The Magazine

Tania Unleashed

Billy Ayers was once a 'phony revolutionary'.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By PETER COLLIER
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Patty's Got a Gun

Patricia Hearst in
1970s America

by William Graebner

Chicago, 228 pp., $20

Today Patty Hearst's story seems as antique as pong or hot pants, but the nation was transfixed back in 1974, when the "newspaper heiress" was suddenly snatched from the Berkeley apartment where she was living listlessly with her fiancé, Willy Loman-in-training Steven Weed.

Her abductors, a little known revolutionary group called the Symbionese Liberation Front, stuffed Patty into a tiny closet in one of its "safe houses." For the next six weeks she was forced to endure ideological torment at the hands of this psychopathic remnant of hand-me-down Maoists led by a black felon named Cinque (slave name: Donald DeFreeze) whose chief accomplishment, until then, was to order a couple of his deranged soldiers to murder the popular black reformist Oakland schools superintendent
Marcus Foster.

The Bay Area's leftover left, most of whose cadre had by 1974 already begun the long march through the institutions that would one day bring them to department chairs, syndicated columns, and the Obama campaign, was embarrassed by the SLA. The sect challenged the left's key assumption that there were no enemies on the Left.

It had tried to replace Che's rousing and poetic Hasta La Victoria Siempre with the fascistic "Death to the Fascist Insect that Preys on the Life of the People." Worse yet, it made into action items concepts such as "revolutionary violence" that establishment radicals had hitherto used only as mental sex toys. Cinque so annoyed the old New Left that, at one point, Billy Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn sent a communiqué from their underground bomb factory telling him to dial it down a bit. (And the SLA replied by justly dissing these silver-spoon Weatherpeople as "phony revolutionaries.")

Two months after her kidnapping and "reeducation," Patty Hearst had her debut role as the beret-wearing, carbine-toting "Tania," performing for security cameras in the SLA's daring daytime robbery of San Francisco's Hibernia Bank. A month later, after the gang had relocated to Los Angeles, Patty had her own Rosebud moment alone in a van in front of Mel's Sporting Goods. While the other members of her "combat team," Bill and Emily Harris
("Teko" and "Yolanda"), embarked on a revolutionary shoplifting expedition, she stayed behind, unwatched and unguarded. Not only this, but she provided covering fire with automatic weapons for her comrades when they came flying out of Mel's in a scuffle with store employees.

Soon after the unit's escape, the cops surrounded the main body of the SLA in a middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood. All of them, including Patty's lover Willie Wolf ("Cujo"), were incinerated when the house caught fire in the ensuing shootout. Patty fled across the country and spent a year in the underground with the Harrises, eventually returning to the Bay Area. In the fall of 1975 she was arrested by the FBI and, after having to change clothes because she had wet herself during the bust, emerged into a throng of reporters trying feebly to maneuver her manacled hands into a black power salute.

She was tried a year later, appearing in court with a zombie-like affect made all the more incongruous by the jaunty arch of her thinly penciled eyebrows. In large part because her parents ("the pig Hearsts" she had called them on taped communiqués from the underground) mistakenly hired the era's premier legal gasbag, F. Lee Bailey, Patty was convicted and sentenced to seven years in federal prison, a term commuted three years later by Jimmy Carter. Patty married her bodyguard and vanished from the headlines.

For SUNY professor William Graebner, however, Patty Hearst is not yesterday's news. No, he believes that Patty is a text still waiting to be read and a signifier until now not decoded. Why? Because she had the misfortune to become a reluctant revolutionary at exactly the wrong time.

He states at the beginning of Patty's Got a Gun that the questions asked of and about her were "pertinent to a variety of issues that lay just beneath the surface .  .  . of everyday affairs--among them the meaning of the 1960s, standards of criminal responsibility, the role of women and the idea of the welfare state." But the seventies, an interregnum era double-parked on the road leading from revolution to reaction, was not strong enough to handle the possible answers. Only our own postmodern era has the necessary perspective and lit-crit tools sharp enough, finally, to dissect Patty's exhumed experience.