READ SEVEN-Meg

This is the seventh in a series of 52. For more information on this personal project go here: 52 Reads Project

Meg is perhaps one of a handful of people who might like Jaws more than I do. While I am fascinated by the humans, she seems more partial to the Great White. Meg is delightful, and I love her stalwart observance of Shark Week as a holiday.

This week’s read is American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Meg says, “This case is FASCINATING and the book is extremely good! PS- I only read non-fiction, because I am terrified of bad fiction and I figure bad non-fiction is at least still educational so anything I recommend will be non-fiction.”

I feel Meg missed a tremendous opportunity to make me read Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror.

Perhaps next time.

I am not an ardent non-fiction reader. While I have read plenty of intriguing non-fiction books, I simply prefer to enter the world through fiction. One of the most affecting “non-fiction” books I have read is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s not a by-the-facts accounting, but it achieves its goal of lyrically excavating the darkest bits of the human soul and then some.

I don’t think that’s what Toobin was going for with American Heiress–if it was, he should have picked a different cultural moment. My only knowledge of the Patty Hearst case is from brief segments in 1970s flashback shows, sandwiched somewhere between Spiro Agnew and KC and the Sunshine Band.  And yet, her kidnapping and transformation into a revolutionary/domestic terrorist/poster girl does occupy space in my head. Hearst was kidnapped by the SLA, or the Symbionese Liberation Army. For some reason I always mistake it for the PLA, or the People’s Liberation Army–aka China. That’s a very different story with a different set of implications. Of course, it never happened except in my misbegotten imagination.

The 1970s were weird. The music was good, KC and the Sunshine Band notwithstanding, but the country was owning up to itself in new ways. Vietnam bled into the decade and for the first time, the President resigned. The counterculture remained active, but it took on a harder edge with frequent bombings and increasingly violent actions.

Patricia Hearst, the 19-year-old granddaughter of publishing titan William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped on February 4, 1974. She was dragged from her modest Berkley apartment and tossed in a musty closet of an apartment occupied by the Symbionese Liberation Army–a small group of self-styled revolutionaries. Somewhere between that night and April 3rd of the same year, Patricia Hearst became radicalized by the SLA and joined the motley group in an intentionally infamous bank robbery as well as assisting in the plotting and planning of other violent “political actions.” Her kidnapping and her transformation from victim Patty into revolutionary Tania challenged an already strained country.  Everyone had opinions about Hearst, I guess many still do.

Toobin presents an exhaustive recounting of the events surrounding Hearst’s abduction. He follows her parents, Randy and Catherine, as they entertain psychics, journalists, and the rest of the attendant circus at their home. They try, in vain, to comply with the SLA demand that they open food banks throughout California. They each ultimately go their own ways, Randy experiences his own political awakening as he more directly accesses the counterculture; Catherine remains conservative in dress and action–continuing her work with then California governor Ronald Reagan.

Toobin also sketches the ragtag band of counterculture flotsam that make up the SLA. An ex-con, a librarian, a sometimes sex worker, a poet, etc. You get the point. The kind of people you’d like to know, until you trip over their boxes of cyanide tipped bullets. It’s worth mentioning that a majority of the SLA were women. I’m not sure if it’s due to the research available to him or if he chose pacing over fully illuminating the rangy group of characters, but Toobin uses sometimes comically broad strokes to describe all of them. The members of the SLA are undeniably bad actors, they assassinate a school superintendent, they kidnap, they rob, they seem as motivated by ego as they are by political agenda. As criminals/revolutionaries, they haplessly luck into huge successes and through some sort of divine-idiot intervention, don’t kill nearly as many people as they could have.

I don’t feel comfortable speculating about Hearst’s mental state. Toobin clearly has his own opinions. I will say she experiences trauma and adapts to it.  She is complicit in her actions and embraces her new ideology and alliances well after she needs to out of need for security or safety. She doesn’t allow her radicalism to melt away until she is imprisoned and faces the threat of extended jail time or worse. Her version of events might be genuine, or merely genuine in retrospect. My only true takeaway is the privilege of status, class, and wealth. She does get sentenced, but ultimately gets a presidential commutation and a superfluous pardon. Is she wrong to use the high level connections her name offers her or just a (double) turncoat? It is her name that endangered her in the first place, should it also be allowed to save her? I don’t know. I just know most folks don’t have that luxury.

Toobin spends a lot of time weaving the Hearst/SLA narrative, but he is much more effective in describing the resulting trial.  Toobin is obviously a gifted legal expert and a storyteller on the side. This trial part of the book was extremely engaging, and Toobin nearly won me completely; but for some reason his final hot take about Hearst unraveled all my goodwill. I decided to start my own chapter of the SLA.

Or, ate a popsicle to cool off.

But, really, this book has everything: wigs, Jim Jones, deadly FBI fire fights, drive-in movies, Bill Walton, botched bank robberies, John Wayne, the collapse of the nuclear family, Robert Mueller, the Weather Underground, and misguided Marxist rhetoric. F. Lee Bailey comes off as a real life Saul Goodman, and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

What the book doesn’t have is a story arc where the People’s Liberation Army steals a baby Patty Hearst and raises her as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they storm San Simeon in tanks…. or on dinosaurs… dinosaurs outfitted like tanks! And mercenary androids provide both the pictures and the war. Coming to a self-published e-book near you in 2020.

(It also doesn’t have giant man-eating sharks, Meg.)

Next week: More learnin’ and more nonfiction: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett, recommended by Arcane Sugar.

Further Reading:

Diary of A Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner

Gloeckner writes and illustrates her tumultuous upbringing in the Bay Area in 1976. A personal memory, rather than a history, this book does a nice job of imbuing the setting with heart, but does not shy away from the psychosexual conflicts and context of the libertinism of the era.

Warning: Gloeckner is a medical illustrator as well as a comic artist, and her drawings are vivid and anatomically accurate. The written subject matter is also graphic and challenging.

Gloeckner stand-in protagonist, Minnie, is simultaneously culpable and vulnerable, empowered and exploited. Not unlike a young Patricia Hearst, sans the limelight or the weaponry.

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