REVIEW: AMERICAN HEIRESS, BY JEFFREY TOOBIN

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She seemed to be living an idyllic life in the early 1970s. But Patricia Campbell Hearst apparently had a lot of unresolved issues: about her parents, Randolph and Catherine Campbell Hearst, their expectations, and even about her fiancé, Steven Weed, with whom she had been living in an ordinary Berkeley apartment while she attended classes.

But everything changed for her on February 4, 1974, a quiet Monday evening at home. A knock on the door, a request for use of the phone, and then a ragtag group filled the room, tying them up, and ultimately grabbing Patricia. Steven took off on foot. I thought: coward!

When I first heard about these events, I was living my own ordinary life, but with an interest in the counter-culture, even though I was working at a conventional social work job. But I was definitely intrigued by the events presented on the news.

In American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, Jeffrey Toobin has presented a compilation of facts obtained through hundreds of interviews and thousands of previously secret documents. His tome “highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown.”

Toobin’s writing style was engaging enough to be a fictional piece, with intensity rising as the events unfolded. Even as I had kept up with many of the events, this book reveals much that was unknown to the general public.

After the early days in a Daly City closet, blindfolded, Patricia (Patty) appeared to have “graduated” to more freedom within the house, free of the blindfold, and with the closet door open. Soon she was conversing with her captors: Donald DeFreeze (Cinque), Bill and Emily Harris, Nancy Ling Perry, Willy Wolfe (Cujo), and Camilla Hall. Others would come in and out of the group and exist on the fringes. They called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and ended their “communiques” with the signature words: “death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

Their initial demands included a massive food giveaway which turned out to be problematic at times, and did nothing to bring about Patty’s release.

Throughout the two-year life on the run, there were bank robberies, shootings, carjackings, bombings, and a constant moving from one hovel to another, from SF to LA to Sacramento, and even eventually to a farm in Pennsylvania. But very early on, Patty seemed to have taken on the mantra of her captors, even the moniker of Tania, and identified herself as part of the group.

Then something changed after her arrest and incarceration. After her initial fist raising and her announcement of her occupation as “urban guerrilla,” Patty seemed to become subdued, more conventional, and her rhetoric morphed back to that of the American Heiress persona.

After the trial, the conviction, the commuted sentence…and her new life as Mrs. Bernie Shaw (she married her police bodyguard), we are left with questions…still. Was Patty brainwashed, or had she simply decided to take on whatever role served her best? Who was Patty Hearst, and how did she so quickly, like a chameleon, become whatever she needed to be? Only she knows for sure…or maybe not. A fascinating story. 5 stars.

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