Although I vaguely knew the story of Patsy Hearst it turns out I didn’t know very much at all, thanks to Jeffery Toobin I am now appraised not only about the facts of the case but of the political climate in the US at the time.
I’m not normally a fan of politics in my reading matter but without the political rhetoric, Patsy Hearst’s kidnapping would not have happened in the first place, we can’t begin to understand one without the other.
Patsy Hearst was a wealthy heiress to the Hearst’s family fortune. At the time of the kidnapping on 4 February 1974 she was living with her boyfriend, not exactly estranged from her family, but her mother in particular disapproved of her lifestyle. But Patsy was young, it was the 1970s and she was finding her feet. At the same time the self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army were looking to make the headlines and to do so they needed a story so they set-up a fairly shambolic kidnap. Luckily for them Patsy’s boyfriend wasn’t really up for a fight of any description and ran in the opposite direction. So Patsy was taken hostage and if you follow one point of view, she was brainwashed into becoming part of the Symbionese Liberation Army herself. The other point of view is that she didn’t need brainwashing, she believed in their aims. The world was all agog when two months later she was taped telling her family that this was what she wanted and she now had the nom de guerre “Tania.”
From the little I know it appears to me that this is an author who not only knows his stuff but is able to put it across so that those of us who have no understanding can access the information and gain an insight into the place, the times and the psychology of those involved. Jeffery Toobin explains how the family made its fortune and the reality, as opposed to the headlines, of what funds he was really able to raise.
But for me the best part of the book was to explain the era in terms of American social and political history. I won’t lie, I knew next to nothing to begin with so it could be called an ‘easy sell’ but I found the context and background really interesting. My précis of Jeffrey Toobin’s measured analysis was that there was a new angry generation wanting more financial security with fewer wars which they didn’t believe in with the result that domestic terrorism was booming. Sound familiar anyone?
What I had never appreciated before reading this book was that although the SLA were led by a male ex-prisoner with a somewhat erratic personality, there were a number of radical feminists in the group and therefore it was quite conceivable at that time that the former wealthy young Patricia was drawn to their cause. It therefore isn’t such a huge leap to understand that after the group became separated that the fight for survival was all that mattered. There are lots of shocking facts in this part of the story which I was completely unaware of but I’m pleased to say the tone of the book remains factual.
Nor does the author spend a lot of time trying to convince us of Patricia’s culpability or otherwise, he presents the facts and sometimes gives us one view or another but he plays it fairly straight. It is really up to the reader to decide and play the psychoanalyst with the tools he has provided.
Overall the book is a comprehensive look at the kidnap, the intervening years that Patricia Hearst spent as a revolutionary plus short book-ends on her life as a child and what happened afterwards.
“In the end, notwithstanding a surreal detour in the 1970s, Patricia led the life she for which she was destined back in Hillsborough. The story of Patricia Hearst, as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending. She did not turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother.”
American Heiress is my ninth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge and one that I feel has broadened my understanding of an era as well as educating me about a story I thought I knew about, but it turns out I didn’t really know anything at all. Now I do!