Girl, Interrupted

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

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.

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.

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.”