hearst’s mugshot, 1975. FBI.

But perhaps all this quibbling with sources and method is only for the armchair hobbyist who has already misspent hours combing through the case’s contradictions. That person might be tempted to put this book down and revisit its predecessors, like Shana Alexander’s riveting Anyone’s Daughter (1979), which in obsessively detailing the flaws in all the sources for the case makes those flaws as interesting, perhaps more interesting, than the crimes themselves. But how does American Heiress add up for the general-interest reader? It’s certainly entertaining, and brisk. Toobin covers all the bases, and if his writing never quite brings his characters to life, he has an eye for the wacky detail, in which this case abounds. Toobin tries to take advantage of hindsight, promising early in the book that the case “foretold much that would happen to American society in a remarkably diverse number of fields,” including the media, celebrity culture, criminal justice, sports, and politics. As if to bolster this claim, in early chapters Toobin relates that Jane Pauley, in college, once was rescued from the attentions of a creep by a fellow coed who later went on to be one of Hearst’s kidnappers; that the documentarian Errol Morris, in his student days, attended a dinner party at a pre-kidnapped Patty Hearst’s apartment; that another future Hearst kidnapper, while behaving recklessly on a shooting range, attracted the notice of none other than future O. J. trial judge Lance Ito!—though these coincidences prove little other than that Toobin knows an awful lot of famous people who have shared their brush-with-Hearst stories with him. American Heiress never does transcend the level of anecdote to provide those promised insights into American cultural change. Toobin compiles material like crazy, even producing heretofore unpublished jailhouse letters from Hearst to her then-boyfriend. But despite the four decades’ worth of perspective, he fails to extract the greater significance we expect from good history.

Toobin does analyze Hearst’s character, providing a ringing summation of her state of mind and motives where many writers before him have admitted defeat. “Patricia . . . was a straightforward person, and starting on February 4, 1974, she reacted to her challenges in rational ways,” Toobin tells us, reiterating a point he makes frequently throughout the book: that Hearst, from the moment of her kidnapping onward, was a rational actor who consistently chose to act in accordance with her best interests. “Patricia. . . responded rationally to her surroundings.” “Patricia was always a rational actor . . . Even in chaotic surroundings she knew where her best interests lay.” Whether this meant denouncing her parents and robbing a bank, or whether it meant denouncing her former comrades and cozying up once again to her parents, in every case, Toobin maintains, Hearst chose reasonably, if not always legally. But isn’t the notion of choice complicated somewhat by the chooser’s having been kidnapped?

Toobin’s single acknowledgment of the pervasively unreliable nature of his source material comes in connection with Hearst’s sexual contact with Willy Wolfe, one of her kidnappers. Sex first took place between Wolfe and Hearst about a month after Hearst’s kidnapping, while her kidnappers were still keeping Hearst in a closet; Hearst says the sex was nonconsensual, while SLA members say that it was consensual. Toobin writes, “On this issue, Patricia’s version and that of the surviving members of the SLA are in irreconcilable conflict.” But accounts of the events presented by Hearst and the surviving members of the SLA are in irreconcilable conflict on every issue: Hearst denies she was a willing participant; the surviving SLA members say she wasn’t just willing but so zealous they couldn’t get rid of her. Toobin draws a line around this one incident of sex as the exception that proves the rule: that the rest of the story is perfectly clear, as are Hearst’s choices. But the question of consent isn’t resolved once everybody has their pants on, and Toobin’s analytical rule of thumb—whether Hearst’s choices were based on self-interest—is a poor premise for assessing the case.

In fact all of the accounts, including Toobin’s, suggest Hearst constantly chose against self-interest in the course of her unusual ordeal. She chose squalor, hunger, fear; she rejected the kindness of a motherly stranger after whom she later named one of her children; she signed away the rights to her story to defense attorney F. Lee Bailey two days after he lost her case. There are clearly other forces at work here besides rational choice in support of self-interest. Hearst’s situation during her kidnapping resists the imposition of simple dichotomies such as she liked it versus she hated it, or she chose versus she was forced. It rather seems that both options, or neither, are sometimes true—and that “truth,” like “choice,” is an imprecise term that is here difficult to employ. The idea of “choice” in this context is never interrogated by Toobin, despite its being perhaps the single most relevant aspect of the case.

This isn’t to say that Hearst, in the various compromised statements on which Toobin relies so heavily, is any better at interrogating choice in a meaningful way. Like Toobin, she’s narrating in response to the question of how much personal responsibility she bears, whether her verdict should be guilty or innocent. That question has long since been hashed and rehashed, in her trial and during the campaign for her pardon (which she finally got from Bill Clinton, in 2001), but it has never touched the core of her story. Far more interesting, at least to this reader, is the problem of selfhood—what it is, how it forms, how it changes, and at what point it can ever be said to be authentic. That conundrum isn’t tackled here, let alone raised, but Toobin’s author’s note drops a clue: “Patricia Hearst chose not to cooperate with the publication of this book . . . I regret that she chose not to participate in any way.” Though my speculations are no more valid than Toobin’s, Hearst always struck me as someone acting not out of self-interest but out of a desire to please. In this instance at least, she decided not to please Jeffrey Toobin. That means an incoherent version of her, constructed to someone else’s specifications, has been put on display yet again. I’ll hazard one last speculation: She’s used to it.

Susan Choi is the author of My Education (Viking, 2013).