Book Club: American Heiress
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin
I have aways enjoyed Jeffrey Toobin as a writer. He wrote an amazing account of the O.J. Simpson trial years back based on what he covered as a reporter for the New Yorker (which was adapted into the TV show starring Sarah Paulsen and John Travolta). I had always been interested in the kidnapping of Patty Hearst since I first heard about it as a journalism student in college and through Toobin’s latest book, I was able to get a great in-depth understanding of what actually happened.
From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre "Tania."
The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing -- the Hearst family trying to secure Patty's release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing "Tania" wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty's year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the lexicon.
The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors' crusade.
Or did she?
I first heard about the Patty Hearst kidnapping in college back when I was a journalism major. William Randolph Hearst is obviously a big name in journalism and to hear that one of his descendants was kidnapped and targeted for her fortune was sad, but even sadder was the Stockholm syndrome that she had obviously suffered when she joined the crime spree with her kidnappers. I didn’t know any of the background of who the kidnappers were and what their agenda was. I figured it was just money (I did know they had robbed bank), but I didn’t realize at the time that their motive was much more political than monetary. That was what was so eye-opening about Jeffrey Toobin’s book, American Heiress.
Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley home on February 4, 1974. The assailants were members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (or the SLA), an urban guerrilla group led by Donald DeFreeze, a prison escapee who founded the group with radical left-wing ideals and resorted to terrorism to spread their message. The group committed bank robberies, murders, assassinations, and, of course, a major kidnapping.
The book delves into not just the events of the kidnappings, but the timeline of her life with the SLA, including the videotapes that were released of her telling the public of her allegiance to the SLA as well. It goes into details on how Hearst’s descent into the depths of this self-described vanguard group and how she became not just a trusted member, but one of the leaders as well (according to some accounts).
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I was extremely fascinated by the account, not just because of my love of true crime, but the political element that was also involved. As someone who works in advocacy here in Washington, DC, I always find case studies of how political movements go wrong quite interesting. Obviously, the SLA was a terrorist organization that I would never condone, but if you read through what they stood for, it is interesting to see how many tenants they had and some core principles they believed. After DeFreeze’s death, the SLA was a lot less organized and I think that, ultimately, was one of the major factors that contributed to the capture of Patty Hearst.
Like Toobin’s other book that I read and loved, The Run of His Life: The People vs. OJ Simpson, American Heiress was also well-researched and very thorough. I know there are a lot of people who refuse to read this book as they think the only account to be considered should be Patty’s own, but perhaps it’s my original love of journalism that makes me want to at least read all sides. I think Toobin did a fantastic job of explaining the national political climate, the motives of the SLA, and I honestly felt that Patty’s sentencing was unjust - I still believe she’s a victim of a kidnapping and she should never have done prison time at all.