There’s been a lot of buzz lately about “rapid radicalization,” whether it’s the crazy couple in San Bernardino who killed 14 co-workers last fall, the allegedly self-hating gay man who killed 49 patrons of a gay club in Orlando, Florida, last month or the truck driver who killed 84 strolling revelers on Bastille Day in Nice, France.

But none of them had a more rapid radicalization than Patty Hearst, the 19-year-old newspaper heiress who was kidnapped from her Berkeley home back in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a deranged band of would-be Marxist revolutionaries spouting radical-left gibberish and brandishing enough firepower to start their own gun store.

Just 51 days after being kidnapped and kept blindfolded in a closet, Hearst convinced her abductors to let her join the SLA. Four days later she sent out a communique telling the world of her conversion and vowing to stay and fight the corrupt power structure under her new revolutionary name of Tania. And 12 days after that she participated in a bank robbery that gave the world the still-famous picture of her brandishing an M1 carbine while her newfound comrades scooped up the bank’s money.

And that’s just the beginning of the riveting, stranger-than-fiction story Jeffrey Toobin weaves together seamlessly in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday, $28.95). His spellbinding retelling of the Hearst story more than 42 years after she was yanked out of a comfortable life of wealth, privilege and power is so compulsively readable that it should stand as the definitive account of one of the great American true-crime stories, right up there with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Every journalist wants to find and break a great story. It’s so enticing: You get to lay out the narrative, decide the plot points and set the tone for all the other media that (hopefully) follow in your pioneering footsteps. But there are only a finite number of truly great stories just waiting to be discovered. In the end the real test of a writer’s worth is not only how many great stories they can dig up on their own. It’s also how well they can tell a story that’s already been told many times before by many people, including — in this case — by some of the main characters themselves.

By that standard, Toobin gets an A-plus for American Heiress.

Within a couple of months of the Feb. 4, 1974 abduction, as her family frantically tried to arrange her return with a half-baked “food for the poor” program, as law enforcement frantically tried to catch her kidnappers but developed zero good leads, and as the media frantically blared every incremental development in the increasingly strange case, Hearst shocked the world by announcing that she had joined up with the enemy. She didn’t announce it, but it turns out she was also sleeping with the enemy. That’s when it got really weird — and that’s when Toobin’s rollicking story really gets rolling.

If it didn’t involve the deaths of several innocent bystanders, Toobin’s tale would read more as farce than as tragedy. The eight members of the self-proclaimed SLA — nine, if you count the late-to-the-party Hearst herself — come across in his telling as the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight or Do Much Else Well Besides Manipulate the Media. And the law enforcement on the case — the San Francisco Police Department, FBI and Los Angeles Police Department — almost all come across as a bunch of Inspector Clouseaus, missing chance after chance to stop the SLA dead in its tracks long before the climatic shootout in South-Central L.A. more than three months after the kidnapping. 

The FBI's wanted poster; Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigations/Wikimedia Commons

The FBI's wanted poster; Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigations/Wikimedia Commons

But tragedy trumps farce in this case because of the SLA’s murder of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, which preceded Hearst’s kidnapping, and the death of Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer killed during a bank robbery after the kidnapping. Those two deaths give this classic tabloid story enough gravitas to ensure that it has entered the American cultural bloodstream, never to depart.

And even the fiery, nationally televised shootout in South-Central — the run-down wooden house the SLA was hiding in burned to the ground from all the firepower and tear gas pumped into it — didn’t put an end to the story when it was revealed that Hearst was not among the six bodies found in the still-smoldering embers. It went on for another 16 months — including a crazy, back-and-forth journey across the country — before Hearst was arrested without incident in a rented San Francisco house in September 1975.

There have been more than a dozen Patty Hearst books, including Hearst’s own self-serving Every Secret Thing, all of which have helped inform Toobin’s true-crime masterpiece. But Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer and legal analyst for CNN, has gone far above and beyond the available literary sources, tapping into previously unavailable court and law enforcement documents that enable him to shed new light on this uniquely American tragedy and fill in missing details. 

The Symbionese Liberation Army's Naga symbol; Credit: Esemono/Wikimedia Commons

The Symbionese Liberation Army's Naga symbol; Credit: Esemono/Wikimedia Commons

In one of the many ironic twists in this unbelievable story, one of the SLA kidnappers, Bill Harris, eventually became a prominent private investigator after he was captured and served his time in prison. In his role as a P.I., he collected 150 boxes of Hearst case documents — including FBI field reports, called 302s — that Toobin eventually bought to help with his research.

Everything about this book feels right: the structure, the style and the tone, which is the New Yorker meets Raymond Chandler. As always with great writing, it comes down to a strong, distinctive narrative voice spiced with the judicious use of juicy details.

Just savor Toobin’s prose as he describes the immediate aftermath of the SLA’s first, most successful bank robbery, in which they made off with $10,600 to replenish their empty coffers: “Euphoria prevailed. In the small apartment, the comrades gazed happily at the disorderly pyramid of the oppressor’s cash. The security guard’s gun boosted the SLA arsenal. The pigs seethed. The public gawked at villains they could not see. The tinny AM radio blared danceable soul. For a day or two, it was very heaven to be young and a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.”

As for juicy details, consider how Toobin handles the shock felt by Hearst’s parents, the alcoholic, patrician Randolph Hearst — son of the legendary William Randolph Hearst, the thinly disguised inspiration for the greatest of all American films, Citizen Kane — and his equally hard-drinking, pill-popping, my-shit-don’t-stink wife, Catherine, when they heard that their daughter had joined up with the SLA. With a press corps that had taken up permanent residence in the driveway waiting breathlessly outside the couple's Hillsborough home, they had come out and reacted at length to every prior twist and turn in the case. This time they simply told the press they were shocked and refused further comment. Toobin writes, “Then he walked inside, and for the first time in his daughter’s 59 days in captivity Randy Hearst wept. The next day he and Catherine left for a respite at the Mexican villa of their friend Desi Arnaz, the actor and singer.”

The strength of this book is the character development. Not only does Patty Hearst become a real person — a rebellious, willful, headstrong rich girl who lied to and defied her parents before she defied the world — but the eight SLA members also come to life in a cinematic way that suggests this might easily be turned into a film, much as Toobin’s earlier book, The Run of His Life, was the inspiration for the hit F/X series American Crime Story: The People vs. O. J. Simpson.

Indeed, Toobin said in a recent interview that the film rights have been bought by Fox 2000, even before the book's official release on Aug. 2.

The central question that drove the relentless news coverage of the Hearst story is the same one that Toobin tackles in his book: Did Hearst genuinely embrace the radical, violent, fight-the-power precepts of the SLA, or was she a victim of brainwashing and a fear of being killed that left her unable to make rational decisions while in captivity?

His research makes it clear that once she converted to the radical cause of fighting capitalist pigs and their corrupt power structure, she acted like a committed left-wing radical.

“She had opportunity after opportunity to walk away, to turn herself in,” Toobin says, “but she chose not to do that.”

Exhibit A: While six of her kidnappers-turned-comrades were being killed in the L.A. shootout, she was off on a shopping trip with the two others, Bill and Emily Harris. As she waited in a van outside Mel’s Sporting Goods on Crenshaw Boulevard, Bill got caught shoplifting a bullet bandolier. When Hearst looked out the van window and saw Bill and Emily engaged in a knock-down brawl with a store guard on the sidewalk, she could have easily driven away and left them to fend for themselves while she went to the police. Instead she picked up a machine gun and sprayed the sidewalk with enough bullets that Bill and Emily were able to make their way back to the van and escape with her.

The narrative highlight of the book is the SLA’s brief foray into Los Angeles in an attempt to evade the law enforcement dragnet in NorCal. But Harris’ mindless shoplifting attempt announced their arrival in L.A., and soon police and the FBI were closing in.

Toobin’s relentless pace slows down just a bit after the deadly shootout, through no fault of his own. The remnants of the SLA — Hearst and the Harrises — no longer had the resources, manpower or energy to take aggressive terrorist actions. Simply trying to stay alive and out of the clutches of law enforcement is just not as exciting as bank robberies, shootouts and kidnappings.

Still, Toobin’s legal background enables him to make interesting reading of her conviction for bank robbery, 22 months in prison, commutation of her sentence by President Jimmy Carter and pardon by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.

Like the stylish writer that he is, Toobin ends his story on just the right ironic note: “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.”

In other words, as rapidly as she became radicalized, she de-radicalized just as fast.

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