Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress” explores the confrontational idea of political kidnapping in his detailed biography of Patty Hearst


Author: Jeffrey Toobin
Title, Subtitle: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-0-3855-3671-4
Publication: Doubleday, 372 pages, hardcover, five parts, 27 chapters
Link: author

When news about Patty Hearst’s  being kidnapped by a ragtag “Symbionese Liberation Army”  in early February 1974 hit the papers, I was traveling on a benchmark for Univac, working long hours in Eagan MN, and very much wanting to get back “home” to the New York area for my own new lifestyle.  This was a time of gasoline shortages and economic difficulties after the Arab oil embargo.

Before my “second coming” (as gay, in early 1973), I had been spying (while living in northern New Jersey) on “the People’s Party of New Jersey”, partly because I “liked” its male candidate for Congress.  One Saturday night in December, after skiing, I sat in on a planning meeting in a drafty tenement in Newark, NJ.  I became shocked when I heard talk of potential violence and expropriation.

Jeffrey Toobin’s long opus “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” starts out by reminding us that violent left-wing-based terrorism was the norm in the late 60s and early 70s, in large part in reaction to Richard Nixon’s continued pursuit of the Vietnam War. Bombings were common, and getting directions on how to make them really was not difficult even in pre-Internet days.  With a conventional professional job, I was somewhat sheltered from all of this (despite the Newark spy session)  Maybe I should have felt less sheltered.  Having made myself public in the Internet age, I’m perfectly well aware that someone could go after me as a “pig” or “infidel” or some other kind of sinner.

The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is shocking specifically as it was a political kidnapping (the term Toobin uses), intended to exact retribution on a family for unearned wealth and “oppressive” media influence.  In the days before the Internet, the “4th Estate” was considered more powerful than now.  In fact, one of my first “tricks” as a gay man in NYC in 1976 talked about “the abuse of the media” all the time.  He also hinted possible knowledge of a small bombing that had happened at La Guarida airport (in a storage locker).  He showed up one more time and invited me to watch “Deep Throat” with him at Times Square, and then thankfully disappeared from my life.

The SLA made a great spectacle of the Hearst’s forced food give-away to PIN (“people in need”) in Oakland.  Toobin covers the complicated narrative of the first shootout that eliminated six SLA members, and then of Patty’s life on the run (with a new lover, part of it back East in Pennsylvania).  Interesting is the SLA’s view that’s sexuality should be communal (and that others had a right to your body in a commune).  Patty could parrot the self-righteousness of the radical Left (which I got a piece of with the People’s Party) aswell as anyone.  The trial (with F. Lee Bailey) of course focused on whether she was coerced (to very specific threats on her life) or actually believed the ideology.  I believe both are true.  It is a simple fact that lives can be hijacked (or carjacked) by the aggression of others.  Then, “it is what it is.”

Particularly interesting, too, is Patty’s coming to see her first boyfriend, Steven Weed, as a physical “coward” who want to exploit the incident for his own publicity.

The Patty Hearst narrative is an extreme, outlier example of what can happen if someone perceived to benefit from “unearned privileged” at the indirect expense to others, is targeted.  On the other hand, when you hear the SLA communist (frankly Maoist) rants about “the people”, you wonder who “the people” really are.  Some individuals in the People’s Party back in the 1970s frankly admired Mao’s ideas.

(Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 at 11:45 AM EST)

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