Yesterday’s Crimes: Jeffrey Toobin on the Gaslighting of Patty Hearst

Patricia “Patty” Hearst was snatched from her Berkeley apartment and stuffed into the trunk of a stolen Impala on Feb. 4, 1974. She was the granddaughter of a media mogul; the great granddaughter of a silver king. Hearst was born to wealth and power. Now she was powerless.

Hearst was abducted by a 1970s fever dream with revolutionary ambitions called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). This band of eight misfits was best known for pumping Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster full of cyanide-laced slugs on Nov. 6, 1973. To keep the public from fearing the worst, the SLA made a recording of Hearst to prove she was still alive.

“Mom, Dad, I’m okay,” she said in a dull monotone broadcast by KPFA on Feb. 12, 1974.

Two months later, she was calling herself Tania and robbing the Hibernia Bank on Noriega Street with her captors.

“This is Tania… Patricia Hearst,” she said so everyone would know who was robbing them. “First person puts up his head, I’ll blow his motherfucking head off!”

Americans were left asking how this 19-year-old girl born to one of America’s richest families could become a foul-mouthed, bank-robbing revolutionary. The answers still aren’t easy to come by over forty years later.

“This is a moment when we are asking ourselves what makes a kid in Brussels or Minneapolis decide to become a terrorist,” bestselling author and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says. “The story of Patty Hearst and the other members of the SLA tells us that it’s really hard to know.”

Toobin is fresh from the successful adaptation of his book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (Random House, 1996) into the Emmy-nominated first season of FX’s American Crime Story. His latest book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday, 2016), finds Toobin once again at the intersection between true crime, race and class in America as he reexamines the Patty Hearst case from a 21st-century perspective. (He’ll be at City Arts and Lectures next Monday, Sept. 19 to discuss it.)

“You look at the other members of the SLA — most of them were high school cheerleaders,” Toobin says. “That’s not a traditional recruiting ground for terrorists. It just shows it’s really hard to predict who’s going to become a terrorist, and that’s a very sobering and contemporary lesson.”

While the other mostly white and middleclass SLA members chose the revolutionary path while they still had other options, Hearst’s conversion came about while she was blindfolded and confined to a smelly closet in a Daly City tract home for over a month.

During her captivity, Angela Atwood (one of the cheerleaders) would style Hearst’s hair “as if they were a couple of kids at America’s most surreal slumber party” according to Toobin. Willie Wolfe AKA Cujo, the son of a physician, read quotations from Chairman Mao to Patricia through the closet door. “All men must die, but death can vary in significance,” he read, letting her know how committed he was to the SLA cause.

Donald DeFreeze AKA Field Marshal Cinque, the leader of the SLA whom Toobin describes as “a two-bit, incompetent criminal,” negged Hearst relentlessly.

“Your mommy and daddy are insects,” he said during one of his visits to the closet. “They should be made to crawl on their hands and knees like insects if they want you back.” He also told her that she was more likely to be killed by the FBI than the SLA, a message continuously reinforced by the other SLA members.

However, the gaslighting wouldn’t have been nearly so effective if Hearst wasn’t, as Toobin says, “unusually vulnerable to the kind of appeals that the SLA made to her once they started treating her like a human being.” At the time of the kidnapping, she was increasingly estranged from her mother, Catherine Hearst, and her fiancé, Steven Weed.

“She was sort of whipsawed between the two, restless at sea,” Toobin says.

The SLA allowed Hearst to hear news reports about her kidnapping. When Randy Hearst, her father, pushed back against SLA demands for millions more dollars to fund the People in Need food distribution program, Patty was painfully aware of the game of hardball being played with her life.

“The Hearst family’s statements, as interpreted by the SLA, prove to Patricia that her parents were not serious about feeding the poor,” Toobin says. The deaths of six SLA comrades during a firefight with the LAPD on May 17, 1974 “certainly confirmed the SLA’s warning that the real danger to Patricia was the authorities, not her kidnappers.”

Even with most of the SLA slaughtered by the LAPD, Hearst stayed on the lam with surviving  SLA members until she was captured by the FBI in a house on Morse Street off of Mission in San Francisco’s Crocker Amazon neighborhood on Sept. 18, 1975. In “American Heiress,” Toobin looks for the whys that Hearst herself probably doesn’t quite know.

“The whole story is bizarre,” Toobin says.

“I think she (Hearst) does deserve a lot of credit for, just, her strength in dealing with the kidnapping and going on the lam for a year without collapsing,” he adds.

“This was a tough young girl.”

Jeffrey Toobin discusses American Heiress with Salon co-founder David Talbott, Monday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m., at City Arts and Lectures, Nourse Theater, 227 Hayes Street,

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