PATRICIA HEARST IN 1970s AMERICA
By William Graebner
University of Chicago Press, $20, 192 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Thirty-three years ago come February, the nation was fascinated to the point of obsession by a criminal trial taking place in California, a criminal trial with a celebrity defendant, a prosecution called the Trial of the Century. No, not O.J. Simpson (that was 1995, not 1976), but you may be forgiven the mistake, for the same prominent defense lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, was front and center in both cases. It was the criminal trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst, and, unlike the Simpson case, the jury’s verdict went against the defendant. Why that happened is the point of this very late-blooming study.
One might call William Graebner, emeritus professor of history at SUNY Buffalo, a cultural historian, as several of his many books have dealt with contemporary popular mores, but he has also written about coal mining and the “institution” of retirement, and what he terms the Age of Doubt, America in the 1940s. So he’s a prolific writer with a wide range of interests and an encompassing take on whatever subject happens to move him. In this case, it’s Patty Hearst, yesterday a headline, today a bit player in the quirky movies of John Waters (or should that be the movies of quirky John Waters?).
On Feb. 4, 1974, Patricia Hearst, the 19-year-old daughter of the super-rich Randolph and Catherine Hearst, was kidnapped from the modest Berkeley apartment of her fiance, Steven Weed, a graduate student in philosophy. Her captors were a small band of would-be revolutionaries who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and at the time of her abduction had committed one murder and a number of other violent acts, and would go on, ostensibly with her now one of them, to rob banks and kill another person. The SLA consisted of seven young white men and women, all from middle-to upper-middle-class backgrounds, and their leader and sole black member, Donald Defreeze, an escaped convict who called himself Field Marshall Cinque.
Within weeks of her kidnapping, Ms. Hearst was heard on tapes supplied to the media by the SLA, denouncing her parents and their lifestyle and announcing she had joined the group of self-styled urban guerrillas. On April 15, the SLA, with Ms. Hearst dressed as “Tania,” wearing a black beret and carrying a machine gun and now apparently one of them, robbed a San Francisco bank. In May, two SLA members, William and Emily Harris, again with the “help” of Ms. Hearst, robbed a sporting goods store. As a result, many Americans believed she had renounced her family and her former life and joined her kidnappers.
The next day, in a horrible confrontation seen live on television, Cinque and four other SLA members died in a house fire that resulted from a shootout with the police. Ms. Hearst, still with the Harrises, was not in the dwelling. After that, there were no messages from Tania or Patty, and for over a year, the country speculated on where she might be. Their question was answered on Sept. 18, 1975, when she and Wendy Yoshimura were captured in San Francisco.
The trial of Patty Hearst was the biggest media event of its kind — “Criminal Trial of the Century” —since Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby in 1935. Hearst claimed her actions were the result of fear, intimidation and perhaps also brainwashing. She said she’d been kept in a closet so small she couldn’t lie down in it, that she had been raped by Cinque, and that she had been told even if she escaped, the SLA would find her and kill her.
The prosecution said she was, to quote one of their expert witnesses “a rebel in search of a cause,” and the defense said she had no choice but to act as she had. After a five-week trial, the jury found Patty Hearst guilty of bank robbery and sentenced her to seven years in prison. (She served 22 months, and then President Carter commuted her sentence. President Clinton granted her a full pardon in 2001.)
Why didn’t the jury believe Hearst? According to William Graebner, the jury convicted Hearst because she symbolized the excesses of overindulgent youth, not to mention the coddled life style of the very wealthy, and the sexual revolution of the countercultural 1960s with its sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Instead of looking back toward the victims of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, it looked ahead, suggests Mr. Graebner, to the (supposed) return of personal responsibility in the Reagan ‘80s.
“Patty went to jail because the government’s story was the one Americans wanted to hear at that moment in the mid-1970s; they had had their fill of victims, wanted more than mere survival, and yearned to shed the cloak of determinism. … In the end, this story was less about Patty than about what Americans wanted to believe of themselves that they were a resilient people, possessed of free will, capable of transcending the malaise that was settling over the nation, capable even, as Patricia Hearst had not been, of heroism.”
To get to those conclusions, which appear at the very end of this short and intriguing, if also occasionally annoying, book, the author dissects what seem to be all the possible explanations for her behavior - from victimization to paranoia by way of the Stockholm syndrome and Cardinal Mindzenty and brainwashing.
In earlier chapters, he spends (at least for me) way too much time listing the reactions of small town editorial writers. When he gets to the meat of the victim vs. hero argument, it gets downright interesting.
The annoying bits (again, for me) are that this is all secondary source material; there’s no new research here, at least no current interviews with the principals, from Ms. Hearst to Bailey to Browning and Bancroft (the prosecutors). There’s also way too much reliance on movies and songs and novels as indicative of national attitudes. Perhaps I’m being fusty, but sometimes, as has been said, a cigar is nothing but a cigar.
While it is far preferable to have the questions raised by the verdict in this case discussed seriously rather than sensationally, a little bit of on-the-one-hand-and-then-on-the-other goes a long way. Eventually, I felt as if I were listening to the closing arguments of both sides being made by the same attorney.
Near the end, William Graebner, who calls his book an “essay,” says it’s time for the author to “clear everything up, once and for all. Reveal the truth. The problem is, it can’t be done … because there is no clarity to be had, no truth to be revealed. . ..” Well, maybe so, but that’s more than a tad unsatisfying. Still, the issues in the case were never really resolved, so it’s useful to examine and think about them again. As for me, I can never forget reading, during the trial, a letter to the editor in Time magazine that said that under Hebraic law, a kidnap victim can never be held responsible for his - or her - subsequent actions.
• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.