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.

It was at the trial--one of the umpteen trials of the century that took place in the 1960s and '70s--that what Graebner calls "the Hearst event" acquired critical mass. As he sees it, defense attorney Bailey fitfully and ineptly tried to prove that Patty had been a victim--perhaps not of the Stockholm Syndrome, which hadn't yet been discovered--but at least of brainwashing, or "coercive persuasion," as it was more elegantly referred to by his expert witnesses.

The prosecution's case, Graebner believes, was simply an equal and opposite reaction to such tunnel vision: that Patty, weighed down by family privilege and sexist expectations, had a secret yearning for authenticity and was a "rebel looking for a cause," in the damning words of one government witness. He contends that these equally monochromatic views were incapable of understanding the full bandwidth of Patty's multiplicities and the rich indeterminacy of her meanings.

All metaphorical synapses firing allusively in the best tradition of cultural studies, professor Graebner tries to show what caused and lay behind the era's blind spots. Contextualizing the central issue of the trial--did Patty will her change or was she changed by circumstances beyond her control?--in the seventies' assumptions about human nature, he astutely discusses the "fragile" self, the "performing" self (a result of the 20th century's substitution of "personality" for "character"), and the "rootless" self, cut off from tradition, that is the hallmark of modernity.

He considers the resonances between Patty's situation and the experiences of POWs returning home from the Korea and Vietnam wars, and survivors of Auschwitz; the relevance of famous studies on obedience and authority conducted by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgrim; and the significance of the seventies' panic over "narcissism" which writers such as Christopher Lasch adroitly strip-mined.

He shows the relationship between the Hearst case and cultural artifacts such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Stepford Wives. He analyzes the seventies' terrified "discovery" of Alzheimer's, a disease that engendered dread because "it attacked qualities of personal responsibility and self awareness that were at the core of what it meant to be a 'middle class American.'" He suggests that the lyrics of Gloria Gaynor's songs have a bearing on Patty's saga and compares her choices to those of Alien's Lt. Ellen Ripley, Squeaky Fromme, and other determined females of the era.

The impressive assemblage of epiphenomena helps support one of Graebner's major points: that the 1970s were too haunted by the ghosts of revolutions past and reaction yet to come to be able to summon up the tolerance of ambiguity, incongruity, and moral complexity required to understand the full range of interpretive possibilities in the Hearst case, of the many selves Patty inhabited in the time between abduction by the SLA and capture by William Saxbe's FBI (which the author may feel were morally equivalent organizations) and of that undiscovered country where she may have momentarily resided that lies beyond legality and beyond good and evil as well.

Graebner doesn't particularly care about Patty's ultimate fate--although what happened to "Tania" is a question that seems to send a tingle up his leg. He writes about her because he believes that her trial represented a turning point, one of those metaphorical moments that occur once every 50 years or so when American culture allows a shift in its tectonic plates.

In this case it was the moment when we began to descend from the joyously open "alternative politics" and "possibilities" of the 1960s into the implacable 1980s, with what Graebner regards as its noxious ideas of free markets, family values, and, worst of all, personal responsibility.

Patty Hearst was judged guilty by her jury and by America itself because "she had failed to represent and articulate the emerging political, social and cultural consensus--the consensus that would elect Ronald Reagan, defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, begin the assault on feminism, attempt to ban abortion, challenge affirmative action, contest the forced busing of school children .  .  . and revise ideas of crime and criminal justice."

So this is the reason to disinter the Hearst case: It shows what was buried in the collective unconscious of a culture inexorably grinding to the right; the exact instant when the social balance in America shifted in favor of the "black and white, either/or perspective" of the Moral Majority (although this organization would not be formed for several years) "that would find its way into politics, dominating the presidency of George W. Bush."

Now there is, of course, no single word in our vocabulary that causes multiplicity and multivalence to vanish more quickly than "Bush." No word more capable of turning what is supposed to be a light-footed pomo soft shoe into a hobnailed slam dance. And if it was only to certify a puny, fictitious moral such as this one, Patty Hearst probably should have been left undisturbed in the cultural dead letter office where she has resided with equanimity ever since her 15 minutes ended--a matron who raises French bulldogs for show, does campy little walk-ons in John Waters productions, and watches over her one daughter, a model whose alleged boyfriend not long ago replied to a gossip magazine that asked what he did: "I just write dope songs and [bleep] hot bitches."

Peter Collier, founder of Encounter Books, is most recently the coauthor of Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.

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