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"Death to the Fascist Insect": Patty Hearst, the SLA, and the Swinging 70s

Amazon Book Review: American HeiressAnyone alive to witness Patricia Hearst's kidnapping on February 4, 1974 remembers it as of the wildest, most sensational stories in a decade full of them. Almost unbelievable at the time, the story has become more inscrutable with the passing of almost 40 years. What makes it so weird? Let's start with just a few of the players:

  • Donald DeFreeze, AKA "Cinque Mtume": escaped prisoner, self-anointed-visionary, and founder of the "Symbionese Liberation Army," the group that pulled off Hearst's kidnapping while seemingly making every attempt to botch it.
  • The members of the SLA: a ragtag group of deluded artists-turned-radicals, producers of acts of shocking, pointless violence and gibberish propaganda, including their slogan: "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"
  • Hearst: the moderately rebellious heir to a media empire, who briefly transformed into "Tania," a self-described "urban guerilla" in league with the her captors.
  • Not least, the era itself: the post-60s rubble of sex, drugs, radicalism, and toxic politics.


Following a spree of bad deeds including bank robberies, bombings, and attempted murders, "Tania" was arrested more than a year-and-a-half after her abduction and charged with felony armed robbery, setting the stage for the latest Trial of the Century. It might not have been the first event of its kind, but the extraordinary media reaction--especially a TV news industry seasoned by the Vietnam War--created both an unprecedented phenomenon and the template for future public spectacles.

While multiple accounts are available (including Hearst's own), CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin's American Heiress is the first to examine the Hearst saga within the context of its time, with the high-altitude view provided by passage of decades. Just as his The Run of His Life went to the heart of the O.J. Simpson fiasco, Heiress is a masterwork of investigation, leveraging previously unavailable information to cast new light on the kidnapping and even Hearst's own motivations throughout her ordeal.

We asked Toobin a few questions about American Heiress via email; our conversation is below, as well as a few images from the book. American Heiress is an August selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month in Nonfiction.



Amazon Book Review: For someone who didn't witness the Patricia Hearst story in real time, it might be difficult to fathom its spectacular weirdness. What was happening at the time that made this event what it became, or at least heightened that weirdness?

Jeffrey Toobin: In the seventies, the United States was having a collective nervous breakdown – 1000 political bombings a year, two skyjackings a month, Watergate, the energy crisis, and a series of serial killers stalking San Francisco. The Hearst kidnapping both reflected and intensified that crazy era, especially when she shocked the world and joined her captors.


"Tania" posing with the SLA's seven-headed cobra insignia

ABR: If you're going into the story cold, the "Symbionese Liberation Army" seems at first almost quaint—a collection of bumbling theater nerds. Not long into the narrative, though, that notion is violently debunked. Who were the SLA, and what were their aims?

JT: They saw themselves as revolutionaries, American counterparts to small bands that were active in countries like Uruguay, Italy and West Germany. They had no clear goals, except to foment chaos and call attention to themselves. Their most sinister act was their first – the assassination of the Marcus Foster, the Oakland school superintendent. That crime set in motion the Hearst kidnapping, which in turn led to bank robberies and bombings.

ABR: There are several accounts already available, including Hearst's own version. What was your intent in writing this book? What does American Heiress bring to the table that hasn't been seen before?

JT: Context, clarity and an abundance of new information. For one thing, the story is mostly forgotten, except in its broad outlines, but I had access to people and documents never before seen by journalists, and I tell the story in a way that simply was not possible during an earlier time.


The car (and trunk) used in the kidnapping

ABR: You challenge the popular assertion—Hearst's own assertion—that her participation in the SLA's crimes was the result of Stockholm syndrome or other forms of coercion. But as an heir to a fantastically rich media empire, what accounts for her behavior?

JT: This question – and my answer to it – are at the heart of American Heiress. Hearst was at a uniquely impressionable moment in her life. She was just nineteen years old and estranged from both her mother and her fiancé, Steven Weed. Her kidnappers talked to her and listened to her, and presented a view of the world that made sense to her – that her parents had abandoned her, that the FBI was out to kill her. In context, her decision to join her kidnappers was more rational than it might appear.


The Hibernia Bank stick-up

ABR: On the continuum of Trials of the Century –Lindbergh, Manson, OJ, etc.--where does the Hearst saga sit? What was remarkable about it? What is its long-term impact?

JT: The Hearst kidnapping provided a kind of trailer for the modern world. It foretold much that would happen to American society in a remarkably diverse number of fields. The story illuminates the future of the media – especially television and book publishing; the culture of celebrity; criminal justice; and even sports. The Hearst kidnapping itself had an effect on the politics of the seventies, including on the career of the governor of California, Ronald Reagan. In other words, even though the kidnapping was an utterly anomalous event, it provided hints of what America would become.


The Symbionese Liberation Army: actors' guild or insurgent force?

ABR: If someone like Hearst were kidnapped today, how would that situation compare to what happened in the mid-1970s?

JT: At the time, the Hearst story was seen as the subject of massive press attention. Patricia was on the cover of Newsweek seven times! Today, the amount of media seems almost modest, the sources antique. (What's Newsweek? What's a "cover"?) In an era of cable news, the internet and social media, a kidnapping of this magnitude would generate a media and public panic that would dwarf what happened in 1974.

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