On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a sophomore in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”
The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing—the Hearst family trying to secure Patty’s release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the bank security cameras capturing “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty’s year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circus-like trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the term “Stockholm syndrome” entered the lexicon.
The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1,500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst and re-creates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors’ crusade.
Or did she?
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Racial taunts; Violence; Strong sexual themes; Drugs; Alcohol; Criminal culture
Booklist starred (July 2016 (Vol. 112, No. 21))
On February 4, 1974, two women and one man burst into the Berkeley, California, apartment that Patricia Hearst, heir to the fortune of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, shared with her fiancé, Steven Weed. They clubbed Weed and dragged a thrashing, screaming, 19-year-old Hearst into the trunk of their car. This was the start of a prolonged, violent, and sometimes absurd cross-country odyssey that led from cramped, filthy safe houses to isolated rural farmhouses. The kidnapping, travels, and trials of Hearst and her “companions” would draw in a variety of willing and unwilling characters, including a radical sports journalist; a greedy, alcoholic, but brilliant defense attorney; and even a high-school baseball player. The saga transfixed the nation as key moments played out on national television, including a horrific shootout and fire in which some of the kidnappers died, and during which Hearst, rebellious and unhappy about her impending marriage, appeared to embrace the cause espoused by her abductors, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. With access to previously off-limit documents, best-selling Toobin (The Oath, 2012), New Yorker staff writer and senior legal analyst for CNN, has written an outstandingly detailed and insightful account of the Hearst case and its impact.
Library Journal (August 1, 2016)
The bones of Patty Hearst’s story are relatively well known-pampered heiress kidnapped by radicals joins their ranks, famously helping them rob a bank at gunpoint-but as Toobin (The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson) here shows, the details that flesh out the saga of Hearst and the group calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) are weirder and more compelling than any work of fiction. For instance, while the group was among the most wanted in America, SLA leader Donald DeFreeze decided to recruit new members by going door to door in San Francisco’s Western Addition Neighborhood. (Not only did no one he spoke to report him to the police, but he actually brought on board people who would turn out to be crucial allies.) The narrative is peppered with appearances by such recognizable names as Jim Jones, Joan Baez, future judge of O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial Lance Ito, and Sara Jane Moore, who would later attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Toobin’s meticulous research is the book’s bedrock, but his flair for dramatic storytelling makes it a pleasure to read. Though the author never states directly whether he believes Hearst’s conversion was real, he provides all of the pieces needed for readers to assemble the puzzle for themselves. VERDICT An essential purchase. Stephanie Klose, Library Journal.
About the Author
Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer at The New Yorker, senior legal analyst at CNN, and the bestselling author of The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, The Nine, Too Close to Call, A Vast Conspiracy, The Run of His Life and Opening Arguments. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, he lives with his family in New York.
His website is www.jeffreytoobin.com.
American Heiress Discussion Questions
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst Full HD Documentary
Patty Hearst Case on the FBI’s Famous Cases
Around the Web
American Heiress on Amazon
American Heires on JLG
American Heiress on Goodreads