Patty Hearst: the urban guerrilla with a shih tzu


Captivity tales in fiction and real life fascinate us. In John Ford’s classic western The Searchers Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) a middle-aged Confederate veteran, spends years looking for his abducted niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). It is said to have been inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker in a Comanche raid on her family’s home at Fort Parker, Texas. She had three children with the Comanche Chief Peta Nocona. After nearly a quarter of a century with the Comanches she was recued, against her will, by the Texas Rangers. The fictional stories of Emma Donahue’s 2010 Room and the TV series Homeland have the real-life parallels. Natascha Kampusch was held in a secret cellar by her kidnapper Wolfgang Přiklopil for more than eight years, until she escaped on 23 August 2006. Bowe Bergdahl was a prisoner in Afghanistan and Pakistan by a group linked to the Taliban from June 2009 until his release in May 2014, as told in the second series of the podcast Serial. The case of Patty Hearst is surely one of the most notorious cases. Hearst is the subject of the latest work of Jeffrey Toobin, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Toobin also wrote The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, the inspiration behind the hit TV show American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson

The 60s are famous as a period of rebellion, but the 70s were also a complicated decade, a time of political turmoil. The last throes of the Vietnam War and the impeachment of Richard Nixon led to a polarised climate. We don’t tend to associate the United States with domestic terrorism, and if I think of terrorism in the 1970s I remember the IRA, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang or the PLO, but in the early and mid-’70s, there were a thousand bombings a year in the United States. What would Fox News have made of this had it existed then? Terrorist groups included the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group behind the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.

The Symbionese Liberation Army was the creation of delusional African-American, Donald DeFreeze, a man on the run, having recently escaped from Vacaville Prison, a California state prison. He was joined in the endeavour by a ragtag bunch of recent college graduates and dropouts, middle-class kids attracted by the half-baked Marxist theory and what they thought was the authenticity of a convict leader.

The name itself, while certainly being memorable is rather removed from reality. I am going to unpack it. Symbionese is not even a word, but comes from symbiosis. In his manifesto DeFreeze defined symbiosis as “a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body.” The SLA stated that capitalism was parasitic. What they wanted was all races, genders, and ages all united in struggle and living together in peace. But who did they actually liberate? DeFreeze liked to be known as General Field Marshal Cinque, but army is an exaggeration for an organisation which never topped twelve members. They did not have a particularly coherent agenda and what they sought above all was media attention. The group’s slogan was “Death to the Fascist Insect that Preys upon the Life of the People!” They proclaimed a Symbionese Nation and adopted Way Back Home by The Crusaders as their national anthem.

Their chosen target, Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the real Citizen Kane), was a 19-year-old college student in Berkeley, living with her 25-year-old boyfriend, Steve Weed, who was a graduate student. On March 4th 1974 they kidnapped Patty Hearst without a clear idea of what their ransom demands would be. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, was never going to agree to release the two SLA members accused of murdering school superintendent Marcus Foster. They tried to get her father to spend $4,000,000 buying food for people. That didn’t quite work out as they planned, but he maybe spent $2,000,000 on food.

Gradually Hearst began engaging with her captors.  After a couple she had been transformed into Tania, the revolutionary. Her choice was inspired by the nom de guerre of Tamara Bunke, the martyred Argentinean guerrilla and lover of Che Guevara. This conversion was reflected in the iconic photo of Patricia standing with a machine gun in front of the SLA flag, a seven-headed cobra.

Then came a series of incidents. The first was the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, made famous by video of Hearst toting a machine gun. After DeFreeze and five other members of the group were killed in a SWAT raid in a Los Angeles flat where they were holed up, Patricia remained on the run for another 13 months. During these months, she participated in two more bank robberies. In one of these, Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four children, who was in the bank to deposit receipts from her church, was shot in the abdomen by the SLA’s Emily Harris bled to death. Hearst was driving the getaway car. She also helped set off bombs in Northern California, but these produced no fatalities. She was finally caught on September 18th 1975, along S.L.A. members Patty Hearst, Bill and Emily Harris and Wendy Yoshimura. When asked for her occupation, Hearst replied “urban guerrilla.”

The 1976 trial was of course a media spectacle. Hearst was represented by F. Lee Bailey the colourful lawyer, who would later be part of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team.” His efforts were in vain and the heiress was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Bailey actually made Hearst sign a release for his book, which he was planning to write about the case. In reality, she served a total of 22 months in prison, until her sentence was commuted by President Carter. Twenty years later, Bill Clinton on his last day in office issued her a pardon, making Patty Hearst the only person in American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another.

The debate during the Patty Hearst trial and one that remains contentious today is whether she was she brainwashed or radicalised? Toobin is convinced that it’s not that she was brainwashed but that she actually believed the SLA rhetoric and became one of them. He avoids using terms like brainwashing or Stockholm syndrome. Those are terms beloved by journalists, but which lack scientific rigour. I think Toobin is right to argue that she responded rationally to the circumstances she was confronted with at each stage of her captivity. Hearst was undoubtedly vulnerable and in a state of total dependency on her captors. She had multiple opportunities to escape over a year and a half. She didn’t escape because she didn’t want to. Toobin describes her as an impressionable young woman, rebelling a bit against her parents but who was still looking for an authority figure in her life. Then after claiming that she was an urban guerrilla, a few weeks after her release she went back to her old class. Toobin is critical of the way she was pardoned. He sees it as an abuse of privilege.

Her relationship with SLA member Willie Wolfe reflects how difficult it is to describe what happened. According to the other members she was in love with him. Nevertheless, it is difficult to conceive of consent in the context of a kidnapping. Hearst claims that he raped her. When she was arrested she had an Olmec relic in the shape of a monkey face that had been to her by Wolfe. That doesn’t sound like the behaviour of a rape victim. But in a 2009 interview for NBC she described the prosecutor’s accusation that she had been in a consensual relationship with Wolfe as an insult to rape victims and “outrageous”.

Hearst is now 62 years old. Two months after being released from prison, Hearst married Bernard Shaw, a policeman who had been part of her private security detail when she was on bail. The marriage lasted until his death in 2013, and they had two children, Gillian and Lydia. She published a memoir, Every Secret Thing, in 1981. She also became a muse for director John Waters, who cast her in such films as Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, and Cecil B. DeMented. Now, a grandmother she is living the life of the wealthy socialite showing her shih tzu at New York’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.


One Response to Patty Hearst: the urban guerrilla with a shih tzu

  1. Alberto says:

    Welcome back.

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