Patty Hearst on Trial Again

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

by Jeffrey Toobin

For those who believe these days the most turbulent and unique in American history, attorney, author, and commentator Jeffrey Toobin offers up an education about how ruckus and unsettled our republic can get. Which brings us to the three major virtues of his new book: it revives a nearly (unbelievably) forgotten episode that dominated the 1970s; it reminds us just how dangerous domestic terrorism can get; and it brings a modicum of justice to those hurt by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Then there is the reason many will read the book: did Patty Hearst willingly participate in SLA mayhem, including the murder of Myrna Opsahl? Toobin presents a strong case for his judgement, which this review will not reveal.

You can read the barebones of the case pretty much anywhere: heiress kidnapped, turned into revolutionary, implicated in murder and bank robberies, captured, tried, convicted, sentence commuted, and finally pardoned in 2001.

Toobin’s contribution to understanding the SLA and Patty Hearst lies in his skillful blending of the tenor of the times into the story. While the SLA was tiny, at most at any given time comprising a dozen people, often disorganized and buffoonish, and amazingly windy and bombastic, they were deadly, and they promoted a viewpoint and violent approach similar to many other groups lurching through the 1970s.

Many may be surprised to learn how violent those times where, when on average American terrorists detonated a thousand bombs a year. Yet, then the volume of these activities were not well known to the general public because the media by today’s standards was anything but mass. In fact, as Toobin reminds us, the shootout on fifty-fourth street represented a first in news coverage: live, as in it-is-happening-right-now coverage; not only that, but carried nationwide. It also saw the LAPD rollout something brand-new in law enforcement: the SWAT team.

As further encouragement to read the book, Toobin does an excellent job of fleshing out a wide array of characters, and there are many. Even more, he delves into their individual psychologies to help us understand what motivated the notable players. This goes beyond the majors, such as Patty, her parents, F. Lee Bailey, and others, to even some of the small fry and victims, among them high school senior Tom Matthews, whom the Harrises and Patty kidnapped in their getaway from the Mel’s shootout, who came to regard the entire affair as a lark. Which is another way of saying that Toobin isn’t afraid to show the humor, gallows that it may be, in the internal workings and exploits of the SLA.

All in all, a very strong rendering of a notorious group and heiress and time that somehow has under the surface of history. Includes notes and an assortment of photos. w/c

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