‘I grew up,’ says Patricia Hearst, describing what life had once been like for the granddaughter of Citizen Kane, ‘in an atmosphere of clear blue skies, bright sunshine, rambling open spaces, long green lawns, large comfortable houses, country clubs with swimming-pools and tennis courts and riding horses.’ It must have been a nice life, and would look pretty in the cinema, but heroines endear themselves by their difficulties and until the SLA kidnapped her Patricia Hearst’s only difficulty was that she was a bit short. Five foot two – not a dwarf, but her girlfriends were taller. ‘Most things came easily to me,’ she says a little later,‘sports, social relationships, schoolwork, life. I had only to apply myself to them and I found I could do them well, to my own satisfaction.’ Is she trying to tell us that it was especially brutal of the SLA to intervene in a life that ran so smoothly, or is it that she wants us to know that she wasn’t some kind of neurotic who could be expected to crack up in difficult circumstances?
She may have been rich but she wasn’t laid back. Her mother was strict, a ‘Southern lady of the old school’, and the girls (five of them) didn’t smoke, drink, take drugs or ‘go out anywhere’ in jeans. Her father taught her how to use a gun. She trusted her parents and they trusted her. When some teachers found fault with her she refused to apologise – she knew they were wrong and her father agreed. It was, she insists, a normal and happy childhood, the implication being that if she seemed later to turn against her family, it was very much against her will. It’s true these ‘gracious’, almost perfect parents had a tendency to moralise, but she soon learned to ‘tune out while seeming to participate’ – a trick of some importance in her later life. Today her book is wholesomely dedicated to ‘Mom and Dad’ – a touch that puts one in mind of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home.
When she was 17, she fell in love with one of her teachers (‘I suppose I threw myself at him but I hoped not in any obvious way’), a young man of 23, called Steven Weed – not a name that would necessarily wish fame upon itself. He won a teaching fellowship at Berkeley, and she went with him, enrolling as an undergraduate, eventually to do art history – ‘I had been surrounded by art all of my life.’ It was then 1972; the student rebellions of the previous decade, ‘abhorred’ by her mother ‘for trying to destroy the traditional values that make America great’, had ‘withered away’: ‘when a young socialist forced a leaflet into my hand in Sproul Plaza, I took special delight in dropping the message into one of the dozens of nearby trash cans.’ She and Mr Weed rented a flat together, ‘a bright sunny duplex in a nice neighbourhood;’ and it was there, at nine o’clock on the night of 4 February 1974, that the SLA found her, dressed only in her panties, bathrobe and alpaca slippers.
She was tied up, gagged, blindfolded and taken away. Her destination was a cupboard, six and a half feet long, where she was to remain, blindfolded, for 57 days. After she’d been there a couple of hours, the cupboard door opened and the black leader of the gang introduced himself: ‘I am General Field Marshal of the Symbionese Liberation Army. My name is Cin.’ (‘Sin,’ she thought – ‘these people must be evil incarnate.’) His speech, part General Westmoreland, part urban guerrilla, was a sort of post-Vietnam gobble-the-gook. The SLA, he said, had declared war against the United States: a war of the poor and oppressed against fascism. She should consider herself in protective custody’ and would be treated according to the Geneva Convention. The first thing the SLA had to see to were her manners. ‘If you gotta go pee,’ one of them told her,‘say “I gotta go pee”; if you gotta go shit, say “I gotta go shit.” That’s the way poor people talk.’ Other combat units had taken other prisoners that night, they said: the SLA was a huge army with important international connections. It wasn’t long before she came to believe that this might well be true. She was told of secret agents eavesdropping in restaurants ‘to hear firsthand the troubles and the problems voiced by the people’; of SLA medical units practising ‘battlefield surgery by going out in the woods and shooting dogs in order to learn how to administer to gunshot wounds’; of summer camps where children were taught to handle machine-guns. When she was released from the cupboard, she asked about the other units:
The question surprised them and they all seemed to look to Cin for an answer. After a moment’s hesitation, his face cracked and he burst out laughing.
‘What other units? This is all there is, baby. We’re the army. You’re looking at it.’
They all laughed at the big deception.
It was an army of eight soldiers, three men and five women. Some of them, unlike Patricia Hearst, had a sense of humour, of a kind.
The SLA had made itself known in California by murdering a black school superintendent – a choice of victim that made them look like idiots to other left-wing groups with whom they were in competition. It’s unlikely that they had a precise idea of what they might achieve by ‘arresting’ Patty Hearst, as they put it, but no one could say that she wasn’t a suitable candidate for a kidnapping. In the event, what she did for them probably exceeded even their wild expectations. Like all such groups, they longed for publicity. Once they had persuaded her to speak on their behalf, they could rely on every news bulletin in California giving its version of what the SLA had done that day. She was well aware of her contribution – ‘with me in their clutches, the SLA was a household word’ – and, as time went by, was glad to have a contribution to make. Financially, she proved less useful. Their first idea of what to do with her had been to have her ask her father to provide 70 dollars’ worth of food for every poor person in the State. It would have cost him 400 million dollars and even he couldn’t manage that. Cin, who, as always, was in charge, found this hard to believe. ‘This man with little or no education was clearly over his head in dealing with million-dollar projects’ is Patty Hearst’s rueful comment on the episode. When eventually terms were agreed and the food was distributed, the SLA still wasn’t pleased. No one gave them credit for their generous thought; the food, they said, was being thrown at the people – ‘one woman had been hit by a turkey leg and seriously injured.’ They reached the conclusion that her father was trying to force them to kill her.
Sitting in her cupboard, Patty Hearst found it hard to know what to make of the SLA. Their reactions were unpredictable and mostly violent; Cin claimed to be instructed by God and they were obsessed with the idea of their own death. However, they kept threatening to kill her first, and the one thing she was certain of was that she didn’t want to die: ‘I wanted to get out alive and see them all sent to jail...for what they were doing to me.’ It didn’t take her long to realise that getting out alive meant co-operating with them and she didn’t hesitate to do so. Harangued all day long about the evils of capitalism, she ‘accommodated’ her thoughts ‘to coincide with theirs’. Only once does she say that she regrets not having been more strong-minded: I wish I could say now that I stood up well under Cin’s interrogation, that I refused to reveal vital information, that I lied and fooled him ... Terrorised, threatened constantly with being hung from the ceiling for being an unco-operative prisoner ... I only wanted to co-operate and not to make them angry at me. I was afraid and weepy, hardly the heroine.’
Her tone of voice, for the most part, is defensive, and sometimes priggish, as if answering those critics who said of her when she was released that she’d been all too eager to do whatever the SLA asked of her. She writes both about herself and about the SLA with an alienating gracelessness and her story has been ‘querulously’ received (Joan Didion’s word) by American reviewers who felt that she hadn’t told the whole truth. It could simply be, however, that what happened to her, and her response to it, was more complicated than she is able now (or was old enough then) to deal with. Writing about her early life, she says, ‘I thought I knew what was right and what was wrong for me,’ which suggests that she was less interested in what was right and wrong in general; and talking about the SLA’s attempts to re-educate her, she says: ‘Actually, I did not really care one way or another about any of the things they told me. I had always been apolitical and still was.’ Had she cared more, she might have kept a better grip on herself. On the other hand, she might not have survived.
The failure of the food programme – by which was meant its shabby treatment in the media – may have been taken by the SLA as evidence that ‘the fascist corporate state’ wasn’t interested in negotiating her release. But now it turned out that they didn’t feel like killing her either: ‘You’re kinda like the pet chicken people have on a farm – when it comes time to kill it for Sunday dinner, no one really wants to do it.’ A possible alternative was found: if the rest of the SLA agreed, she might be allowed to join them. She was given a torch and a supply of books – Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Marx, Engels, the SLA Codes of War – and was tested on her reading of them. They became more friendly, changed her code-name from ‘Marie-Antoinette’ to the more affectionate ‘Tiny’, gave her cigarettes, told her she could ‘fuck any of the men in the cell’. Sex, they said, wasn’t ever compulsory, but if one comrade asked another, it was “comradely” to say yes.’ That day, the young ‘Cujo’ followed her into the cupboard; they took off their clothes, ‘he did his thing’ and left; she thought about the others listening in the room outside. She had long since given up any hope of being released or rescued alive – ‘I had lived in fear of the SLA for so long that fear of the FBI came naturally to me’ – and as each member of the cell in turn questioned her about her sincerity in wishing to join them, she became increasingly ingenious in telling them what they wanted to hear. Asked to record a message that had been written for her, denouncing her parents and praising the SLA, she did so ‘with vim and vigour’. For the SLA it was a triumph. For her the whole business of proving herself a convert to their cause was another instance, though she doesn’t quite say so, of being able to do what was required of her, easily and to her own satisfaction.
Her formal induction into the SLA was handled with some solemnity. The others were sitting in a circle on the floor when she was led out of the cupboard, still wearing her blindfold. ‘In the silence I heard Cin say: “The sisters and brothers have all voted for you to join this combat team.” A wave of relief spread through my body’ Invited, after a short swearing-in ceremony, to take off her blindfold, she was dismayed by what she saw: ‘Oh God,’ she thought, ‘what a bunch of ordinary-looking, unattractive little people.’ When she was put on trial a year and a half later for her part in the first SLA bank robbery, the outcome hinged on whether or not she could realistically be said to have been brainwashed. The jury did not believe she had been, but it would be difficult to find another explanation for the fact that, having once been so contemptuous of Berkeley lefties, she should now be disappointed that her new comrades were so ... weedy: ‘Their physical appearance just didn’t match my image of them as revolutionaries. I had expected them to look bigger, stronger, more commanding.’
She still had her bad, bourgeois moments: she didn’t like using the communal toothbrush and was appalled to discover that while she’d been in her cupboard, the other women had been wearing her bathrobe. (Later on, she was to see her sister on television wearing one of her old jackets – that was another bad moment.) Some of her comrades complained that she continued to ‘talk like a rich bourgeois bitch’ and it was evident from the ‘combat position’ she had been allocated in the event of an FBI raid that she was still an expendable member of the team – but by and large she felt that she had now ‘crossed over’. They kept busy, training, drafting communiqués, thinking up future ‘actions’ and berating themselves for not thinking up future ‘actions’; two people stood guard every night, guns at the ready.
At the beginning of April, they decided to rob a bank. Their preparations were meticulous: ‘I knew more about the Hibernia Bank branch at Noriega Street and 22nd Avenue,’ Patricia Hearst reports, ‘than I know about my parents’ home in Hillsborough.’ When they went to bed the night before, Cin announced that ‘he would be carrying a list of doctors, one or more of whom would be kidnapped at gunpoint to remove bullets, if need be’; and the next morning no one was allowed to have breakfast lest they were ‘gut-shot’ by the police. When it was over, Patty Hearst, who was the only one not to wear any kind of disguise, had become ‘a wanted criminal’ and, she was able to gather from what was said on the News, deeply hated by the American public. She was, she says, ‘sick to my stomach’ at seeing herself on the television screen ‘so publicly identified with the SLA’. But it doesn’t stop her noting (with a hint of pleasure?) that there was ‘a hint of awe’ in the media accounts of the robbery.
‘A team,’ it was said in the SLA, ‘operated together, succeeded or failed together, lived or died together.’ Within a few weeks of the bank robbery, the flower of the SLA was dead. Patty Hearst’s first outing after the bank was to a sports shop, where she was sent, disguised in an Afro wig, to buy some heavy socks and underwear. She went with two of her fellow soldiers, a married couple known as ‘Yolanda’ and ‘Teko’ (their real name was Harris). The revolution, the SLA were convinced, would begin that summer and they were busy preparing for it: preparing for combat (hence the need for heavy socks) and preparing for death, about which they now talked all the time. Patty Hearst may have been happy enough to practise killing other people but she found her comrades’ way of thinking about their own deaths increasingly alien: ‘Being ever practical, I could not understand why they were fighting for something which they did not believe they would live to see accomplished.’ There was an incident at the sports shop (after paying for the socks Teko tried to steal a bandolier): the three of them escaped, shielded by a hail of bullets from Patty Hearst’s gun, but they were careless and the other six members of the SLA were tracked down by the FBI in their Los Angeles safe house. Miss Hearst and her two companions took refuge in a motel next to Disneyland and watched on television the battle that was taking place between their comrades and the Los Angeles police force: nine thousand bullets were fired, the safe house went up in flames and its occupants were burnt to death. None of them had even tried to escape; the coroner, a shrewd man, was to say that ‘they died compulsively.’
The three Disneyland survivors were now, Miss Hearst boasts,‘the most wanted trio in the United States’. The Harrises briefly considered joining their comrades in death, but fortunately decided against it (‘Cin would have wanted us to live and to fight on’). When the last news bulletin was over, Teko, who had taken over as General Field Marshal, announced that it was time for bed. ‘Yolanda turned to me and solicitously asked “Do you want to make love with us tonight?” “No thanks,” I said and climbed into the other bed, alone.’ What had upset her most about the shoot-out was that she could so easily have been there and no one would have cared: ‘The police had not asked me, Patty Hearst, to step outside when they opened fire.’ It confirmed her in her view that ‘there was no turning back’: ‘I was a soldier in the people’s army. It was a role I had accepted in exchange for my life.’ What is extraordinary is that she hung on to that role during the 18 mostly miserable months she was to spend with the Harrises before being captured, even though there were many occasions when she could have escaped. It isn’t even clear that they would have minded being shot of her: they treated me, she says angrily, like ‘a moronic army recruit’.
The three of them still considered themselves at war, but the revolution that was to take place that summer was postponed while they lay low in rented houses in various country resorts on the East Coast which had been found for them by a radical sports writer connected with Ramparts, called Jack Scott, whom Spiro Agnew had once described as ‘an enemy of sport’. Scott’s idea was that they should raise money for the revolution by writing a book about the SLA: it was bound to be successful and a corporation could be set up in Lichtenstein so that they wouldn’t have to pay tax on the money they earned. A writer was sent to help them whose claim to fame, according to Patty Hearst, was that he’d once been arrested in England for, as he put it, ‘shitting on a picture of the Queen’. It was, like everything else that summer, a dismal business. They quarrelled with the writer, with each other, with Scott and his wife, whom Teko decided to murder, though he never got round to it.
In the fall, they went back to California and with a group of new recruits – the SLA’s status had been much enhanced by the deaths of their former comrades – resumed the normal life of revolutionaries. They robbed some banks and a woman was shot – ‘this is the murder round,’ Teko said brightly; and tried their hand at making bombs, though Teko stuffed them with so much lavatory paper they failed to go off. Patty Hearst’s own position was at last improving: she got on well with the new recruits, was invited to write a ‘position paper on the SLA version of radical feminism’ and ran her own gun classes. Presumably it was the self-confidence that followed from this which enabled her to start thinking about a return to civilian life. When she told the others that she felt like jacking it in, they were shocked. ‘You can’t do that,’ they said, or she says they said: ‘You’re a symbol of the revolution. You give the people hope.’
The issue was decided for her by the FBI, who arrested her one balmy day in the early autumn of 1975. She wasn’t at all pleased. ‘As the flash-bulbs went off in my face, I remembered the press pictures of Susan Saxe, a revolutionary who had recently been arrested, and, like her, I smiled broadly and raised a clenched fist in salute.’ ‘It was the last thing she did to give the people hope. At first, remembering Cin’s lurid fantasies about the FBI, she refused to co-operate. When her family visited, they seemed ‘unfamiliar’, ‘as if from another world’, while they in turn hardly recognised her, ‘curled up like a fetus’, barely able to speak. As it became clear that not only was she to be prosecuted for taking part in the Hibernia Bank robbery, but that her trial was to take precedence over that of her two former comrades, withdrawal turned to sullenness and then to outrage. She was outraged by the Federal marshals, who ‘seemed to equate fame with danger’ and dragged her about in chains; outraged by the lawyer found for her by her father – he had made his name defending My Lai’s Captain Medina and the Boston Strangler – who bungled her case, while insisting, as part of his fee, on the exclusive right to write a book about her; outraged by the judge who gave an interview before her trial in which he boasted that he knew ‘Randy Hearst’ (which he didn’t) and wasn’t impressed by his money; outraged by the jury who believed that her family had arranged for the press to be sitting opposite them in court in order to intimidate them; outraged by the press, ‘who behaved like sharks in a feeding frenzy’: but outraged above all at being treated like a criminal rather than as the victim of a kidnapping.
No doubt she is right to say that it all happened this way because the public was more interested in ‘an heiress’ and ‘a celebrity’ than in ‘two unknown radicals called Harris’. ‘The government had to prosecute me.’ she says, now very much the sadder and the wiser woman, ‘in order to prove that there was equal justice for all in America.’ On the other hand, it is likely that had she, at any point during her trial, condescended to say that she was sorry for what she had done, she might well not have been found guilty or, if found guilty, not been given the maximum penalty of seven years in prison. The trouble was that she didn’t feel sorry. ‘I would do it again,’ she told her interrogators. ‘It saved my life.’ It has never been in her character to apologise. In the end, celebrity brought its reward. After ‘one of the largest campaigns for clemency in the history of this country’, her sentence was commuted by the kindly Jimmy Carter.
Every Secret Thing is not an attractive book; it’s flat and it’s repetitive: but it tells a good story and has the ingredients for a better movie. It is, after all, very possible that what Patty Hearst would have said if she were more honest is that she enjoyed some of her time with the SLA, that she was captivated by Cin (or sin), that she liked being part of a gang of outlaws, that, as the prosecution alleged at her trial, there was more to her relationship with Cujo than she later wished to admit – certainly there is little about him here – but that doesn’t mean that in her heart of hearts, wherever that might be, she was determined, as the phrase once was, to overthrow the government of the United States. She is as she describes herself, ‘ever pragmatic’. A Death in California is the story of another young woman who fell under the sway of a psychopath – a man who turned up at her house one night and for no apparent reason murdered her lover. Apparently these things don’t only happen to ‘rich bourgeois bitches’ anxious to avoid dying prematurely. Many American reviewers and some English ones came to the conclusion, after reading Patty Hearst’s book, that it could only have been written in order to make money: ‘dreamy notions,’ says Joan Didion, ‘of what a Hearst might do to turn a dollar.’ It may well be, however, that she just wanted to show that everything she did was right – for her.