Saturday, September 10, 2016

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

    • American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
    • Published August 2, 2016
    • Other works by author include The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, The Run of His Life: The People vs O.J. Simpson (I read this one; my review here) and Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election. He is also a correspondent for CNN.

    • Nineteen-year-old Patricia Hearst, heiress to a portion of the fortune built by her grandfather William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army from her Berkeley apartment in February 1974. 
    • Instead of asking for ransom the SLA asked for food distribution to the poor of Oakland and San Francisco.
    • Meanwhile, Patricia joined the SLA as "Tania" and committed crimes with them.
    • After over a year on the run she was arrested, tried and convicted of bank robbery.

    • Though the author was unable to secure the participation of Patricia herself, he used her book and other sources to tell her side of the story.
    • She was targeted because her engagement announcement appeared in the paper the month before and a member of the SLA saw it. She was living with her boyfriend and her parents were anxious for her to get married so she would no longer be living in sin.
      • Patricia's fiance was one of her teachers when she was in high school. She never saw him again after the night she was kidnapped.
    • I moved to California, specifically the Bay Area, with my family in the summer of 1974 so I remember this being in the newspapers and on the TV news all the time.
    • The food distribution turned into a fiasco.
      • Patricia's father, Randolph, did not have the ready cash available for the costs. If I understand it correctly, the Hearst family money is in a trust and each member is entitled to a specific share, doled out by the trust. While it is certainly plenty of money --- we should all be so lucky to have a share of the Hearst trust --- Randolph didn't have the $2,000,000 (about $10 million in today's money) to cover the costs so the Hearst trust made up the difference, especially once the SLA demanded even more.
      • Huge crowds gathered for the free food and the predictable violence broke out.
      • Sara Jane Moore, future attempted assassin of Gerald Ford in 1975, worked as a bookkeeper for the project and Jim Jones, founder and leader of the People's Temple cult, offered his group's help in the distribution. He was turned down.
    • Was Patricia Hearst guilty of joining the SLA of her own free will or was she brainwashed, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captive begins to identify with the captors? (Sort of spoilery but it happened over 40 years ago!)
      • The author makes a case that the SLA were a bunch of incompetent revolutionaries and that they had no real plan much less the ability to brainwash someone.
      • Patricia is presented as practical and willing to do what she needed to do to survive and that meant taking on their views and joining in. It also points out that once she was in jail and in contact with her family again she reverted easily to her heiress personality.
      • She had multiple chances to escape and chose not to. Her strained relationship with her mother, a proper Southern belle, and Patricia's own rebellious nature (she was only 19) made it easier for her to turn against her family.
    • She was convicted and served 22 months in prison before having her sentence commuted by President Carter.
      • Ironically, the Jim Jones People's Temple suicides made it easier to believe Patricia had been coerced. John Wayne himself, no fan of the counterculture, commented that if one man could coerce over 900 people to commit suicide then why couldn't people believe that "one little girl" was brainwashed?
      • She was also eventually pardoned of her crimes as well.
    • While reading this book I realized that the 1970s really were a terrible decade. I thought the 1960s were awful --- assassinations and riots and whatnot --- but looking back as an adult, I can see nothing very great about the 1970s.
      • The Vietnam War came to an end but the president (and vice-president) resigned in disgrace. The energy crisis occurred and caused the Middle East to become more of a focus for the U.S. government, something that would NOT pay dividends in the future. American cities were at their lowest ebbs thanks to a number of reasons. It was the "golden age" of hijacking.
      • Culturally, this was not our finest decade either. Clothing and hairstyles were probably their least attractive: peasant blouses, velour and satin fabrics, feathered hair, jumpsuits, tube tops, platform shoes and so much more.
    • Back to the book, the author offers context for the environment in which groups like the SLA formed and briefly thrived.
    • I enjoyed the book and finished it in two days. Recommended for those who like American history, lived through the 1970s, and have an interest in radical revolutionaries.


  1. No mention that the pardon came from Bill Clinton? Avoiding potential controversy with Hillary Clinton running for president? The 1970s: Bad, I agree.

    1. Nope, it just wasn't pertinent information. But I learned that commutation is very different from a pardon!