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american heiress

24 october 2018

In Donald Trump's America, a lot of people fear political violence. Confrontations between white supremacists and antifa make the news, and we live in constant tension over worsening polarization and conflict. But in Richard Nixon's America, bombs going off and guerrilla streetfights were part of the texture of life. If groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army had a comic-opera quality, it remains that they were real and deadly – and that their violent leftwing rhetoric makes antifa look like a high school debate club.

Jeffrey Toobin chronicles the most famous of the 1970s guerrilla sagas, the SLA's kidnapping of Patty Hearst, in his recent book American Heiress. I lived through the era, and its mayhem has largely subsided in memory. I dwelt far from Hearst's chaotic California, and wasn't very radicalized: one trip to hear Jane Fonda speak on a nearby college campus was about the furthest left I got, in high school. Fonda herself, shocking as she was to some, firmly rejected the weird nonsense promulgated by the SLA, who in turn despised her.

The SLA wasn't even a movement; its following was always limited to its members, and its effective membership was never more than about ten or twelve. Yet it cast a disproportionate shadow over the American '70s, part sinister, part absurd. American public violence has often had a random quality, as in the now-chronic school shootings that plague the 21st century. It can be easy to forget the eras (the early 20th century, the 1970s) in which prolific bomb-throwers were a feature of a current disarray.

Though there too, the SLA were only loosely affiliated with bombers, not much given to that style of ordnance themselves. The people who kidnapped Patty Hearst were gunwomen (and men), and bank robbers. Hearst herself became iconic as a firearm-waving bandit; her captors deliberately targeted a branch with security cameras in order to show her off.

Though by that point, were they her captors? Her lawyers, especially the mercurial F. Lee Bailey, would later argue that the SLA forced Patty Hearst into a life of crime. Toobin is not so sure. "Patricia was always a rational actor," he says (351). His theory is that she deliberately resisted her kidnappers at first, deliberately joined their vision of revolution after a while, and just as deliberately cut ties with radicalism after she was arrested and arraigned.

Hearst thus, for Toobin, represents no ideological coherence, and was surely no victim of events, but rather a feisty woman looking out for number one. Her post-prison life has been that of a law-abiding socialite – most recently, a force at the highest levels of the dog-show world. She persuaded two presidents (Carter and Clinton) to act on her behalf, respectively commuting her sentence and then pardoning her.

Hearst became involved with her hapless fiancé Steven Weed while she was his high-school student, and later entered a series of relationships with revolutionaries. (Toobin, like her prosecutors, doubts that she was coerced into these relationships.) While still on bail as a federal defendant, she entered another with one of her bodyguards, Bernard Shaw (who was married at the time). A betting man would have given that relationship about six months. Yet Hearst stayed married to Shaw for over 30 years, till he died in 2013. One can't help marveling at that change in pattern, and wondering if simply finding the right partner was the answer to her personal torments.

Toobin wrote American Heiress without interviewing Hearst, but with access to copious new archives from other SLA members, as well as the various public records of the case. He remains one of the finest writers on crime and other aspects of the law currently reporting on America, and this book will be a major part of his life's work.

Toobin, Jeffrey. American Heiress: The wild saga of the kidnapping, crimes and trial of Patty Hearst. New York: Doubleday [Penguin Random House], 2016. F 866.4 .H42

UPDATE: Sadly, I posted this review a few hours before a spate of bombs were delivered to various high-profile American targets – none of them, as of tonight, have exploded, thankfully. The '70s "Anarchist Cookbook" culture seems not to have totally disappeared.