Patty and Cin

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Every Secret Thing by Patricia Hearst and Alvin Moscow
    Methuen, 466 pp, £8.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 413 50460 3
  • A Death in California by Joan Barthel
    Allen Lane, 370 pp, £7.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1472 6

‘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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in