Sunday, October 26, 2008
Patty's Got a Gun:
PATRICIA HEARST IN 1970s AMERICA
By William Graebner
University of Chicago Press, $20, 192 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Thirty-three years ago come February, the nation was fascinated to
the point of obsession by a criminal trial taking place in
California, a criminal trial with a celebrity defendant, a
prosecution called the Trial of the Century. No, not O.J. Simpson
(that was 1995, not 1976), but you may be forgiven the mistake, for
the same prominent defense lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, was front and
center in both cases. It was the criminal trial of newspaper heiress
Patricia Campbell Hearst, and, unlike the Simpson case, the jury's
verdict went against the defendant. Why that happened is the point of
this very late-blooming study.
One might call William Graebner, emeritus professor of history at
SUNY Buffalo, a cultural historian, as several of his many books have
dealt with contemporary popular mores, but he has also written about
coal mining and the "institution" of retirement, and what he terms
the Age of Doubt, America in the 1940s. So he's a prolific writer
with a wide range of interests and an encompassing take on whatever
subject happens to move him. In this case, it's Patty Hearst,
yesterday a headline, today a bit player in the quirky movies of John
Waters (or should that be the movies of quirky John Waters?).
On Feb. 4, 1974, Patricia Hearst, the 19-year-old daughter of the
super-rich Randolph and Catherine Hearst, was kidnapped from the
modest Berkeley apartment of her fiance, Steven Weed, a graduate
student in philosophy. Her captors were a small band of would-be
revolutionaries who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army
(SLA), and at the time of her abduction had committed one murder and
a number of other violent acts, and would go on, ostensibly with her
now one of them, to rob banks and kill another person. The SLA
consisted of seven young white men and women, all from middle-to
upper-middle-class backgrounds, and their leader and sole black
member, Donald Defreeze, an escaped convict who called himself Field
Within weeks of her kidnapping, Ms. Hearst was heard on tapes
supplied to the media by the SLA, denouncing her parents and their
lifestyle and announcing she had joined the group of self-styled
urban guerrillas. On April 15, the SLA, with Ms. Hearst dressed as
"Tania," wearing a black beret and carrying a machine gun and now
apparently one of them, robbed a San Francisco bank. In May, two SLA
members, William and Emily Harris, again with the "help" of Ms.
Hearst, robbed a sporting goods store. As a result, many Americans
believed she had renounced her family and her former life and joined
The next day, in a horrible confrontation seen live on television,
Cinque and four other SLA members died in a house fire that resulted
from a shootout with the police. Ms. Hearst, still with the Harrises,
was not in the dwelling. After that, there were no messages from
Tania or Patty, and for over a year, the country speculated on where
she might be. Their question was answered on Sept. 18, 1975, when she
and Wendy Yoshimura were captured in San Francisco.
The trial of Patty Hearst was the biggest media event of its kind --
"Criminal Trial of the Century" --since Bruno Hauptmann was convicted
of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby in 1935. Hearst claimed her actions
were the result of fear, intimidation and perhaps also brainwashing.
She said she'd been kept in a closet so small she couldn't lie down
in it, that she had been raped by Cinque, and that she had been told
even if she escaped, the SLA would find her and kill her.
The prosecution said she was, to quote one of their expert witnesses
"a rebel in search of a cause," and the defense said she had no
choice but to act as she had. After a five-week trial, the jury found
Patty Hearst guilty of bank robbery and sentenced her to seven years
in prison. (She served 22 months, and then President Carter commuted
her sentence. President Clinton granted her a full pardon in 2001.)
Why didn't the jury believe Hearst? According to William Graebner,
the jury convicted Hearst because she symbolized the excesses of
overindulgent youth, not to mention the coddled life style of the
very wealthy, and the sexual revolution of the countercultural 1960s
with its sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Instead of looking back toward the victims of the '50s, '60s and
'70s, it looked ahead, suggests Mr. Graebner, to the (supposed)
return of personal responsibility in the Reagan '80s.
"Patty went to jail because the government's story was the one
Americans wanted to hear at that moment in the mid-1970s; they had
had their fill of victims, wanted more than mere survival, and
yearned to shed the cloak of determinism. ... In the end, this story
was less about Patty than about what Americans wanted to believe of
themselves that they were a resilient people, possessed of free will,
capable of transcending the malaise that was settling over the
nation, capable even, as Patricia Hearst had not been, of heroism."
To get to those conclusions, which appear at the very end of this
short and intriguing, if also occasionally annoying, book, the author
dissects what seem to be all the possible explanations for her
behavior - from victimization to paranoia by way of the Stockholm
syndrome and Cardinal Mindzenty and brainwashing.
In earlier chapters, he spends (at least for me) way too much time
listing the reactions of small town editorial writers. When he gets
to the meat of the victim vs. hero argument, it gets downright interesting.
The annoying bits (again, for me) are that this is all secondary
source material; there's no new research here, at least no current
interviews with the principals, from Ms. Hearst to Bailey to Browning
and Bancroft (the prosecutors). There's also way too much reliance on
movies and songs and novels as indicative of national attitudes.
Perhaps I'm being fusty, but sometimes, as has been said, a cigar is
nothing but a cigar.
While it is far preferable to have the questions raised by the
verdict in this case discussed seriously rather than sensationally, a
little bit of on-the-one-hand-and-then-on-the-other goes a long way.
Eventually, I felt as if I were listening to the closing arguments of
both sides being made by the same attorney.
Near the end, William Graebner, who calls his book an "essay," says
it's time for the author to "clear everything up, once and for all.
Reveal the truth. The problem is, it can't be done ... because there
is no clarity to be had, no truth to be revealed. . .." Well, maybe
so, but that's more than a tad unsatisfying. Still, the issues in the
case were never really resolved, so it's useful to examine and think
about them again. As for me, I can never forget reading, during the
trial, a letter to the editor in Time magazine that said that under
Hebraic law, a kidnap victim can never be held responsible for his -
or her - subsequent actions.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.