Review: 'Patty's Got a Gun,' by William Graebner
BY LIZ BROWN | Special to Newsday
November 9, 2008
PATTY'S GOT A GUN: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America, by William
Graebner, University of Chicago Press, 218 pp, $20.
In 1974, Patty Hearst's transformation from abducted heiress to
gun-toting guerrilla riveted the nation, and it's little wonder that
in recent years such writers as Susan Choi, Christopher Sorrentino
and Dana Spiotta have centered novels around homegrown terrorists.
Now, in "Patty's Got a Gun," historian William Graebner returns to
the actual events, positioning Hearst's experience with the
Symbionese Liberation Army against the backdrop of a "post-Vietnam,
post-Watergate climate of malaise, midway between the liberal
zeitgeist of the 1960s and the emerging conservatism of the 1980s."
The first half of this slim, assiduously footnoted volume, is a
page-turning primer on the saga, drawing on previous scholarship,
court transcripts and other documents to track Hearst's captivity,
radicalization, trial and conviction - an arc the author traces in
parallel with the public's shift from empathy to rage. Graebner looks
also at Hearst's story writ large, touching on questions of class
hostility, free will, paranoia and Stockholm syndrome.
The author has a wide-ranging facility for association, name-checking
TV's "An American Family" and "The Manchurian Candidate," Edgar Allan
Poe and Cindy Sherman. These are tantalizing juxtapositions, but
Graebner doesn't always probe or reinforce the connections between
his cultural touchpoints, and the reader can feel shortchanged by the
zigzags. Graebner's instinct for compression makes for an excellent
read when it comes to the facts of Patty Hearst's story, but such
brevity doesn't always serve the thornier matter of interpretation.
Guns 'n' berets
Nov 6th 2008
FOR the baby-boom generation the image remains engraved on the
memory: a young woman, wearing a black wig and cradling a submachine
gun, captured on camera on April 15th 1974 as she helped the
Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) rob a San Francisco bank.
The big question then was why. Patricia Campbell Hearst, a
20-year-old heiress to the Hearst newspaper empire, had been
kidnapped by the SLA's urban guerrillas (to give them a polite
description) two months earlier. She had been constantly raped and
threatened with death. So why was she apparently a willing
participant in the bank robbery? Why did she issue a taped message,
under the nom de guerre Tania, announcing she had joined the SLA? Why
did she give covering fire during an abortive robbery of a Los
Angeles shop that sold sportswear? Above all, during more than a year
of life as a fugitive, why did she not take the many opportunities to
escapeor even call her distraught family?
As William Graebner points out, there were no commonly agreed answers
at the time; nor are there now. Was Ms Hearst a terrified victim,
playing a role lest she be executed? Was she the brainwashed product
of "coercive persuasion", like some American prisoners in the wars of
Korea and Vietnam? Or was she "a rebel in search of a cause", as the
prosecution maintained at her trial, and so a volunteer soldier of
the SLA? A California jury, unconvinced by psychiatric testimony and
by the weak closing argument of Ms Hearst's celebrity defence lawyer,
F. Lee Bailey, found her guilty of armed robbery and the use of a
firearm to commit a felony. The consequence was a seven-year prison
sentence, later commuted by President Jimmy Carter (she served only
22 months, and was given a pardonoddly not mentioned by Mr
Graebnerby President Bill Clinton on his last day in office).
What makes this book worth reading is not so much the first half, a
compelling enough account of Ms Hearst's kidnapping and subsequent
time in the headlines, as the second half: an attempt to put the
Hearst affair in the context of an America struggling to emerge from
the Vietnam quagmire and the ignominy of Watergate. The America of
the 1970s, he argues, was ridding itself of the legacy of the
"permissive" 1960s, and was preparing for the rightward shift of
Reaganism and an emphasis in the 1980s on the individual.
Maybe so, and Mr Graebner supports his argument with a host of
cultural references, from books by learned academics to music and
popular films like "Rambo", which the author cites as being a
quintessential evocation of the heroic individual.
Some of this effort, however, stretches credulity: the break-up of
the Beatles and the fact that Paul McCartney played all the
instruments on "The Lovely Linda" are apparently proof of "the
transition from group to individual". It is also puzzling in this
well-researched book that Mr Graebner fails to broaden his context
beyond America: the SLA and contemporaries such as the Black Panthers
and the Weathermen were of the same mould and time as Germany's
Baader-Meinhof group or Italy's Red Brigades or the Japanese Red Army.
As Mr Graebner puts it, it is possible that in a different decade Ms
Hearst might well have been acquitted. Instead, "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 yoke of determinism."