Toobin’s New Book on Patty Hearst

by Danny Stout

Jeffrey Toobin, journalist, lawyer, and meticulous researcher delivers superb work in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday; 371 p.). His earlier work, The Run of his Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, though, well-crafted, lacks the intrigue and mystery of the Patty Hearst Story. Despite the societal schism splitting the nation over O.J., the story, though tragic, has few of the nuances of Hearst’s life. Average college student or terrorist murderer? Or both? It’s the difference between a 500 and 1,000 – piece puzzle: The Hearst story is loaded with variables such as wealth, politics, psychology; the crime motive difficultly discerned. The O.J. story’s more didactic.

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Few Millenials know this baffling tale their Baby Boomer parents have been stewing over for half a century. Granddaughter of the wealthy media mogul William Randolf Hearst, Patty was kidnapped in 1974. The nation froze. Weren’t high-stakes kidnappings a thing of the past? Not since the Lindbergh baby in 1932 was a hostage story in the nightly news.

Unlike Lindbergh, Hearst was an adult student at the University of California at Berkeley that’s aggressively snatched from her modest apartment by a handful of the Symbionese Liberation Army, violent revolutionaries with an ill-defined commitment to over-throw America. With the famous name drawing press coverage, they rose from obscure misfits to public players in the American protest movement.

Today she’s a victim, the next, Hearst carries a machine gun into a bank robbery. Eventually, murder results. All the intrigue of “split-personality” movies such as The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, pale in comparison to the mega-mystery of Patty Hearst. Toobin keeps the dramatic tension alive through conflicting details of the narrative. Readers are left to judge Patty’s character and life.

Toobin is out for bigger game. Egalitarian values were no where to be found in the 1970’s as Hearst serves a meager two years and is pardoned by President Jimmy Carter. Others paid more dearly for the savage crimes.

Perhaps more engaging is Toobin’s before-and-after portrait of Hearst. Her group guns down people in cold blood, but now she lives the toobinupscale urban life. She enters dogs in elite shows, and all seems forgotten. Hearst prefers not to talk about the violent years. How can she draw a blank and disremember so easily? Toobin suggests that the life script of the ultra – rich provides an inherent ability of selective memory lapse. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, the affluent are adept at memory lapse. For the destitute, such memories are painful and often carried to the grave.

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