Weekly Read: American Heiress

As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. One of the problems with writing fiction is that readers expect it to make sense, for characters to behave in ways that are believable and compelling. Writers telling true stories aren’t saddled with such issues. Jeffrey Toobin’s latest, American Heiress, tells one of those stories that, if labeled fiction, would have readers rolling their eyes in disbelief.

The basic parameters of the Patty Hearst case are fairly well known. She was kidnapped from the apartment she shared with her then-fiancé in Berkley, California, by a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was held for months, during which time she turned from captive to comrade. As a professed member of the SLA she participated in bank robberies and lead a life on the run. It all came to an end with an arrest, conviction, and lengthy federal prison sentence.

Toobin’s book breaks down, basically, into three parts. Part one covers Hearst’s background, the kidnapping itself, and her turn to bank robber. This part is a bonkers story with a lot of different angles playing into it – not just Hearst and her kidnappers, but also her family and the law enforcement officers working the case. Then there’s Hearst’s fiancé, who famously told the kidnappers to “take anything you want” when they broke in. As Toobin jokes (multiple times), they did.

Events after the kidnapping played out in a way that seems unbelievable today. The Hearst family – who, at this point, were nowhere near as wealthy as people thought – agreed to an SLA demand to set up a broad food giveaway for the poor. The operation, created almost overnight, had to fight off local grifters (including Jim Jones) and led to riots. The fiancé, whom the family never liked, tried to help in his own way, but only led to his reputation being shredded.

This part makes you hope that the American Crime Story crew, who turned Toobin’s The Run of His Life into The People v. OJ Simpson for FX, has the rights to this book. There are so many characters (the list of famous people who had some connection to all this is impressive – Jane Pauley, Kevin Kline, Lance Ito, and, later on, Bill Walton) acting in so many bizarre ways that Ryan Murphy’s sensibilities would be well served. Appropriately enough, this part wraps up after the SLA members split up and Hearst and her two comrades watched the other half dozen perish in a scene that played out like a mini-Waco – gunfight followed by immolation.

The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the first part. The middle section drags a bit as Hearst and the others go on the lamb. Mostly it’s because we lose the multiple angle approach that brought so many characters into play. Still, there’s a particularly odd idyll in the Pennsylvania woods (which has given me a great story idea) and it’s important to the story as a whole.

Part three covers the Hearst’s eventual arrest and trial. One would think that Toobin, being a lawyer, would focus mostly on this, but he gives it a brief, compelling summary, during which one thing becomes clear – Toobin has no regard for Hearst’s lawyer, F. Lee. Bailey. In Toobin’s telling, Bailey was a swaggering, swashbuckling self promoter for whom practicing law was almost an afterthought. He had a deal to write a book about the trial before it even started and spent several nights during trial flying back and forth to Las Vegas to speak at legal seminars. To boot, while Bailey’s reputation was built on winning big cases – Sam Sheppard (aka The Fugitive) and the Boston Strangler – he, like any criminal defense lawyer, lost more than he won. For Hearst, he lost.

Hearst’s trial – she was charged with bank robbery and carrying a firearm in relation to it – boiled down to one issue: did she willingly engage in this criminal conduct after becoming a SLA member, or was she a kidnap victim who had been brutalized, terrorized, and brainwashed to the point where she did whatever she was told in order to survive? It’s clear that Toobin agrees with the jury that convicted her that Hearst was a fully fledged revolutionary by the time of the robbery. What’s really troubling is that while it seems like Hearst did shift into the role of SLA comrade, she shifted out of it just as easily. Given that all this happened while she was barely an adult (she was 19 at the time of the kidnapping, 21 when convicted), I wonder what modern research in the brain development of young adults might shed some light on whether such swings of outlook are really that out of the realm of normal.

Whatever steam the book loses after the first part Toobin finds when he gets righteous in the conclusion. After her conviction was affirmed on appeal and the trial court denied a habeas claim (contrary to what Toobin says, ineffective assistance of counsel claims are routine and often completely baseless), Hearst’s family started a massive effort to get her sentence commuted. It was, eventually, but Jimmy Carter. The staggering bipartisan group that pushed for clemency included famous hardliners such as John Wayne and Carter’s opponent in the upcoming election, Ronald Reagan. Part of it, Toobin argues, is that once Jim Jones led his group in a mass suicide (and murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, a vocal supporter of Hearst), it became much easier to believe Hearst’s story of brainwashing. In the end, she only served about two out of the seven years to which she was sentenced.

But it didn’t stop there. Flash forward to the end of the 1990s and Hearst is now seeking something unprecedented – getting a pardon from a second President after first gaining a commutation. There was no consensus this time – part of the opposition was the then United States Attorney in San Francisco, a guy named Robert Mueller. But Carter and his wife appealed directly to Bill Clinton, who pardoned Hearst on his last day in office.

Toobin, who clearly believes Hearst was a willing participant in her criminal activity, makes the obvious point – only Patty Hearst had the resources and name recognition to get clemency twice, in spite of the evidence against her. People who have done a lot less have gone to prison for a lot longer and not gotten any sniff of clemency. But those people were the ones the SLA said it was fighting for. They weren’t wealthy heiresses.

Toobin’s book is well worth reading. Even if the back half can’t live up to the entertainment value of the first part, there’s a lot of interesting info in here. Toobin does a good job of setting the context for all this (You think we’ve got political strife today? How do several years with 2500 bombings across the country sound?). There’s also some original research, as Toobin got his hands on previously unseen letters Hearst and her lover/co-defendant wrote to each other after their arrest (as couriered by Hearst’s first lawyer). I’m not sure it all makes sense in the end, but so what? It’s real life – it doesn’t have to.

PS – For an interesting perspective on the book, check out this column from Andrew O’Heir, who grew up in the San Francisco area while all this was going on.

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