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.