The Patty Hearst Story: Too Bizarre to Make Up

By Laurie L. LevensonNovember 9, 2016

The Patty Hearst Story: Too Bizarre to Make Up

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

IF THERE IS ONE THING that Jeffrey Toobin knows how to do, it is to pen a good story. He is a best-selling author, senior legal analyst at CNN, and staff writer at The New Yorker, and so his skill is frequently on display. Toobin’s craft has somehow reached a new peak in this impressive account of one of the most remarkable crimes in recent history — the kidnapping, capture, and prosecution of Patty Hearst. In American Heiress, Toobin tells the story of an era when the counterculture turned violent and all Americans, even the richest among us, were caught in the vortex of a crazy and memorable crime spree.

The year is 1974. Berkeley still seethes from the protests of the 1960s, and radicals are frustrated that their actions have led to very little change. Eight of these radicals decide to form a madcap group bent on mayhem and revolution. As Toobin aptly describes, they called themselves an army — the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). However, after kidnapping Hearst heiress Patty Hearst, their “unofficial motto might well have been ‘What now?’” They knew they wanted to do something bold, something drastic, but beyond that, their plans were unclear. Hearst, however, caught in the whirlwind of their mad desire to shape 1970s society, went from captive to accomplice. As Toobin takes the reader through the crime, indoctrination, capture, and trial of Patty Hearst, the book is less a whodunit than a “Why did she do it?”

Toobin begins with a riveting recount of the actual kidnapping of Hearst. It presages an overall theme for the book — her belief that she had been abandoned by those closest to her. As Hearst is kidnapped, her fiancé yells, “Take anything you want!” And the SLA did just that. They took Hearst. By the time she regained her liberty, nearly everything that Hearst had valued had been taken from her — her freedom, her dignity, and nearly her sanity. Yet, Hearst’s descent into the demented world of the SLA began, at least psychologically, with her belief that she had been thrown away by those who should have protected her.

After her kidnapping, Hearst found herself in the psychological and physical clutches of the SLA. Led by a group of radical societal discontents, the SLA ramped up its effort to disrupt society. It also tormented Hearst. As described by Toobin, Hearst handled her situation “with courage and intelligence.” Toobin is sympathetic to Hearst, but never takes the full leap of believing her version of what happened when she became an active member of the SLA’s crime spree. Rather, he shows the madness of the entire venture — including a series of bizarre indictments and communiqués by the SLA, demands for a massive food distribution program, stumbling FBI agents, a Hearst family that is clueless about the problems in their relationship with their daughter, unorthodox efforts to find Patty (including employing a “parapsychology” research center in Palo Alto), and just the craziness of the times.

Leave it to Toobin to know all of the celebrity connections. The Hearst food giveaway program drew people like the Reverend Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple and leaders of the Nation of Islam. Even Sara Jane Moore, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and the famed basketball player Bill Walton find their way into this book.

Yet, the most important part of the book lies in the descriptions of how Hearst interacted with her captors. How could she explain why she would participate in a robbery with a sawed-off shotgun? Why, if she was really a prisoner to the SLA, would she use her weapon to come to their rescue? What could possibly explain why she joined in their free love and endless group talks? To sum it up — she claimed it was for survival. And survive she did. She joined her kidnappers in their crimes and in their getaways. She took on a new identity. Hearst, too, apparently had no game plan other than to survive. That was her modus operandi — whether with the SLA or in high society. As Toobin brilliantly pens, “In the closet, she became a revolutionary; in the jail cell, she became a Hearst.”

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is a peek into how a captive’s thinking will morph depending on the circumstances. Hearst slowly began to feel that the ones posing the greatest physical harm to her were the FBI, not the SLA. As she associated with different members of the SLA, she took extra steps to belong to the group. From Hearst’s perspective, her willingness to sleep with various members of the group was but an effort to survive. Likewise, so were her statements that she did not want to be released but wanted “to fight for the people.” According to Hearst, she never had a choice. She could “join them or be executed.”

In the end, the SLA did not survive and Patty Hearst did. Although Toobin describes the fiery end of many of the SLA members, he does not dwell on it. Patty was the big prize, and she did not die in the infamous shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department. She was not caught in the inferno that resulted when, on live television, Daryl Gates employed his SWAT operation to stop the SLA. Instead, Patty was holed up near Disneyland.

Even the death of her fellow SLA members was not viewed as a liberation by Hearst. Transformed into “Tania” the revolutionary, she lamented the murder of her six comrades by “pig incendiary grenades.” She scoffed at the idea that she had been brainwashed. “Life is very precious to me, but I have no delusions that going to prison will keep me alive. I would never choose to live the rest of my life surrounded by pigs like the Hearsts […] Patria o muerte, venceremos!

After a cross-country road trip and stay on a farm back east, Hearst finally headed back to the Bay Area. She was ultimately arrested in a San Francisco hideout. And it is then that the story I know so well begins. You see, the Patty Hearst trial was the first high-profile case I watched. Long before O. J. Simpson or Michael Jackson, I sat in the courtroom to watch the highly touted F. Lee Bailey try to defend her.

Toobin reports from the transcripts, interviews, and some original letters he obtained. Such an account can be risky if one was not actually present. But, as a firsthand witness, I must say that I agree with Toobin’s assessment; the trial was a train wreck for Hearst, and Bailey was the engineer aboard that train. Bailey underestimated how Hearst’s own words would come back to haunt her. Words, like her booking response listing her occupation as “urban guerilla.” Words, like her false affidavit for bail in which she claimed to be in a drug-induced haze with the SLA, although they did not use drugs.

Finally, it was Hearst’s and her lawyer’s complete inability to connect with the jurors that doomed her defense. Having sat in the courtroom and watched Hearst testify, I completely agree with Toobin’s summary: “The testimony might well have been accurate, but Patricia’s deadpan style sapped it of much emotion.” That, together with Bailey’s miscalculation of key rulings, made her coercion defense a nonstarter.

There are many reasons to read this book. If you need your fix of the insanity of the 1960s and ’70s, read this book. If you never knew the complete story of the SLA and Patty Hearst, read this book. If you want to understand the complexity and psychology of one of the greatest criminal stories in American history, read this book. It manages to cover all the bases and does so quite well.


Laurie L. Levenson currently leads the following programs at Loyola Law School: Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic, The Fidler Institute annual symposium, and the Project for the Innocent.

LARB Contributor

While in law school, Laurie Levenson was chief articles editor of the UCLA Law Review. After graduation, she served as law clerk to the Honorable James Hunter III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 1981, she was appointed assistant United States Attorney, Criminal Section, in Los Angeles, where she was a trial and appellate lawyer for eight years and attained the position of senior trial attorney and assistant division chief. Levenson was a member of the adjunct faculty of Southwestern University Law School from 1982 to ’89. She joined the Loyola faculty in 1989 and served as Loyola’s associate dean for academic affairs from 1996 to ’99. She has been a visiting professor at UCLA School of Law and a D & L Straus distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. Levenson currently leads the following programs at Loyola Law School: Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic, The Fidler Institute annual symposium, and the Project for the Innocent.


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