On February 4, 1974, Patricia Hearst was engaged and living with a man who had previously been her high school teacher. Though the times reflected social change and a rethinking of traditional gender roles, for Hearst, an heiress to the Hearst fortune and Steven Weed life was humdrum and she felt stifled, emotionally unfulfilled and depressed.
And then the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) broke into the apartment, beat up Weed, shot at—and fortunately missed—their neighbors, and finally managed to push Hearst into the trunk of a stolen car. It was an act that shocked and enthralled the country as the SLA made demands for free food for poor people and Randy and Cathlerine Hearst went on television as they tried desperately to free their daughter.
But in an even more bizarre twist, within months of her kidnapping, Hearst declared herself a member of the SLA and willing participated in a bank robbery and shoot out.
“One of the things that impressed me is that Patty was a sheltered woman who learned to handle a machine gun, that there was a part of her that enjoyed this complete departure from her former life,” says Jeffrey Toobin, an attorney and the author of American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday 2016; $289.95) a mesmerizing book about a tumultuous time in our nation’s history. “The SLA had no idea that Patti Hearst was at this cross point in her life—she wanted to get away from her boyfriend and get away from her parents.”
Toobin’s take on Hearst is non-judgmental but he sums up her strengths such as staying calm under horrific conditions as well as her ability to understand the psychology of her captors and bond with them and concludes that in the end she was not a victim.
“The clearest example that she was a voluntary member of the SLA is that at Mel’s, she could have drove away, walked away, but instead she chose to shoot a machine gun into a crowded street to free them,” says Toobin referring to the episode where Bill and Emily Harris were caught shoplifting and were trying to flee a sporting goods store.
There were other times when Heart could have sought help—when she was by herself and being treated for poison oak at a hospital and when she was driving across country with author Jack Scott and his parents who tried to convince Hearst to turn herself in.
“When she was arrested she put her occupation as urban guerilla,” continues Toobin
Though the country was rife with revolutionary groups at the time (bombings were almost an everyday occurrence in San Francisco) like the Weatherman Underground and the Black Panthers, they thought the SLA were insane.
“And that’s saying something,” says Toobin.
So how did the 1960s, a decade of peace and light, turn into the chaotic 70s? Toobin thinks it all began to change when the Vietnam draft ended.
“Many of the idealists drifted away but the embittered remained,” he says.
As for the SLA, who believed that people in prison were all political prisoners and noble, Toobin says that after senselessly murdering an African American superintendent of schools, there was nothing left the to run for their lives. “They never thought through what their ultimate goal was.”
Hearst was ultimately captured and convicted, her lawyer F. Lee Bailey trying to sell the rights to his story while the trial was still going on (Toobin notes that almost everyone involved was trying to snag a book contract), but she never served her full sentence.
“I don’t know what the right sentence was,” he says when asked. “But I do know that she got an extraordinarily good deal. She is the only person in American history who got a commutation for Jimmy Carter and a pardon from Bill Clinton.”
What: Bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin in conversation with former federal prosecutor, Dan Purdom.
When: Monday, August 15 at 7 p.m.
Where: Meiley-Swallow Hal-North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth St., Naperville, IL
FYI: (630) 355-2665