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'American Heiress' Author: 'You Cannot Overstate The Terror That Patty Hearst Faced'


Back in 1974, all of America had a question. Is it Patty or Tania? Patty was Patricia Hearst of the Hearst family, granddaughter of the newspaper tycoon who inspired the movie "Citizen Kane." Raised by socialite parents, Patricia's great rebellion had been to refuse to be a debutante. Then, in '74, she was kidnapped from her Berkeley student apartment by a tiny radical group. It had already assassinated the superintendent of Oakland schools in the name of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. Now, they sent out a cassette of their captive.


PATRICIA HEARST: Mom, Dad, I'm OK. I've heard some press reports...

MONTAGNE: Barely two months later, this communication came from Hearst's new revolutionary alter ego.


HEARST: Greetings to the people, this is Tania. On April 15, my comrades and I expropriated...

MONTAGNE: Tania participated in bank robberies - one deadly - and bombings. Hearst later said she was raped and tormented by her captors, too scared to disobey them or leave. Jeffrey Toobin has written a new book about the kidnapping called "American Heiress."

JEFFREY TOOBIN: You cannot overstate the terror that Patty Hearst faced - kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, put in a closet. And the only thing she knows about the SLA was that they had just killed the Oakland school superintendent.

MONTAGNE: Sketch out for us who this group was.

TOOBIN: The historical reputation of the Symbionese Liberation Army is that it was a black nationalist group. But out of a dozen members, there was precisely one black person.

MONTAGNE: Their motto was what?

TOOBIN: Death to the fascist insects that prey upon the lives of the people - whatever that means.

MONTAGNE: In the meantime, Patricia Hearst is held as a prisoner.

TOOBIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: She still has never seen her captors because she's wearing...

TOOBIN: A blindfold.

MONTAGNE: ...Like, a blindfold. What was her situation?

TOOBIN: After the kidnapping, Patricia Hearst was put in a closet. And she was not allowed to see her captors, but they talked to her a lot. And she was told from day one that the SLA was not out to kill her, was not out to kill anybody, but they were there to foment revolutionary political change.

MONTAGNE: From the outside, all anyone knew about Patricia Hearst over those first weeks was that she was a victim. And then, she spectacularly reappears just a few weeks after being kidnapped as a soldier in this radical army robbing a bank.

TOOBIN: The shock of Patty Hearst turning into Tania the revolutionary was one of the great amazing news events of the 1970s, in part because it was sort of a metaphor for the madness of the country, that even a Hearst could turn into a revolutionary lunatic. It meant, in effect, that the country was turned upside down.

MONTAGNE: People think that we know so much about terrorism now. Give us some numbers about that moment in time.

TOOBIN: We talk about the United States in 2016 as a dangerous place afflicted with terrorism. Terrorism was far worse in the 1970s. There were a thousand bombings a year with more than a dozen people killed every year throughout the early 1970s.

MONTAGNE: And then a mere few more weeks later, nearly the entire group, the SLA, was traced to a house in Los Angeles. They're on the run, and they perish in an inferno on live television.

TOOBIN: You know, the Patty Hearst story was a turning point for the media, too. And you can pinpoint precisely when the transformation took place. The LAPD converged on a tiny house in South Central Los Angeles where the police thought Patty Hearst and all of her comrades were holed up. KNXT in Los Angeles brought one of the first mini cams there so they could broadcast it live. And it was, to this day, the biggest gun battle involving the police in American history, and everyone inside died. Patty Hearst, unknown to the police, had actually not been inside and was hiding with two other survivors at a motel in Disneyland of all places.

MONTAGNE: OK. So she watched this happen. I mean, this is pretty traumatic.

TOOBIN: It is very traumatic. And the SLA had told Patty from day one, you have nothing to fear from us. What you have to fear is the cops are going to come kill us all. So she watches this inferno in Los Angeles, and she thinks the comrades are right. They were trying to kill us all. So it is at that moment which really solidifies her membership in the SLA, and she spends the next year and a half on the run with the remainder of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

MONTAGNE: So when she was finally caught and she went to trial, her defense was partly that she was brainwashed, a victim of Stockholm syndrome, which was a new idea at the time. What do you make of that 'cause you don't seem super sympathetic to her situation?

TOOBIN: Well, the - I am very sympathetic to the trauma of the kidnapping. But what's important to remember is over the following year and a half, Patty Hearst participated in an extraordinary crime wave. She helped rob three banks, not one bank. She shot up a street in Los Angeles with a submachine gun and could have killed any number of people. She helped set off bombs in northern California. She could have escaped at any point. She was left alone. She was part of a revolutionary terrorist organization voluntarily for over a year.

MONTAGNE: Right, but isn't it possible, as we've seen with other young women kidnapped in recent years and held for years, that this was all internalized?

TOOBIN: It's possible, but I don't buy it. She went through an extraordinary trauma, but she also changed. And I don't think, you know, the idea of personal responsibility vanishes for a year and a half when you have the choice to leave, the choice not to participate, the choice to turn yourself in over and over again. I just think the question of personal responsibility is clear in this case, and the jury in her case agreed with me.

MONTAGNE: But President Carter did not. He commuted her sentence, and Patricia Hearst went on to live a comfortable life. As Jeffrey Toobin sums it up in "American Heiress," she didn't turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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