American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst

Image of American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst
Release Date: 
August 1, 2016
Reviewed by: 

". . . brings to life the many characters and truly bizarre and astonishing events."

On February 4, 1974, 19-year-old Patricia Campbell Hearst, a junior, majoring in art history at Cal Berkeley and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a motley group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The sensational and shocking story that unfolded over the next year and half would take many peculiar turns. The immense media attention surrounding the case transfixed the nation and was an integral piece of the puzzle that helped define the 1970s, a decade of perverse violence, political failures, and extreme pessimism. Jeffrey Toobin, bestselling author of Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, CNN senior legal analyst and a staff writer at The New Yorker tackles this fascinating and complex story in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

Riveting and definitive American Heiress is the story of one the most notorious crime cases of the 20th century. In an easy and captivating style Toobin describes the peculiarities, madness, psychology, and legal maneuverings of the events that surrounded the kidnapping, crimes, and trial of Patty Hearst and others.

The reader is taken on a wild ride that vividly captures the atmosphere and craziness of the SLA radicals and their lethal mix of politics, violence, and sex that shrouded Hearst throughout her entire ordeal. Although she did not cooperate with the book, generally, it is a fairly sympathetic chronicle of her plight. Her fear, tenacity, and ideological conversion are dramatically conveyed within its pages.

“Disoriented, frightened, cold, and alone, Patricia, had no idea where they were going or why. Still, it was in her nature to resist. A more timid teenager might have remained frozen in terror, but Patricia, while still in the dark of the trunk, shucked off her restraints and blindfold. As Bill Harris learned when she howled for help and nearly escaped in her driveway, this woman was a fighter.”

From Randolph and Catherine Hearst’s make shift news conferences to their ill-advised attempt to secure their daughter’s freedom by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; to the astonishing photographs capturing Patty or “Tania” brandishing a machine gun during a bank robbery and her stress-filled year on the lam; to the largest police shoot-out in American history and the first news event to be broadcast live on television; and Patty’s ultimate capture and circuslike trial in which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the modern vocabulary.

Toobin’s dramatic and engaging style of writing brings to life the many characters and truly bizarre and astonishing events. His meticulous examination and analysis of the evidence is based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of previously unpublished documents.

As Toobin powerfully writes, “The legacy of the SLA itself may be nonexistent, but its story provided a kind of trailer for the modern world. The kidnapping of Patricia Hearst foretold much that would happen to American society in a diverse number of fields.”

Few people in American history have been subjected to as dramatic a transformation of circumstances as Patricia Hearst. In an instant, her life of privilege was gone, replaced by a nightmare of unadulterated horror. And then, most oddly, she reacted to this trauma with ferocious tenacity by becoming a full-fledged member of the very group that had kidnapped her rejecting the very principals with which she was raised.

“Patricia, in the grip of a cold fury, wanted revenge, even more than her remaining captors turned colleagues. She lived off cigarettes and snacks. Days and nights of hiding in grimy motels and squalid apartments gave her a sickly pallor, but adversity for the woman called Tania, made her stronger. In this, there was, despite everything, a hint of her former life.”

Was Hearst a willing participant in the SLA or did she pretend for over a year to keep herself alive? Did her family's money and political connections help her avoid a lengthy jail sentence despite armed robbery, bombings, attempted murder, and felony murder? These questions that have doggedly shadowed the case were unfortunately left mainly unanswered which was somewhat disappointing.

Overall, Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress is an informative, compelling, and insightful summer read. A thrill ride that will mesmerize anyone who is fascinated with the social and political complexities of the 1970s, legal history, American crime, or anything related to Patty Hearst.