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Patty Hearst: Brainwashed Captive, or Willing Accomplice To Crime?

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0803toobin.mp3

In the winter of 1974, a 19-year-old college student went from relative obscurity to instant notoriety.

Patty Hearst—heiress of the Hearst publishing fortune—was kidnapped from her home in Berkeley, California by a left-wing terrorist organization known as the "Symbionese Liberation Army." Within months, she was photographed brandishing a machine gun in front of their flag and participating in their bank robberies and heists.

In his latest book, "American Heiress," CNN and "The New Yorker" legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin takes a second look at Hearst's kidnapping and her crimes. He joined Boston Public Radio to discuss how the kidnapping fit into the context of the turbulent '70s and explored whether or not Hearst was—as was widely speculated at the time—brainwashed' by her captors.

Highlights from the interview include:

On the tumultuous '70s and how the media has changed in the decades since

That was one of the real revelations to me in writing this book, which was just how crazy and dark the 1970s were. I had the perception—I was alive, but a little kid—that the '60s were a time of tumult and, in the '70s, things kind of died out. Not true. The '70s were full of political violence in a way we can’t even imagine. The reason our perceptions are different is that the media environment was so much smaller then. People said, "You know, that Patty Hearst got so much publicity, she was on the cover of 'Newsweek' seven times." Today people would say: "What’s 'Newsweek? What’s a cover?" You had three half-hour evening news shows, you had "The Today Show" ("Good Morning America" didn’t even start until 1975.) No "Nightline," no cable news, no internet, of course. So the pervasiveness of the news media and thus the fear that we can generate in people was much smaller.

On whether Patty Hearst was brainwashed by her captors

One of the things I tried not to do was use terms like "brainwashing" and "Stockholm syndrome," which are journalistic terms but not medical terms. These are sort of pat explanations for how people behave the way they do...I think Patty Hearst joined the SLA. I think she was a vulnerable, restless 19-year-old woman who was looking for a way out of a life that she was not enjoying at that moment. She was engaged unhappily to a guy named Steven Weed…She was kidnapped horribly, violently, dangerously, but in short order she did join the SLA. She made a rational choice under the circumstances that she did, yes, voluntarily join the SLA. Over the year and a half she was on the run, she had multiple opportunities to leave: [was] left alone in cars in apartments, had dealings with the police where she gave a fake name so she wouldn’t have to say: "By the way, I’m Patty Hearst—can you take me home?" 

The whole thing sort of turned into the junior year abroad from hell, then she went back to being a slightly colorful socialite.

On the crimes she committed while with the SLA

She committed an astonishing number of crimes. Everyone is familiar, or people who know the story are familiar, with the robbery of the Hibernia Bank—with the famous shot of her with the machine gun—but I think most people don’t know there were two other bank robberies, during one of which a woman was killed. She sat by herself in a van and, in an effort to free two SLA people, shot up a whole street in Los Angeles. She helped set bombs off in northern California. These were not involuntary actions. It was voluntary behavior by her.

On her life today and her treatment by the judicial system

One of the most amazing things about the Patty Hearst story is she has gone on to lead the life for which she was destined. I don’t say this facetiously. The whole thing sort of turned into the junior year abroad from hell, then she went back to being a slightly colorful socialite. She’s been in a couple John Waters movies, she wrote a book...but she’s basically a nice rich lady who lives in the suburbs and does a little charity, and that was the life for which she was trained. Like a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties, she went through a bizarre period but became what she was always going to become. What’s different and what I think is actually of political significance of the case, is—nonwithstanding this really extraordinary crime wave she was a part of—she became the only person in American history to receive a commutation from one president, Jimmy Carter, and a pardon from another, Bill Clinton, which is a sign of her wealth and privilege.

To hear more from Jeffrey Toobin, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.

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