In 1974, Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped from the student apartment in Berkeley she shared with her fiancé.
A group of pseudo-Marxist radicals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army were responsible, hoping to exploit her family’s fortune and clout to further their revolutionary cause.
What followed was one of the most bizarre sagas in modern American history. Hearst joined her captors in their criminal activity, robbing banks and firing a machine gun outside of a sporting goods store in Inglewood before being captured in 1975. She even gave herself the pseudonym “Tania” during her crime streak.
But why did she do it?
Jeffrey Toobin, author of “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst,” told AirTalk the lesson that Patty Hearst teaches is: “you can’t always predict who will be radicalized or how.”
The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Was she someone who was simply trying to find a way — after she was kidnapped — to rebel against her parents, as any young person might do, or was she a weak character in this conversion?
You know, this is the central issue of my book: Why did Patty Hearst do what she did? Was she coerced? Was she a prisoner? Was she acting against her will, or did she genuinely become a member of the SLA? This gets caught up in terms that are very much associated with this case, like brainwashing, Stockholm syndrome. My view is, I try to avoid that jargon, and just look at what Patty Hearst did. When you look at how many times she could have left the SLA in the year-and-a-half and how many times she acted independently to join with them in an astonishing number of crimes — three bank robberies, several bombings, shooting up a street in Los Angeles — my view is that she did in fact join the SLA — at least while she was with them — and was in fact an “urban guerrilla,” as she described herself when she was arrested.
Patty Hearst’s switch from kidnapped heiress to SLA member happened to some extent through girl talk. Was this a political conversion or a sense of, ‘Well, I’ve never met these people before, but they’re kind of making sense?’
I think it’s hard to pinpoint each individual reason. All of these things were factors. In part it was Angela Atwood, the woman who befriended her, one of the kidnappers. It was also another one of the kidnappers, Willie Wolfe, who according to the survivors of the SLA she fell in love with — and in fact that evidence of her relationship with Willie Wolfe wound up being crucial in her criminal trial two years later. The fact that she was 19 years old, and impressionable, and restless and unhappy in the life she was leading as Steven Weed’s fiancé. I think it all came together in an opportunity for her to get outside her life, get away from her family, and at least for a time, become an actual revolutionary.
This is a very well-known case, but you did find some new material?
I did, one of the things that was particularly meaningful for me is that when she’s arrested in September 1975, she is living with her other SLA boyfriend. Her first was Willie Wolfe, who died in the shootout in May of ’74. But later she’s living with Steve Soliah. Steve Soliah is also arrested the same day, and I have letters that had not been published before that she wrote from her jail cell to Steve Soliah in his jail cell, talking about how, “We’re going to keep fighting in the revolution,” and “We’re not going to let the oppressors bother us.” These letters where she’s by herself are the letters of an urban guerrilla. That’s why I reached the conclusion, this and many other things, that by the time she’s arrested, she’s a committed member of the SLA.
Was the Patty Hearst case an anomaly? Or are there some symbolic issues that are with us to this day?
Oh, I think that there are many symbolic issues, and many topical issues. You know, we are living in a moment where we wonder how a kid from the Minneapolis suburbs decides to join ISIS; we wonder how a kid in Brussels or Paris decides to become a terrorist. Why people decide to change their lives and move in a terribly violent direction is a question that is very much top of mind throughout our society. I think the short answer is: We don’t know, and it’s different for different people. When we try to say, “That person would never do that,” we can’t be sure. I think the lesson of the Patty Hearst story is that people become radicalized in different ways, and you can’t always predict who will be radicalized or how.
Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer at the New Yorker and author of “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst;” he tweets from @JeffreyToobin