|Illustration by Sean McCabe|
The thing you have to understand about Patty Hearst, the reason that her fantastically sui generis story resonated so deeply within so many millions of ordinary American households, is that back then a lot of girls like her were disappearing. They were not California publishing heiresses, certainly; nor was the agency of their disappearance abduction at gunpoint. But disappear they did. One moment their lives could be summed up in a series of photographs not so different from the ones flashed on the nightly news over and over again: Patty in a first-communion dress at age 8; smiling with her gaggle of glossy-haired sisters as a young adolescent; sitting quietly—dreamily, inwardly—on the floor beside her mother’s chair as a teenager, staring off into the mists of girl land. And the next moment—gone.
One day my older sister—the smart and dutiful one, the daughter everyone had placed their bets on—was helping my mother pin McCall’s patterns to paisley linen, and the next she had crammed a sleeping bag and a passport into a rucksack and made her way to San Francisco International Airport with just enough money for a Eurail Pass, and although she did come back from Europe, she never really came back home. One of my friends had a glamorous older sister who fed the seals at Fairyland—she was long-legged and pretty, and she’d stand in her red miniskirt on a platform, tossing the fish—but then something happened; she went to live down in the flats, and her mother didn’t want to see her anymore. There were boyfriends who brazenly took girls out of their houses without chatting up the fathers; there were blue jeans (it is hard to convey the chagrin that middle-class mothers once felt at seeing their daughters in the loathed and stigmatized garment of their own Depression-era childhoods, instead of skirts and ironed dresses and lightweight cardigans). And most of all, underneath it all, there was the line connecting the dots of the Eurail Passes and the screaming matches and even the blue jeans: sex.
If you had asked my mother about the greatest sorrow of her adult life—losing her daughter for so many years—she would have sighed and looked away, and then pronounced a single, defeated phrase. Her answer would be incomplete; it would not reflect the tensions in her own household, but it would be true, nevertheless. All of the mothers of all the missing daughters said the same thing back then, with the same mixture of loathing, despair, and impotent anger. What had happened to turn that lovely daughter against you? “The culture.”
Patty Hearst was a rich man’s daughter, kidnapped for ransom by a group whose demands were delivered through public “communiqués” sent to radio stations. Clearly she would have made news in any era, but it took something more than the facts of her case, spectacular though they may have been, to account for the impact she had on the American public (between February 1974 and March 1976, she was on the cover of Newsweek seven times). The central question about her experience was also being asked in a million tiny dramas that were unfolding across the country—ruptures that turned on blue jeans and broken curfews and birth-control pills, rather than on joining a gang of armed revolutionaries: Had this well-tended and much-loved daughter really crossed over? And if she had, was she so far gone that even her own people might not want her back? For several months there, it was The Searchers lifted out of Monument Valley and plunked into the filthy coffeehouses and storefronts and communes of Berkeley and San Francisco. In the beginning of the saga, she was a nice girl, stolen from the safety of her home, who must be rescued with all due speed—before “something” happened to her, that unnamed thing being rape—and then (at the very least) she was a girl who had done whatever it took to survive her captors, who were clearly a revolting bunch. But eventually an awful lot of people became iffy about her. The day after she was caught on the security camera of a Hibernia Bank branch in the Sunset district of San Francisco carrying a semiautomatic carbine during a Symbionese Liberation Army holdup, a local homeowner removed the God bless you, Patty sign from in front of his house. By the time the group was cornered in a house in Los Angeles—one that, in all likelihood, contained Patty as well as her abductors—the police engaged in a firefight that resulted in an explosion that incinerated the occupants, something the cops never would have risked if they had still been thinking of Patty as a victim. Once it was ascertained that she had not died in the inferno and was still on the lam with the two surviving members of the SLA, the DA announced the state’s new official attitude toward the young woman who had been dragged, screaming, from her home, one that unintentionally summed up the entire event to perfection: Patty Hearst was no longer to be regarded as the victim of a kidnapping but rather as a suspect in one.