Patty's Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America
by William Graebner
A review by Rick Perlstein
The story of the hostage who comes by turns to identify with the captor is one of the oldest ever told. Tales of unsullied Puritan maidens kidnapped by Indians only to end up "going native" were staples of early American literature. The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, which describes the ordeal of a minister's wife held for eleven weeks by Narragansett Indians during King Philip's War in 1676, was among the first such narratives, and it was enormously popular when it was published in Boston in 1682. Three hundred years later, a similar story seized the West's imagination: in Stockholm in 1973, after four customers were taken hostage in a holdup of the Sveriges Kreditbank, there were reports that one of them became affianced to one of the bank robbers. The archetype is of such sturdy provenance, in fact, that it surprised me to learn from William Graebner's Patty's Got a Gun that it wasn't until six years after the Kreditbank incident that the term "Stockholm syndrome" appeared in the American mass media. The phrase first surfaced in 1979, Graebner explains, "when Time magazine suggested that the syndrome might have taken hold among those being held hostage by Iranian militants in Tehran." Perhaps the obsession with the notion of a loss of self under conditions of duress is so primal, so elemental of modern anxieties, that people feared to give it a proper name. Until, that is, the 1970s -- a time so drenched in the detritus of captivity that the culture suddenly could not do without the shorthand.
The captivity narrative at the center of Graebner's book is the 1974 kidnapping of a modest and nondescript California heiress by a murderous ultra-left cult that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. A stranger story has hardly ever been told. Months after her kidnapping, Patty Hearst appeared on surveillance footage of a bank robbery brandishing an M-1 machine gun. Ten days later the SLA would release tapes of her calling her parents pigs and insisting that if she had been brainwashed, it was only via "the process whereby the people are conditioned to passively take their place in society as slaves of the ruling class." When the police torched an SLA safe house with most of the group still inside, Patty watched it on live TV from a motel near Disneyland with the rest of her SLA "combat unit." Thus began a flight during which, apparently as a full-fledged member of the gang, she never once tried to escape for more than a year. Then came her trial in 1976 for armed robbery, in which celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey tried and failed to convince a jury that Hearst bore no responsibility for her crime because she had been brainwashed.
Stockholm syndrome was everywhere in the 1970s. Hearst's case was but the most notorious. The "brainwashing" of soul-searching youth by religious cults became the paramount obsession of the middle class (in Sunday school at my Reform temple in Milwaukee, we were trained to resist their wiles). "Between 1969 and 1977," Graebner points out, "more than thirty zombie movies appeared in the United States and in other countries." The most notorious of them all, Dawn of the Dead, came out in 1978 -- the same year that a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dramatized a "fear that human beings are vulnerable creatures, rather easily drained of the basic qualities of humanness," in this case by aliens who arrive in the form of lovely flowers that turn the citizens of San Francisco into "a new race, identical in appearance to the old one but, like zombies, lacking emotive qualities." Students of American culture will recognize the signposts of national anxiety: San Francisco, flowers, zombies. "If you're going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair," went a 1967 hit song about the "Summer of Love." The Bay Area was a national catchment for lost souls, a symbol of horror for parents who no longer considered their children their own. (Congress was worried enough about the problem to pass a Runaway Youth Act in 1974.) The fact that Hearst was kidnapped in no less a zombie reservoir than Berkeley would be central to the national discussion of her fate.
The SLA's Svengali, small-time crook Donald DeFreeze, recruited from among the upper ranks of the runaways who flocked to Berkeley to "find themselves" amid the ashes of '60s idealism. (SLA comrade Cujo was the son of a Pennsylvania anesthesiologist; Teko had played on the golf team at his Indiana high school.) Charles Manson had been a similar kind of pied piper seven years earlier in Haight-Ashbury. "In Berkeley, a city symbolic of personal and political change," Graebner writes, "being an urban guerrilla was a lifestyle option." The SLA lived that lifestyle to the hilt. (Its slogan: "Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys Upon the Life of the People.") Three months before the Hearst kidnapping, the SLA murdered the school superintendent of Oakland. The "Black Judas in Oakland" had issued student identification cards, which in the fevered logic of the SLA and other factionistas obviously portended fascism.
But the SLA was also implicated in the typical dodges of thug life. The most fascinating witness at Hearst's trial was Ulysses Hall, who had earlier been in prison with DeFreeze. Shortly after the bank robbery, out of curiosity, Hall rang up DeFreeze to ask him, one hood to another, what his motive was in the impressment of a captive he could have ransomed for millions of dollars. DeFreeze's reported answer provided the clearest insight into the complex admixture of criminal mischief, outright lunacy and genuine revolutionary fervor that drove the man who took as his name Cinque Mtume, after the leader of the Amistad slave rebellion and the Swahili word for "prophet." DeFreeze/Cinque explained that his main concern was the fugitive gang's survival. Ransoming Hearst, or even merely releasing her, would render them more vulnerable to capture. The safe play, DeFreeze told Hall, "was to put her in a position where she would become...a part of the group." Even better if she committed a dastardly crime by their side. Then she would be right there on the hook with them.
The methods by which Hearst was psychologically coerced into identification with the SLA is the most famous part of her story (it's depicted with relative faithfulness to the documentary record in a 1988 film by Paul Schrader). Gagged, blindfolded and bound, the 19-year-old was shunted off, Graebner writes, to a "small, smelly closet (twenty-five by seventy-nine inches), padded but otherwise empty, where she would remain for about six weeks, the first two weeks blindfolded, the first few days without access to a toilet." She thought she was being buried alive; earlier, from the other side of the door, the barked explanation had emerged from "General Field Marshall" Cinque: she was a "prisoner of war" of a massive and widely dispersed army and would be killed if she tried to escape, beaten or dangled from the ceiling if she made any noise. For the next two days she was hectored about the organization's worldview; on day three interrogators began lecturing her about the "crimes that her mother and father have committed against we the American people and the oppressed people of the world."
Her captors also sexually assaulted her. "I mostly thought that I would be killed," she later testified. That nicely served Cinque's purposes. Soon the voices coming through the closet door were telling her that she was likely to be killed in a police raid. (The police would end up accidentally killing most of the group.) Those who had once been her tormentors would be her protectors. "You can join us and fight with us, or you can die," Cinque eventually offered. "I accommodated my thoughts to coincide with theirs," Hearst wrote in her 1982 memoir Every Secret Thing. "I had lived in fear of the SLA for so long now that fear of the FBI came easily to me."
Oliver Twist is a moral map of post-Poor Laws London as Charles Dickens understood it, drawn according to the various characters' reactions to the dazed and abused captive Oliver. The masters of the workhouse see him as inherently criminal, mere exemplar of his indigent class even before he has done anything to judge him by. Fagin, meanwhile, describes a strategy to brainwash the traumatized Oliver different in no particular way from that of the latter-day underground man, Cinque Mtume. First they all but lock Oliver in a closet. Then they let him experience a redemption that they engineer, casting themselves as his protectors against the clutches of the outside world. Then they draft him into their common legal jeopardy, because:
"Once let him feel that he is one of us; once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief; and he's ours! Ours for life. Oho! It couldn't have come about better!" The old man crossed his arms upon his breast; and, drawing his head and shoulders into a heap, literally hugged himself for joy.... "He must be in the same boat with us. Never mind how he came there; it's quite enough for my power over him that he was in a robbery; that's all I want."
After Oliver is impressed into committing an armed robbery alongside Fagin's gang and is shot during the crime and left behind to die, the servants who rescue him view his mere participation in the crime as sufficient to convict him, his soul manifested in his bare acts alone. Dickens's heroes, meanwhile, are liberals who intently probe the circumstances that make Oliver not so much a moral agent as a victim. ("Surely the poor child's story," the saintly Rose intones, "will be sufficient to exonerate him.")
Free will or coercion? Guilty or innocent? Admit to how you would judge Oliver, and Dickens will tell you who you are -- and, from the coordinates that result, plot the shape of an entire social world. Graebner's methodology in Patty's Got a Gun is similar. The heart of the study treats Hearst's trial as a public argument about what it meant, and to whom, to be said to possess an autonomous "self" in America around 1973-76: if an "autonomous" self could be said to exist at all. "Was there something extraordinary in Patty's background or makeup that could explain the variety of roles she had taken on in so short a time?" Graebner writes. "Or was this protean Patty a sort of mirror image of the ordinary Patty? And, if that were true, were all ordinary people vulnerable, or open, to such dramatic transformations?" In mid-'70s America, you could not answer the question without taking a side in the country's emergent culture war.
The prosecution, attempting to convict Hearst as a voluntary revolutionary, drafted off the opinions of conservative editorialists processing the traumas of the 1960s. She was fit progeny, as one Midwestern paper put it, of "Mansonettes, seeking flower-child summers but finding themselves as mass murderers.... Political rabbit holes from which fallen PhD candidates emerge as Weathermen. Pitiful bands of Jesus freaks, lost on behalf of a God who must cry for the waste." "Liberals in Congress" were blamed, and "today's climate of permissiveness," and "a generation of youth worship, permissive parenthood, and soft-headed justice." Hadn't we always warned it would end up like this? Others blamed Berkeley itself: "Fungus thrives in human warmth. Perhaps violence thrives in the vacuum of permissiveness that exists on some campuses these days." Class was never far from these sorts of backlash arguments: that what one paper called "Mrs. Hearst's little darling," what another called a "rebellious miscreant," was a "spoiled rich kid."
The argument proceeded in blithe innocence of facts: actually, Hearst's parents were quite strict; she lived modestly; worked in a department store for pocket money; and was utterly apolitical, with hardly the imagination for rebellion. ("Venice is nice, but smelly," she wrote to her boyfriend during her dutiful high school trip abroad. "The only thing in the world she wanted then," her boyfriend wrote in his memoir, "was to have two kids, a collie, and a station wagon.") The argument succeeded with the jury nonetheless, Graebner says. The prosecution, after carefully but risibly establishing an insurrectionist streak in her "unparalleled" "capacity for sarcasm" and such childhood acts as "telling a nun to go to Hell," won the case, he thinks, when a lawyer stumbled into the formulation that she was a "rebel in search of a cause." It was but a short step, went the logic, to the tapes she made proclaiming she would never "choose to live the rest of my life surrounded by pigs like the Hearsts," and from there, to outright criminality. (Anyone's Daughter was the title of a popular book on the trial; "Could Your Daughter Kill?" was a Los Angeles magazine story on the Manson trial of 1970.)
Bailey made a bold and unprecedented case for exoneration. His opening statement, in Graebner's paraphrase, called Hearst "a creature lacking in will, no longer in control of her actions: a victim." ("Surely the poor child's story," he may well have said, "will be sufficient to exonerate her.") Bailey's strategy was to call a series of expert witnesses who would guide the jury through the state-of-the-art thinking about "coercive persuasion," popularly known as "brainwashing," and compare Patty with its most famous victims. During the Korean War, "forceful interrogation" by Chinese captors induced "compliant behavior" in 60 percent of American prisoners of war, according to studies by one expert witness called by the defense. In 1948 the Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty was arrested, stripped naked in public, made to wear a clown outfit, treated to a month of beatings, druggings and episodes of sleep deprivation, then "confessed" to enormous anti-Communist crimes (his memoirs were published around the time of Hearst's kidnapping). One defense psychiatrist even called Hearst's pallid affect during the trial -- a courtroom reporter labeled it "zombielike" -- the "Mindszenty look."
It was hogwash, argued the prosecution, these silly softies who thought of criminal defendants as patients "requiring therapy." The government prosecutor later told a reporter "that Patty had used victimhood to mask the most exhilarating experience of her life"; a prosecution psychiatrist said that Patty, no patsy she, was no less than the "queen" of the SLA. During one part of the trial, they resorted to the epistemology of Victorian workhouse overseers: we must judge the drifting, feckless hippie children of the rich by what they essentially are. During another phase, they chose a Victorian epistemology of blunt literalism: look at what Patty Hearst did, what she said, what she chose (she picked up a gun -- so how could she have intended anything but to pick up a gun?). Negotiating this swirl of significations, Graebner proposes, the trial became a public referendum on the very questions of free will and determinism, of the mutability of the self, of the nature of individual responsibility.
These were the questions, he demonstrates, that everyone was asking in the 1970s. Some will find certain of his examples too tendentious (Cindy Sherman's photo series Complete Untitled Film Stills felt that way to me); but some will find them quite brilliant and convincing. Consider the intellectuals: the '70s was the time when social thinkers and their students became increasingly conversant, and comfortable, with the idea that the ego was not master of its own house. Althusser, Foucault, Debord, Derrida and Robert Jay Lifton, one of Bailey's expert witnesses: all, in various ways and to various degrees, were dealing with the notion of the self not as a sovereign but as a subject, yoked to deterministic forces that made individual will seem more and more a fiction. We were all -- were we not -- victims of brainwashings of our own. "The understanding of addiction as a disease remained prevalent into the 1970s," Graebner points out in one of his fugues on the trial's relationship to its cultural context, "but by 1980 addicts were increasingly being held personally responsible for their plight, and 'she could even be you'" -- the slogan of a popular anti-Valium campaign -- "had morphed into Nancy Reagan's 'just say no.'"
By the time of his closing statement, Bailey realized that the trial was not going his way -- that his expert witnesses, with all their nuanced questions about who, after all, could be said to possess a "true" self, were utterly falling flat. Abruptly, Bailey shifted tack. He pleaded with the jury, "I am not really a flaming liberal" and admitted that he, too, had been angry at Hearst when she called her parents pigs. He began arguing in the same Perry Mason just-the-facts mode as the prosecution. He "revealed," Graebner concludes, "a great concern: that he might be arguing his case to the silent majority." And so he was. One juror, reflecting on the decision to convict, noted that Hearst's postcaptivity interest in radical feminist tracts like Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, which she read under the SLA's sway during her captivity, was "more important than some things" in arriving at the verdict. The jury considered the intellectuals and their insistence on the limits of free will, and blanched; speaking for American culture as a whole, the jurors had tired of elite discourse's flirtation with the complexities of the protean, overdetermined self. Our national cult of self-made identities triumphed. Enough with the fashionable nonsense about vulnerable selves: people mean precisely what they say and do precisely what they intend to do.
The summer after Hearst's trial, Star Wars was released and immediately became a pop sensation. America now preferred its captives to be self-willed self-rescuers. Rambo would soon grace movie screens; Ronald Reagan would soon be president. And Patty Hearst would go to jail, a harbinger of our new age of "personal responsibility." What was a captive supposed to do? The jury decided: she was supposed to just say no.
Rick Perlstein's most recent book is Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
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