- - Tuesday, August 9, 2016



By Jeffrey Toobin

Doubleday, $28.95, 371 pages

Seventeen minutes after 9 p.m. on Feb. 4, 1974, two college students, 25-year-old Steven Weed and 19-year-old Patricia Hearst, were having a quiet evening at home when they were surprised by a knock on the door. A woman said she’d backed into Ms. Hearst’s car and asked if she could come in and use their phone. Before the young couple could reply, two armed men barged through the door, demanding money. Mr. Weed said, “Take my wallet . Take anything you want.” They did, they took Ms. Hearst.

For the next 19 months, until Sept. 18, 1975, when Patricia Hearst was captured by the FBI in San Francisco, the nation and the world watched, first in sympathetic shock and then in graduated shades of horror as Ms. Hearst apparently went from unwilling captive to willing member of the crazed gang, the self-styled Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), taking part in a variety of crimes, including one which exposed Ms. Hearst, who now called herself Tania, to a charge of murder and, possibly, the death penalty.

At her trial, Ms. Hearst was defended by F. Lee Bailey, whom author Jeffrey Toobin, in a rare compliment, describes as “the most famous lawyer in the world.” Full disclosure: In 1977, F. Lee Bailey asked me to help him with a book on the Hearst case and trial (We had already done two books together.) I said yes, and, under our agreement, stayed in the Washington area. We finished the book, but the publisher refused to bring it out. I was told they thought it wouldn’t sell well because Ms. Hearst had been convicted; Mr. Bailey recalls being told it was because the manuscript didn’t have enough “dirt” on Catherine Hearst, Patty’s mother.

If you know nothing, or very little, about the case, Mr. Toobin’s book will appear to be a very thorough account, with no stone unturned, and you may be happy you bought it. But for people familiar with the case, it’s a tainted vessel.

The central question of the Hearst case, then and now, is: Did she willingly join her crazed captors or was she “brainwashed”? While Mr. Toobin begins sympathetically, it is soon apparent that he believes her conversion to radicalism was genuine.

Fine, that’s his right, but the crux of the matter was and still is the psychiatric testimony at trial, and Mr. Toobin doesn’t get there until Page 280 of this 371-page book, which doesn’t leave him enough room to deal adequately — or convincingly — with the central question. He spends way too much time chronicling her life on the run and going into unnecessarily great detail about the backgrounds and beliefs of the nine SLA members as well as those of various peripheral figures.

Many of his value judgments cry out for validation or substantiation. On Page 276, he writes, “Bailey’s face was set at a perpetual sneer. He regarded everyone, friend or foe, with a sort of icy disdain. He repelled intimacy, and wore his finely cut suits, and their vests, like armor.” Those two sentences contain three, maybe four, opinions that are flat-out wrong. It’s the kind of descriptive writing that makes you wonder about the rest of what he avers. It also doesn’t help that the point of view, throughout the book, is that of an omniscient narrator.

As for substantiation, there is a six-and-a-half-page section of notes, plus an index and a selected bibliography, all good. But of the 150 notes, there is not a single one that reads, “author interview.” Everything is a secondary source — Patricia Hearst’s own book, Steven Weed’s book, and that of Shana Alexander, among many others. Where’s the original research upon which true investigative journalism should always rest?

Frequently, Mr. Toobin’s language sounds like that of a much older, dyspeptic writer, as when he says, several times, that in the early days after her kidnapping, “rivers of alcohol were flowing” in the Hearst mansion. (If the context weren’t so serious, that could be quite funny to imagine.) His favorite collective noun for the SLA members is the snarky “comrades.” And, during the trial, when Mr. Bailey objects, Mr. Toobin describes him as “vaulting” out of his chair (another unintentionally funny image).

Shortly after “American Heiress” was published, in a letter to The New York Times, F. Lee Bailey wrote that Jeffrey Toobin, “thought trashing his subject would sell more books, so he threw her under the bus.” With a little less vehemence, I would have to agree.

Perhaps the most startling fact to emerge from this book is that Patty Hearst — who married her bodyguard Bernard Shaw and has been in several of John Waters’ funky films — is 62.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.

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