Girl, Interrupted

How Patty Hearst’s kidnapping reflected and ravaged American culture in the 1970s

Graebner’s book is surprisingly slender, given the scope of its subject: it barely reprises the facts of the case, but rather considers at length the various cultural meanings he finds within it. He paints on a large canvas, one that makes room for (among many others) King Lear, Madonna, Psycho, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Joan of Arc, Alzheimer’s disease, Saturday Night Fever, anorexia nervosa, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alex Haley’s Roots, The Silence of the Lambs, Eliot Spitzer, The Deer Hunter, American Idol, The Stepford Wives, Betty Ford, The Spirit of St. Louis, Ann Landers, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Edward Kennedy, The Amityville Horror, and—an ace up his sleeve—Barry Lyndon. More helpfully, he discusses the concept of brainwashing and catalogs the testimony on that technique given by experts during Hearst’s trial, which only serves to point out how limited the research was when it came to understanding what happened to Patty Hearst: most of the work on this subject has been conducted in a military setting, with subjects who were male, trained for combat, and aware that they were engaged in work that exposed them to grave danger, and who had—at the very least—been provided with a set of guidelines on what they were allowed to reveal to an enemy captor. To place what happened to Patty Hearst into such a context is to allow oneself to be willfully ignorant of the delicate and emotionally charged state of late girlhood, and of the act of passing into young womanhood, a process that for Patty Hearst—because of the sheltering that came with her wealth—was probably slower and more tentative than for many other American girls her age. No one feels sorry for a girl on a yacht, as the old saying goes, and much of the harshness that Patty Hearst encountered from the American public, the criminal-justice system, and even many of her own biographers stems from their feelings about the Hearst fortune and history, as though all of those home movies of her grandfather entertaining Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard at San Simeon had somehow devolved onto Patty, and had made her older and wiser and more experienced than her years suggest. In fact, they had done the opposite.

Experts in the relatively new field of how to survive a violent crime—something that ordinary Americans are more and more interested in learning—are unanimous in their opinion of how to handle one particular scenario. They grimly admit that although there are times when a victim may have to succumb to a culprit’s demands in order to survive the attack (for example, enduring a rape), or when one might bide one’s time—drawing the culprit into conversation, waiting for the right moment to make a move—there is one criminal act that you should never willingly allow, one act that you should resist as intensely as if you had already made the decision to die then and there: never, under any circumstances, allow the person to move you from one location to another. He will surely take you to some place more secluded, more advantageous to him, and he will almost certainly do terrible things to you and kill you there.

Patty Hearst didn’t know that fact when her peaceful night of studying—she and Steven had eaten the off-campus-housing dinner of champions (sandwiches and Campbell’s soup), they had just finished watching Mission: Impossible and The Magician, she was in her bathrobe—exploded into violence. She did not know that she would be beaten, bound and gagged, and thrown into the trunk of a car, and that from there she would be transferred to a closet, in which she would be raped repeatedly and told that she might soon be executed, and that for the first few days she would not even be allowed to use a toilet. As Graebner reports, for the first seconds of her captivity, she thought she was being buried alive, as Barbara Jane Mackle, the victim of a spectacularly hideous kidnapping, had been five years earlier.

The first sexual assault happened when her hands were briefly freed inside the closet. Cinque responded to this by grabbing her crotch and squeezing her breasts, an act that Graebner characterizes as “fondling” and that a (male) expert witness for the prosecution said was not “sexual assault” but rather an example of Cinque “venting his anger.” Can any man understand what it is like for a woman to be sexually brutalized? Patty Hearst was a young woman who had cut short a dream vacation to Europe not only because she missed her boyfriend, but because the behavior of Mediterranean men frightened her: “Rome is really beautiful, but I’m afraid to go out of the hotel alone—men don’t just whistle here, they run at you and try to grab you!” She was a woman so moored in the proprieties of her Catholic mother that when she entered an ongoing sexual relationship, she legitimized it (in her own heart, if not her mother’s) by placing it within a domestic context, and by sealing its niceness with the promise of a wedding.

And there she was, in the dark, with the first groping eventually leading to the first rape—“he did his thing and left”—an event made doubly wretched by the fact that she knew the rest of the gang was on the other side of the closet door, listening. Other rapes followed. The SLA was probably the first band of revolutionaries to marry a commitment to radical feminism with the use of systematic rape as a means of recruitment. Terrified in the closet, harangued night and day as part of her “reeducation,” dreading the next assault, she discovered that privileges—using the toilet, a chance to brush her teeth with the communal toothbrush—could be earned not by enduring another beating but merely by telling her captors that she agreed with them, that she could see their point of view. Who could hold it against her?

And then she even found a way to stop the rapes, at least some of them. She did it not by resisting the sex, but by falling in love with one of the men who was performing it. In its way, that was a powerful thing to do—to transform the nature of an act by changing the way you think about it. Willie Wolfe was young and good-looking, and not immune to the gratification of having charmed the captive girl whose face was now one of the most famous in the world. They became boyfriend and girlfriend within the SLA—a boyfriend and girlfriend who had to accommodate, within their love, Patty’s ongoing role as comfort girl to the other male members—a couple whose relationship included the giving of a special gift: a small, carved monkey on a leather thong that, as Patty tells us girlishly in her memoir, Every Secret Thing, was Wolfe’s “most treasured possession.”

It was a particularly feminine thing to do, to try against all the odds to place one’s sex life within the context of romance and affection, and—another irony—it was one of the things that led to her guilty verdict at trial. In her purse at the time of her arrest was the little monkey, the double of one found underneath Wolfe’s charred remains in the Los Angeles safe house. Before these charms were introduced into evidence, the jury was on Patty’s side: “Everyone’s heart went out to her,” one juror said of the group’s response to the kidnapping, beatings, and rape; “how could you help it? We felt overwhelming sympathy for her.” The evidence about the bank robbery was compelling, but that little trinket from the boyfriend hardened everyone’s heart. “That was what changed my mind,” said one female juror; “I really saw how much she was lying. It just had to be lying, through and through.” Love and sex: they will catch a woman up every time.

On the second page of his book, Graebner makes a familiar complaint about his subject—Patty Hearst was dull: “Not dull to a fault, and not dull as in stupid. Just ordinary.” Ordinary! Here was a young woman who was an heiress when the term evoked not a Hilton sister but rather a creature from a different time, a different America. When Patty Hearst was a little girl, San Simeon had not yet been given to the state of California, and it was her favorite place to spend family vacations, swimming in the marble Neptune pool and riding horses on the endless mountain trails. She was a student at the best university in the country, a place where everywhere she looked she saw her own name, carved into granite, printed on street signs: Hearst amphitheater, Hearst Gym, Hearst Avenue. At the time of her abduction, she was enrolled in the lecture class of one of my parents’ friends, a fact the professor realized only because when she had first run her finger down the endless printout of names, there it was: Hearst.

And yet, this creature with the glittering past and the famous name was engaged in a bit of youthful reinvention at complete odds with—and therefore much more original, and even more outrageous, than—that of the city’s thousands of other students and young drifters. While they were involved in a self-conscious attempt to shake their middle-class mores and expectations, she was trying, just as self-consciously—Capwell’s, the Wash House—to adopt those mores. She was trying to create a life for herself that was not like her mother’s but was more in line with the happy lives she saw depicted on television—she was a fantastic television watcher before her capture—and the kidnapping put an ugly and abrupt end to that sweet intention.

Patty Hearst caught our attention because she was an innocent and largely naive young woman who was being fought over, in public, by two powerful forces: her parents and “the culture” in its most extreme and violent manifestation. At one particularly heartrending moment, her father defended her against charges that she had joined the SLA: “We’ve had her 20 years; they’ve only had her 60 days,” he said. Then Catherine Hearst broke her usual silence: “I know my girl.” That’s why we couldn’t let the story go, not because Patty herself fascinated us, but because we were desperate to know, in the epic battle for her affections, whom she would choose: Catherine or Cinque? It was the kind of question many of us were grappling with in our own lives, and Patty Hearst gave us the perfect excuse to talk about our own situations without really talking about them, not directly. We needed someone like her just then. As the U.S. attorney said in his closing arguments, by way of reminding the jurors how Patty had ended up on trial: “She didn’t call us. We called her.”

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. 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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