American Heiress : The Wild Saga Of The Kidnapping, Crimes And Trial Of Patty Hearst / Jeffrey Tobin

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkley, was kidnapped by a small group of revolutionaries that grandly called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. Patty was targeted because she was heiress to the famed Hearst family fortune (her grandfather was William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper publisher who built the country’s biggest newspaper chain and media empire). The kidnapping made a huge splash news-wise nationally, and the bizarre events that followed over the course of the next two years kept the story in the headlines.

The first ransom demand from the kidnappers required that Hearst’s parents fund a food give-away in Oakland and San Francisco. Then a few weeks later, the group released a tape recording of Patty proclaiming she had joined the SLA and adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.” Shortly after that, a bank’s security cameras captured images of “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a robbery staged by the SLA.

I clearly remember the first few months of this saga in the news. What I had forgotten was that, after the majority of the members of the SLA (an “army” of just eight people) were killed in a shoot out with police, Patty spent more than a year on the lam with the two remaining members. Even more damning, during this period she took part in another bank robbery in which a woman was killed, an act that made her an accessory to murder. Was Patty a willing participant or coerced to take part in the SLA activities?

In this detailed account, Toobin presents the events as they occurred, blow-by-blow, from the moment Patty is kidnapped through her trial and beyond.

While Patty Hearst refused to be interviewed for the book, Toobin had a wealth of material to draw upon, allowing him to given an in-depth description that I found credible. After Patty was captured, she was jailed and charged with being an active participant in the crimes carried out by the SLA after her conversion to their cause. She ultimately was given a seven year prison sentence, although she spent relatively little time behind bars. Not long after entering prison, Jimmy Carter signed a commutation of the remainder of her sentence. Bill Clinton would later give her a Presidential pardon. (It helps to have wealthy parents with political connections.)

American Heiress does not provide definitive proof as to whether Patty was a willing participant or coerced. At her trial, she claimed that, throughout the experience, she feared for her life and acted as she did for self-preservation. Also addressed is the possibility it could have been a case of “Stockholm Syndrome,” a psychological condition where a prisoner begins to identify and sympathize with their captors. Toobin does not take a stand on this question. Instead, he allows the accumulated evidence to speak for itself. By the time I finished, I’d changed my original opinion on the matter. I encourage those interested in the topic to read the book and decide for themselves. American Heiress captures the radical turbulence of the 1970s in a fascinating manner. It is certainly a page turner.

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