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Surreal kidnapping of an heiress in a nearly dystopian America

Patty Hearst, pictured in the mid-’70s, known as Tania after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Bettmann ArchiveCaption

Patty Hearst, pictured in the mid-’70s, known as Tania after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The setting is a 1970s America that seems nearly dystopian.

A struggling economy, with the stock market plunging and inflation soaring. Motorists mired in long lines, waiting for gasoline amid chronic shortages. Bombings by political radicals commonplace. Racial schisms explosive. Nixon administration imploding.

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Jeffrey Toobin’s riveting new book takes us back to this violent, freaked-out era — to the saga of Patty Hearst, the wealthy granddaughter of media baron William Randolph, kidnap victim turned bank-robbing urban guerrilla who took up arms with her captors turned comrades in the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The tale is a natural for film — director Paul Schrader took it on in 1988, and “American Heiress” will be coming to the screen soon. It’s also a natural for Toobin, longtime New Yorker contributor, legal expert, and author of “The Run of His Life: The People vs O.J. Simpson,’’ a lauded book (and the basis for the acclaimed cable television series) about the only case in the waning decades of the 20th century to rival this one for its blend of cultural moment, true crime, and celebrity spectacle.

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Hearst was an unremarkable 19-year-old art history major at Berkeley, living with fiancé Steven Weed when the SLA, who targeted her, stormed into their apartment on the night of Feb. 4, 1974 and bundled her into a car. Blindfolded and confined to a closet, Hearst would emerge over the next few months as the gun-toting “Tania,” spouting the rhetoric of the SLA on propaganda tapes and going on a crime spree. At one point, she spent over year on the lam, evading the FBI, which finally caught up to her after many fumbles. Her subsequent trial — her defense attorney was the showboating F. Lee Bailey — and conviction for armed bank robbery added more intrigue to what was already a bizarre chapter in American history.

“American Heiress’’ is a page-turner certainly, but Toobin, a gifted writer, infuses it with much more, including vivid portraits of Hearst, her family — her mother in particular, a rigid arch-conservative — and the members of the SLA. Even if he ridicules the ideas and condemns the violent deeds of this ragtag group of revolutionary wannabes, they emerge not as cardboard villains but flesh and blood protagonists.

Indeed, some of Toobin’s most effective and oddly poignant writing comes in his sections on how these white, middle- and upper-class men and women coalesced around black ex-con Donald DeFreeze, a.k.a. “Cinque,” the self-described “General Field Marshal” of this tiny eight-person “army.’’ (Of Cinque’s life of crime, Toobin observes, “DeFreeze was almost the opposite of a master criminal; he was most inventive in finding ways to get caught.”) Hopped up on Marxist-inspired ideas of liberation and the prison writings of George Jackson, the SLA’s signature flourish was pure bombast: “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE!”

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It would be funny if DeFreeze, and his deadly 4-foot-10-inch erstwhile lover Patricia “Mizmoon” Soltysik, the daughter of a Santa Barbara County pharmacist, weren’t coldblooded killers: In late 1973, they gunned down Marcus Foster, Oakland’s first black superintendent of schools, an act so heinous it was disavowed by the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.

However, for a brief time, the Hearst kidnapping earned the SLA a small measure of redemption. Threatening to kill Hearst, they forced her family to subsidize a vast food drive in the Bay Area. It devolved into chaos and prompted riots, but it earned raves from the counterculture.

As propaganda, it was a nominal success. But, as Toobin notes, the SLA were inept strategists who were subject to the erratic whims of DeFreeze. One such decision condemned to the core of the SLA to a fiery death when they suddenly picked up and moved south to Los Angeles. On May 17, their Watts safe house became the site of a massive shootout. Had Hearst not been off on an errand with SLA members Bill and Emily Harris, she would have also perished in the conflagration.

Thus began Hearst’s so-called “lost year” in which many odd turns ensued. Hearst and the Harrises were taken in by frustrated sportswriter Jack Scott, who hoped to tell her story. He ferried her across the country and back to the Bay Area. She hooked up with other radicals and drove the getaway car in a Sacramento bank robbery. She was finally arrested on Sept. 18, 1975.

Questions have long swirled around what really happened during Hearst’s SLA captivity, and much is in dispute. She has long maintained that she was under constant threat of death, brainwashed, and coerced into a life of crime. She also claimed she was raped by DeFreeze and Willy Wolfe, another SLA member and the son of a Connecticut anesthesiologist. Surviving SLA members deny the allegation against DeFreeze and say Hearst, who refused to cooperate with Toobin on this book, and Wolfe became lovers.

Toobin’s take is provocative, to say the least. Hearst, he argues, was steely, resolved, strong, and, above all, adaptable, a “clear thinker, if not a deep one.’’ Was she a traumatized pawn, a victim of Stockholm syndrome, or a political convert who pragmatically denied all after her arrest?

Toobin dispassionately reviews the evidence, concluding that Hearst did eventually “join” the SLA. “Her evolution from empathy to sympathy to comradeship was gradual, but that evolution did take place,” he writes.

Hearst would only serve about 22 months for her crimes, thanks to President Jimmy Carter’s commutation. “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction,’’ Toobin writes. His conclusion is damning. Two months after her release from prison she married Bernard Shaw, one of her former bodyguards, and eventually assumed “the life for which she was destined in back in Hillsborough. . . . She did not turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother.’’

AMERICAN HEIRESS:

The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst

By Jeffrey Toobin

Doubleday, 384 pp., $28.95

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.
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