This is an enthralling but vexatious book about a botched law case involving as dull a defendant as has ever been put through the legal/psychiatric mill. Shana Alexander has chosen to tell the story of Patty Hearst by following the chronology of Patty’s trial, and in fact it is the trial itself that is on trial here. Unhappily, there is something flawed about a book that withholds a vital motivation until a footnote on page 504; the material almost overwhelms the interpretation.
Yet in the end, sometimes floundering, sometimes brilliant, the book throws light into a thousand dark places in American society: into the role of psychiatry in the law; into the adversary system of our courts; into the psychology of captor and captive (whether the captor be the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Federal Bureau of Investigation); into the dynamics of revolution; and into the sequestration of juries. The denouement is less juridical than theological, as in the underlying tune of John Cheever’s resounding prison novel, Falconer: “If I had the wings of an angel, Over these prison walls I would fly.”
Patty Hearst was no angel. F. Lee Bailey was no Perry Mason. Judge Oliver J. Carter was no Solomon. And Shana Alexander is not John Cheever. But she has written an extraordinary book.