American Heiress
American Heiress The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst By Toobin, Jeffrey Book - 2016 | First edition.

The story of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, her conversion by them to their underground urban guerrilla radicalism, her participation in bankrobbing and bomb making, her capture, trial, conviction, and then subsequent sentence commutation and release is, indeed, one of the wilder sagas of a wild time in U.S. history. Toobin tells it well -- with compelling pacing and detail.

Yet none of his research or analysis has turned up really new facts or challenged the finding of the legal process about his central question: Was Hearst a willing participant in the SLA's crimes or did she fake this for over a year to keep from being killed -- as she claimed unsuccessfully in her trial? Toobin concludes that Hearst was a real kidnap victim, became a willing and sincere SLA member, continued this loyalty immediately after arrest, and only adopted the story of continuous coercion when forming her criminal defense strategy. Toobin's saga, though "wild" and detailed, actually sticks to the already established public narrative.

Toobin's interpretation of the available evidence is probably correct, but it still leaves Hearst's motivations and decisions almost inexplicable. That he fails to convey what her mental journey felt like to her is understandable since Patty Hearst refused Toobin any interview or other communication. He regards Hearst's own book with reasonable skepticism -- as a self-serving tale of little credibility or real insight. Nevertheless, It does seems as if he could have presented a wider and more detailed account of public events of the time to illuminate their probable effect on a young woman of her background. How would a very young person of her privileged, but rebellious personal history have been affected by such plausibly pertinent events of the early 70s as Kent State, Watergate, Nixon's resignation, the Munich Olympics hostage taking by Palestinians, the end of the Vietnam War, Attica, the 1972 bank robbery hostage incident depicted in the 1975 movie "Dog Day Afternoon," the Paul Getty kidnapping, etc.? Toobin gives the story of Patty Hearst some historical context, but more would have been helpful to make her zigzag trail of changing loyalties comprehensible.

More historical context would also have made other people's actions more explicable. Toobin does cite the apparent mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978 as affecting the changed receptivity of the public and of officials to a "brainwashing" defense of Patty Hearst. Still, Toobin's views on why her sentence was commuted by President Carter in 1979 seems unimaginative and historically barren -- that Hearst money got her case before Carter and then that the brief presented to Carter for her commutation left out critical facts from the trial -- by implication a result of presidential staff deference to the Hearsts' social position. However, Carter's commutation of Hearst's sentence to the 22 months of prison time already served looks a bit different when we recall -- as Toobin does not -- that one of Carter's most noted and controversial actions was granting amnesty to Vietnam war draft dodgers. (Furthermore, Hearst was in very precarious health, she was only eight months away from her first parole hearing, the commutation left her under stringent conditions and still on probation for a state sentence on shooting up a sporting goods store to enable the escape of another SLA member.)

In the absence of any way to get "inside a person's head," we might look to a searching account of historical and social context for some insight into that person's seemingly incomprehensible and disastrously self-destructive action -- huh, Jeffrey Toobin?!

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