Girl, Interrupted

How Patty Hearst’s kidnapping reflected and ravaged American culture in the 1970s
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The players in the drama all arrived onstage in the first scene. In Hillsborough, outside a beautiful house with a lacquered black door flanked by topiaries in marble pots, were the missing girl’s rich parents, Catherine and Randolph Hearst. She clutched a handkerchief and lifted a hand to the pearls at her throat; he spoke calmly into the microphones, not so removed from his father’s empire that he didn’t have a newspaperman’s instincts for using the press as a means of communicating a single, clear message: demands would be met, the safe return of his daughter was all he required. Patty’s prodigious number of sisters, four in all, not one son in the family, also appeared, underscoring the vulnerability of girlhood. They were dead ringers for the lost one, each of them radiating grief and good grooming. In Berkeley was Steven Weed—his improbably perfect surname one of a million fillips to the story—a philosophy graduate student at Cal, slender and pale, sporting a bushy mustache, and badly beaten by the intruders who had burst into the town house he and Patty shared; he came to stand, in the larger narrative, for a certain kind of boyfriend a daughter might bring home in those days, one whom disappointed but savvy parents would be wise to file under the category Could Have Been Worse. He may have been shaggy and unprepossessing—it was immediately clear that the first time he had been paraded through that lacquered front door in Hillsborough had not been a joyous occasion—but he was living with Patty as her “fiancé” (they had even posed for that most touching of bygone traditions, the engagement photograph), and theirs was the most conventional sort of domestic arrangement. They were like the kind of kids who used to live in “married-student housing”: he beavered away at his seminar work, she attended classes and worked at Capwell’s department store and did their laundry at the Wash House. The members of the SLA—a group of white, middle-class young people ensorcelled by a black thug named Donald David DeFreeze—had, a few months earlier, announced themselves on the local political scene by actually shooting someone, a feat of ambition and marksmanship that distinguished them from the hundreds of other radical “cells” festering in the Bay Area at the time. And what a target they had chosen: the hugely popular, young, black superintendent of the mostly black Oakland public-school system whose patently benign plan to distribute ID cards to the district’s students they perceived as an intolerable act of fascist depersonalization.

When you execute a public official because you think he’s a racist, but then even the Black Panthers denounce your act as a “brutal and senseless murder,” it’s fair to say that your radicalism, despite its fervor, lacks a certain animating intelligence. That the group was, except for DeFreeze (who had renamed himself Cinque, after the leader of the slave revolt on the Amistad, a flattering nom de guerre for someone who had once made a living as a police snitch), lily-white and largely female was not adding up to anything promising, given their choice of victim, but they struck gold when they kidnapped Patty and held her for ransom, demanding in return, most prominently, a food giveaway for the Oakland poor. This was brilliant on two counts: it transformed them into selfless defenders of the downtrodden, and it served, as revolutionary acts are designed to do, not to improve a social situation but to inflame hatred where none had previously existed.

As Avery Island is to Tabasco sauce, so were 1970s Berkeley and San Francisco to white liberal guilt. When I was a fifth-grader in the Berkeley public schools (the first school system in the nation to integrate without a court order), I was taught—as part of a two-year course in Black History—that the word picnic had derived from the days of lynching parties, that it stood for “pick a nigger” and for the basket lunches that white women would pack for their families to eat while they enjoyed the spectacle. I happened to mention this to one of my parents’ academic friends, who sputtered in outrage—the word had originated from the French verb piquer and had nothing to do with American lynching. But it would not have occurred to her, the mother of two children in the schools, to complain about it. Black History, as it was then taught, was perhaps not academically rigorous, but it was understood by those white parents who even knew about it (in those days, middle-class parents did not carefully track their schoolchildren’s education like a rising or falling stock) to be part of some larger enterprise, some settling of an old debt.

Furthermore, the SLA’s general goals (if not their tactics) were those with which all of the Berkeley families I knew, including my own (staunch Democrats, surely, but by no stretch of the imagination radicals), would have heartily agreed. As summed up by William Graebner in his forthcoming book, Patty’s Got a Gun, the band’s areas of concern centered on

the nation’s criminal justice and prison system; urban poverty and malnutrition; the widespread exploitation and oppression of the poor, blacks, Hispanics, women, and servants; and … the sense that ordinary people had been conditioned by the public schools and drugged by materialistic consumer affluence into uncritical acceptance of their circumstances.

The SLA’s agenda merely brought under a single umbrella several of the separate causes espoused at two dozen Sproul Plaza card tables every day, at many of which my own bow-tied, Ivy League father would sign a petition or throw a couple of quarters in a jar before heading off for lunch and a beer at Kip’s.

But the food giveaway, covered at the top of the national news and endlessly on the local news channels (particularly on KQED, the San Francisco public-television affiliate, whose reporter Marilyn Baker owned the story and told of her work in Exclusive!, still the best, if least known, of the dozen books published by principals in the case), gave many Bay Area whites their first authentic taste of racism, the rising gore in the throat directed at the Other. That poor blacks were living in urban Oakland was a well-known fact and a cause for legitimate white shame (and, increasingly, political action), but that hundreds of them would eagerly accept groceries purchased with blood money from the grieving parents of an innocent girl, a girl still missing and possibly dead—that was something to be reckoned with. Clearly, those crowds weren’t motivated simply by a pressing dietary need for a can of Carnation tomato sauce and a box of Zoom cereal. This was payback.

Furthermore, the people clamoring for the food treated one another abominably. While the United Farm Workers inspired respect by the very dignity of their appeals, the stoicism with which they accepted charity, and the solidarity in which they stood, the people storming the trucks behaved barbarically; many were gravely injured, including a woman who lost an eye. Somebody jumped aboard a truck loaded with hundreds of hams and hijacked the damn thing, whisking them far away from the Oakland poor and, presumably, taking them somewhere a profit could be turned.

The food giveaway exposed the SLA to a disappointing truth about human nature that was never even alluded to in the Little Red Book or For the Liberation of Brazil: that most poor people don’t yearn to be classless; most poor people yearn to be rich. Give a man a ham and he’ll eat tonight; give a man a truck full of hams, and maybe he’ll get his pinkie ring out of hock. But all of that was a long way off, and there were miles to go before the SLA made its decisive and fatal blunder, the one that exposed its members to a force more powerful and unilateral than anything in their collective experience of racism, sexism, incarceration in the California prison system, or the hammer fist of capitalist imperialism could have possibly prepared them for: the LAPD.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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