Philip Marchand, National Post
Published: Friday, October 31, 2008
The case of William Ayers, ex-Weatherman and alleged pal of Barack
Obama, is a reminder that the war on terrorism in the early '70s was
a war against the Left.
As a faction in this war, the Symbionese Liberation Army was a bad
joke, a fringe group among fringe groups. Its story is quickly
sketched in cultural historian William Graebner's Patty's Got a Gun:
Patricia Hearst in 1970s America. A dozen or so young middle-class
white radicals in San Francisco steeped themselves in Marxist
rhetoric and took their orders from a black ex-convict named Donald
DeFreeze. They soon proved deadly. In 1974, they killed a black
superintendent of schools in Oakland for obscure ideological reasons
and, in an inspired caper, kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia
Hearst. The 19-year-old Hearst was kept in a closet for days and
subjected to various forms of abuse, including rape. She was also
given a crash course in revolutionary philosophy.
The next thing the world knew, Patty Hearst was robbing a bank with
her SLA comrades and releasing taped diatribes calling her parents
"pigs." Shortly after, six members of the SLA, including DeFreeze,
were killed in a police raid on their safe house. Patty and a couple
named Bill and Emily Harris remained at large until apprehended by
the FBI a year later.
Hearst was subsequently put on trial for the bank robbery. Her
sympathizers portrayed her as the traumatized victim of brainwashing
techniques similar to those employed on American POWs during the
Korean War. The prosecution, and a large segment of conservative
public opinion, countered with the image of a spoiled rich kid who,
despite such affronts against her privileged background as a communal
toothbrush, voluntarily joined her captors in a thrill-seeking lifestyle.
The subject is certainly worth a book, not just because the episode
captured the attention of the world, but because it raises so many
painful philosophical and political questions. Can a person's very
self be altered by relentless coercion? Did Patty Hearst join her
captors because she was broken by trauma and transformed into a
zombie-like personality? Or did she join them because they threatened
to kill her if she didn't? That would certainly have been a rational,
if not exactly heroic, decision. Perhaps she even came to the view
that her captors were right, that the United States was ruled by
fascists, including her family. The venom of her taped diatribes
against her parents could not have been wholly faked.
Graebner's book is an attempt to place this episode in a political
and cultural context. His view is that Hearst was convicted of
participating in the bank robbery in 1976 because the climate in the
U.S. had changed from the '60s, with its soft spot for victims, to an
era emphasis on family values and individual responsibility. Much of
Graebner's method involves quoting newspaper editorials of the time,
including such obscure publications as the Roanoke Times and the
Daily Oklahoman. It must have made for tedious research.
He also quotes extensively from the trial record, has recourse to
scholarly works on a variety of issues and - a favoured technique of
cultural historians - hauls in a few movies to illustrate his point
about changing cultural mores. Perhaps his most interesting
observation concerns the emergence of Alzheimer's disease and
anorexia nervosa as widely publicized diseases of the '70s - two
disorders that undermined the very core of the self.
The result is a readable but not very satisfying account of the
subject. "Patty could be understood as celebrity and as heroine, made
and self-made, media fiction and real woman, victim and agent,"
Graebner writes. "Her burden ... was that the public demanded
resolution and clarity." This might have been unfair to Patty, and it
is certainly true that "resolution and clarity" can never be fully
achieved in this life, but part of the implicit contract with the
reader in a book like this is that the writer will at least take a
stab at it. There are no interviews with any of the surviving
principals, however, and no attempt to bring the story up to date.
Patty herself remains a blank - an ordinary girl, moderately
attractive, moderately intelligent, betraying no desire for anything
other than a "pleasantly routinized" life, in the words of her
fiancé, Steven Weed. One bond with her captors, Graebner suggests, is
that they taught her an interesting and novel skill set - proficiency
with firearms. She was genuinely proud that she knew more about guns
than most cops. Not every bourgeois girl from Berkeley, Calif., could
make such a claim.
The rest remains an enigma. Perhaps the most evocative moment in this
account of her brush with history occurs when Graebner quotes the
simple reply of Hearst to someone who asked her during her trial if
she had been brainwashed. "I'm not sure what happened to me," she said.