Sunday, January 8, 2017

the book review of Patricia Hearst

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday)

Wow, did this 344-page book ever go fast. I read it in about three hours, pretty much nonstop. The only thing I'd ever read about the Hearst case, apart from following the newspapers at the time, was the chapter in David Talbot's Season of the Witch. Talbot seemed convinced that Hearst feigned her adherence to the SLA, to keep them from killing her, and stayed on the run after the bulk of the gang were killed out of fear that the cops would shoot her on sight, though he admits that doesn't explain her post-capture defiance.

Toobin only cites Talbot for background impressions of society at the time, which is Talbot's real interest. It's Toobin who dives into the detail of the event - much more about the first two acts than the sometimes wearying trial - and he makes clear that the Talbot interpretation is Hearst's defense as offered in her own book, which I haven't read. Toobin isn't buying it, though he stops short of calling Hearst an outright liar. There's much more than I knew that suggests Hearst was happy as a revolutionary rebel on the run, and it largely explains her court conviction.

Toobin does perhaps go too far in pointing out the repeated occasions Hearst could have escaped but didn't. I think this situation is far more complex than he posits. I was surprised at the lack of any references to Elizabeth Smart, who likewise could often have escaped but didn't. There are salient differences between them: Smart was only 14 and a dutiful child with little experience on her own, whereas Hearst was 20 - an adult, living away from home - and had been a feisty rebel against parental discipline even when she was 14. But Toobin doesn't even discuss the differences, let alone the similarities. All he offers is a short discussion, near the end of the book, of Stockholm syndrome, but denies it applies to Hearst, though the facts as he gives them seem to fit it, with a huge contrast between Hearst's initial terror and the gang quickly treating her kindly and even coming to like her. (Smart, by her own account, had no sympathy for her captor, who terrified her; but that's also what Hearst said about the SLA. Smart, however, never showed any evidence of being happy there.)

Curiously, the character who my sympathy increased for the most is Steven Weed, and this because of, not despite, Toobin's utter contempt for him. Unquestionably, Weed was in many ways an unsatisfactory person, but Toobin's judgment of Weed's behavior at the kidnapping scene is manifestly unfair. Over the turn between pages 2 and 3, Weed escapes from the home invaders and "bolted" (Toobin's word) out the back door, never to be seen by them, or Hearst, again. Over the next several chapters come repeated denunciations of Weed's "cowardice". These seem to be written from Hearst's perspective, but Toobin doesn't say so openly, and shows no sign that he disagrees with this judgment.

It isn't until an aching 55 pages later that we learn that, after escaping, Weed did exactly what we'd expect him to do: try to find a neighbor who could call the police. And turn back to page 2 for a moment. After already having been "knocked almost unconscious" by the kidnappers, Weed "was able to rise from his stupor" and "made a wild rush" at Bill Harris, who "slammed [him] to the ground" again. Is that fighting back against an openly armed man "cowardly" behavior? And, once it was clear that defeating three kidnappers by personal physical force was beyond his powers, isn't escaping - and hoping they don't chase you down or shoot you - and seeking help the sensible heroic action? Unless one's criticism of Weed is for not being Rambo (and at times I think Toobin is making that argument) or you think his droopy mustache made him an irredeemable wimp (and at times I think Toobin is making that argument too) his action at the scene, after his initial panicked "Take anything you want!" after the invaders demanded his money (which I can't really blame him for in the circumstances, although Toobin's repeated snide response is that yeah, they took Patricia) seems to me to have been wholly admirable, whatever else he did before or afterwards.

However, Toobin shows a tremendous grasp of how to tell a concrete, detail-filled story in lucid style, and I especially enjoyed details I hadn't known before - like references to the other two kidnapping victims of the evening - and the cameo appearances by people who later became famous for other things, like Lance Ito (the future O.J. Simpson judge), Sara Jane Moore (the future wanna-be presidential assassin), and Bill Walton (the already-then-famous basketball player).

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