Friday, December 9, 2016

Class and Celebrity in Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress

Patricia Hearst (centre) leaving from San Francisco's Federal Building after received her seven-year sentence, on April 12, 1976.

The year 2016 may be remembered as the one in which celebrity became a vital touchstone in American culture. Most notably was the grotesque upset Presidential victory of Donald Trump in which a reality-TV concept, complete with the dramatic, over-the-top meanness and coarseness – as evidenced by the boisterous rallies and venomous post-truth tweets – helped propel him to the White House. On a lesser scale, this year witnessed both a spotty, award-winning television movie, The People v. O. J. Simpson, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 biography, Run of His Life , and the superior documentary, O. J.: Made in America, in which Simpson notoriously utters, “I am not black, I’m O.J.,” a statement that underscored his celebrity status. Sadly, it is possible to draw another connection between a seismic political event and an infamous crime story. In her 2010 book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, journalist Rebecca Traister investigated the 2008 Presidential election and found bile-filled examples of visceral misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton that included, affixed to t-shirts, “I wish that Hillary had married O.J.” Thirdly, this year marked the publication of Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday), which directly links a series of crimes in the 1970s with celebrity and class.

Before February 4th, 1974, the mildly rebellious Patricia Hearst lived a relevantly ordinary life with her fiancé, Steve Weed, in a modest duplex in Berkeley, California  except for one glaring feature. She was one of the heirs of the sizeable fortune built by her grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, the media magnate and practitioner of yellow journalism – highlighting the sensational, the melodramatic and the misleading – and the inspiration for the classic Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane, a movie that his granddaughter refused to see. It was her pedigree that brought her to the attention of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an obscure, ragtag band of self-appointed revolutionaries (that consisted at most of ten members) led by an escaped African-American convict, Donald DeFreeze. The SLA had already assassinated Oakland’s superintendent of schools, Marcus Foster, for proposing that all students be issued an ID card. When this action not only horrified the general public but alienated other radical groups, they resorted to kidnapping, and three of its members abducted the nineteen-year-old heiress that evening. Patricia was gagged, blindfolded and stuffed into the trunk of a stolen car. For almost six weeks, she was confined to a bedroom closet, blindfolded most of the time, denied toilet facilities for the first few days and sexually assaulted. In the meantime, DeFreeze berated her family, ranted about the oppression of poor people and called for revolution, even though most of this was empty rhetoric – his one real passion was for publicity.

During this time, the SLA issued agit-prop communiques written in “pidgin leftist” Maoist jargon ending with “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the lives of the people.” When one of those communiques demanded that Patricia’s wealthy family institute a lavish programme of food for the poor in the Bay area, it generated much media publicity, the oxygen that this volatile group thrived upon and more important than a badly organized food distribution. In response, her father Randy spoke to reporters from his driveway and addressed her by the family nickname, Patty, an appellation that, according to Toobin, she never liked. But that was the name by which she became known in the national consciousness.

Over the duration of the abduction and its early aftermath, the public was sympathetic to the plight of Patty Hearst, believing that she was the terrorized victim of a series of violent attacks. But when she emerged two months after the initial kidnapping, that consensus dissolved. Apparently radicalized, she assumed the nom de guerre Tania (named after Che Guevara's comrade in Bolivia), appeared in the iconic photograph brandishing a gun, robbed a bank that was captured on surveillance footage and drove the getaway car after another bank robbery during which a woman was killed. Hearst and her comrades then went underground, eventually hunkering down in Los Angeles. Shortly after the FBI located their Compton hideout, half the SLA members perished in a shootout with SWAT teams during which their house was incinerated, the first such event carried on live television in the United States. Hearst and the other survivors disappeared beneath the legal radar for almost eighteen months before the FBI arrested them in San Francisco. When booked, she raised her handcuffed fist defiantly and described her occupation as “urban guerrilla.” She would serve less than two years in prison. President Jimmy Carter commuted her seven-year sentence in 1979. In 1982, she was given an advance of $600,000 to write her memoir, Every Secret Thing. She married her bodyguard and became a suburban mother of two. On his last day in office, President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon, enabling her to live out her comfortable bourgeois life, one that she once excoriated – in contrast to the fictional troubled counterpart, Merry, in Philip Roth’s great 1997 novel, American Pastoral, who never returned from her bleak underground existence.

Most commentators, who have relied on Hearst’s memoir and the court records, generally give her a sympathetic hearing. For example, journalist Bryan Burrough’s 2010 overview of six radical groups during the 1970s, Days of Rage, provides a summary of the Hearst case. Although dwarfed by the greater attention he bestows upon the Weather Underground, Burrough cites extensively from Hearst’s self-serving memoir primarily to reinforce her disdainful perceptions of her former comrades, whom she uniformly regards as tormentors. The curious effect is that Patty Hearst herself is almost eclipsed in Burrough’s overview.

Patricia Hearst in the infamous photo of April 15, 1974, with a machine gun in front of the SLA flag.

A more rigorous and nuanced exploration of the Hearst case is developed in William Graebner’s 2008 Patty’s Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America, a significant title because Graebner argues that Hearst in part was convicted – not only in the trial but in the court of public opinion during the 1970s – because in that seminal image of her toting a gun in military fatigues, she represented radical feminism at its most dangerous. Although in the first half of the book, the author provides a careful overview of the kidnapping, confinement and conversion of Hearst to the SLA, and two excellent chapters on the trial itself, his real purpose is to put the Hearst case in its historical context midway between the permissive radicalism in the 1960s and the law-and-order conservatism, individual responsibility and the celebration of heroic resistance of the Reagan era. Graebner effectively shows how the government lawyers destroyed the defence’s argument of “coercive persuasion" – brainwashing, in popular parlance – when they attempted to compare Hearst’s ordeal to the plight of captured air pilots during the Korean War who, after indoctrination, made propaganda radio broadcasts. State lawyers were able to demonstrate that – unlike Hearst – no POW fired a weapon against his own side and that some of them even attempted to escape captivity.

By contrast, when the opportunity to escape occurred as it did on May 16, 1974, Hearst’s actions revealed her commitment to the SLA cause. While sitting in a VW camper parked on a six-lane street in Los Angeles reading a newspaper, two other members of her “combat unit,” Bill and Emily Harris, went shopping in Mel's Sporting Goods across the way. Bill attempted to shoplift and was wrestled to the ground by several members of the shop's staff. Here was Hearst's opening to escape and inform the police. Instead, she pushed a machine gun out the van window and fired a volley of bullets at the store. (Her father had taught her how to use weapons and she had received further training from the SLA.) Her captors took advantage of the confusion to run across the street, and the trio squealed off round the corner. Graebner has some sympathy for the defence arguments that she feared she would be killed by the FBI, a warning that SLA had issued her from the beginning, and given what happened to DeFreeze and five other SLA members who perished in the LA firefight, she had good reason to be apprehensive.

Graebner effectively places that fear and distrust of government agencies in the context of the Watergate break in and cover-up, revelations about the CIA’s illicit involvement in the assassination of foreign leaders and the FBI’s plummeting reputation during the mid-1970s, especially after the public learned that the Bureau had routinely surveilled, infiltrated and harassed law-abiding leftist groups. But the jury wanted evidence of personal agency demonstrated by heroic resistance; just staying alive was insufficient, and her failure to even attempt escape was largely responsible for the guilty verdict the jury eventually rendered. Although fascinating, Patty’s Got a Gun is less interested in demonstrating a legal argument about the guilt or innocence of Hearst and more in offering an account about how she became a symbol of the deviant zeitgeist during the emerging cultural war of the 1970s.

Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, senior legal analyst at CNN, and author of five previous books, turns Graebner’s study on its head – perhaps unintentionally, as he does not quote him, though he does include Patty’s Got a Gun in his bibliography. While Toobin does not ignore the cultural context, he is far more interested in exploring the legal issues, and he is persuasive. American Heiress is a departure from his previous books, which emerged from his first-hand coverage of those cases as a journalist. His current book, as he has said, is on the borderline between journalism and history. Toobin interviewed most of the surviving participants – with the major exception of Patty Hearst, who refused all his requests, although she had made herself abundantly available to friendly journalists after her 1982 memoir was released. He unearthed a massive cache of documents, unavailable to previous authors, which include the private papers of Bill Harris after he was released from prison, as well as Hearst’s prison letters to her lover, Steve Soliah, which recently came to his attention. It’s not that Toobin ignores Every Secret Thing, court documents and other material supportive of Hearst; he critiques them as he weighs their probative value against the conflicting evidence he acquired.

Toobin sets out the cultural context for the Patty Hearst case in the opening chapter. After the hope and mostly non-violent protest of the 1960s, the sour 1970s were dominated by anxiety and pervasive violence. He documents the waves of criminality in northern California, from the Zodiac serial killer, who taunted the San Francisco police – effectively dramatized in David Fincher’s 2005 film Zodiac – to the Zebra murders, in which black Muslims killed white people at random, that peaked with the slaughter of five citizens in the week before Hearst’s kidnapping. With the nation mired in Watergate, domestic terrorism engulfed the United States. In 1974, there were 2,044 actual or attempted bombings. In later chapters, he notes that the Reverend Jim Jones offered to help with the food distribution effort; that enterprise also employed Sara Jane Moore, who served thirty-two years for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford during his 1975 visit to San Francisco. Congressman Leo Ryan, who represented Randy and Catherine Hearst’s district, endorsed the commutation of Patty’s sentence. “Off to Guyana,” he wrote Patty in 1978. “See you when I return. Hang in there.” Jim Jones’ henchmen shot and killed Ryan before he could board his flight home. These details, interesting in themselves, primarily serve as background. Toobin’s real interest is in the motivations and the behaviour of Patty Hearst and the court proceedings.

Toobin, a former prosecuting attorney, applauds the prosecution team for discovering a charm given to Hearst by a purported rapist, Willy Wolfe, who died in the Los Angeles firefight with the police, and then proving that she had worn and retained it. Jurors acknowledged later that this piece of evidence cast doubt on the defence’s claim that Wolfe had raped her. Toobin contends that they enjoyed a loving relationship until his death. He questions the strategy of Hearst’s high-profile lawyer, F. Lee Bailey (who appears in his account as an insensitive, self-promoting blowhard), for arguing that Patty Hearst was raped by her captors and was the victim of coercive persuasion because it produced only speculation and “psychobabble” from a host of physicians. Toobin also disagrees with Bailey's decision to put his client on the stand and place her in the ignoble position of taking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to answer questions that might incriminate her, thereby forfeiting the sympathy of the jury.

Nonetheless, Toobin treats Hearst herself with compassion when he writes about the first phase of her ordeal: “The threat of death hung over Patricia. Even though she was only a teenager, she faced her situation with courage and intelligence. She didn’t panic or collapse. Any expression of sex in the closet could not have been consensual.” That sympathy slowly diminishes when she becomes a member of the SLA. Initially, she might still have been traumatized but he finds it hard to accept the rationale for what she later maintained – that what she said on tapes and in communiques about American “fascism,” describing herself as “a soldier in the People’s army” and her vilification of her family as “pig Hearsts” – were necessary conditions in order for her to survive when she lived under the control of the SLA.

Toobin contends that regardless of Hearst’s protean nature and moral pliancy, she did possess personal agency, and that she was the consummate opportunist: “In the closet, she became a revolutionary; in the jail cell, she became a Hearst.” Even in chaotic surroundings, “she always knew where her best interests lay,” adapting to her circumstances, which explains her fervent embrace of the SLA, particularly after she watched live on television, along with the Harrises, the violent death of her comrades, including her lover Willy Wolfe. She made a conscious choice not to escape despite ample opportunity because she figured it was not in her best interest. When she told a fellow SLA member that her “old life was gone,” she said it not because she was under duress but because she consciously believed it at the time. She began her days in jail writing of revolution. As her letters to Soliah attest, she still subscribed to the SLA cause: “As long as we stay strong and free, those pigs can’t fuck with us…. I look forward to a lifetime of struggle.” A few weeks later, she reverted to a civilian identity just prior to her trial and ended any further communication with her former SLA allies, including Soliah – another conscious choice. By agreeing to secret sessions with the FBI, she helped send some of them to prison. Conscious of her image, she was now asking her sister for makeup, shedding her radical chic for a more conservative look and reconciling with her mother. Toobin writes that she “never acknowledged any wrongdoing,” regarded the trial as a “farce” and blamed the guilty verdict on her incompetent lawyers. The absence of a moral compass or capacity for self-reflection can in large part be attributed to her cossetted family wealth and the high social status it conferred.

Toobin argues that Patricia Hearst, who had been treated as a celebrity during her captivity – she appeared on the cover of Newsweek seven times – learned to cultivate media sympathy while she was in prison, an outreach that was largely possible because of her privileged class status. She sought out writers from mainly women’s magazines who would be receptive to her message that she was not Tania who hated the police “pigs” but was Patty who was about to marry a police officer. Her parents used their connections to reach out to powerful figures from both political parties to argue that their daughter’s sentence was too harsh and should be commuted. The shocking news coming out of Guyana that over nine hundred followers of Jim Jones had ordered his followers to commit mass suicide ironically supported her cause as the subject of brainwashing again became part of the public conversation. Conservative actor John Wayne made a direct parallel between that horrific event and the plight of Patty Hearst, “a little girl (brainwashed) by torture, degradation and confinement.” Would he have made the same statement on behalf of an ordinary white girl or a member of a visible minority? Toobin is convinced that Hearst’s minimal time in jail and her ultimate pardon can be attributed to her position and privilege. He quotes Robert Mueller, the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco before taking over as FBI director, who strenuously opposed the pardon, claiming that her attitude, born of wealth and social position, “has always been that she is a person above the law.”

Toobin contends that the Patty Hearst affair “provided hints of what America would become.” American Heiress could be read as a prequel to the O. J. Simpson affair. Both were sensational true crime stories as well as sad comments on American justice, media, and celebrity culture. But there is also a connection with the past. When Toobin links William Randolph Hearst’s manipulation of reality by forging a false narrative that gave rise to the 1898 Spanish American War with how the Hearst family in the late 1970s manipulated reality, it is not hard to see a connection with how certain influential mainstream outlets and social media during the recent 2016 election campaign engineered a skewed perception of reality. In some cases, social media consciously posted false news, whose consequences are still being felt. Indeed, a recent report arising from the Washington Post suggests that some commentators are now suggesting that factual evidence no longer has relevancy.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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