A review of American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin will be in conversation with Bill Petrocelli at Book Passage in Corte Madera tonight, Tuesday Aug. 16, at 7 p.m.

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In early 1974, the United States was in turmoil. Richard Nixon was about to be impeached, the Vietnam War was still grinding on, the OPEC Oil Embargo was underway, and an average of 2,000 bombs had been exploded in the country in each of the three preceding years. Then, on Feb. 4, a 19-year-old woman bearing one of the most famous names in the country was kidnapped in Berkeley. Her grandfather was the press lord William Randolph Hearst, a towering figure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Patty Hearst, or Patricia as she strongly preferred, was a junior at UC Berkeley. Patricia’s story is brilliantly chronicled in American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin.

The sensational kidnapping of Patty Hearst

Only the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. could match the sensationalism of Patty Hearst’s seizure from her apartment. Now, more than 40 years later, the Hearst kidnapping quickly headlined news stories around the country. It was not just that Patricia’s name was famous. The kidnappers were an unknown and mysterious revolutionary band calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. They were the same people who three months earlier had assassinated the universally popular superintendent of Oakland schools, Marcus Foster.

Though the SLA pretended to be a nationwide revolutionary force, they were in reality a group of misguided young white people. An addled African-American escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze lorded over them. The SLA never numbered more than a dozen people at its peak. The group gloated over the kidnapping in a long-winded, jargon-filled “communique” read three days after the event on Berkeley’s public radio station, KPFA. There was no demand for ransom.

From one sensation to another

The jockeying between DeFreeze and Patricia’s parents captivated the country for months. Then the sensationalism escalated when the SLA released a photo of Patricia holding a machine gun against the background of an SLA flag. Shortly afterward, she carried a gun in an armed robbery of a San Francisco bank. Photos again reached the public. In another jargon-filled communique that followed the robbery, Patricia pronounced herself to be a revolutionary and a member of the SLA. She denounced her parents.

As Toobin notes, “Despite the rhetoric of the communiques, the SLA was not a vehicle for social or political change; it was a spectacle, an instrument for getting attention for its own sake.” The group’s ideology consisted of confusing rhetoric, mostly delivered off the cuff by DeFreeze and translated into revolutionary jargon by two of the young women who were closest to him.

Continue reading on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

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Freelancer Mal Warwick's reviews on his blog, occasionally appear on Berkeleyside. He is an author, entrepreneur, and impact investor who is one of three partners in One World Play Project, and founder...