Monday, April 10, 2017

Book Review: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin, narrated by Paul Michael (audio)

I don't get to read a lot of non-Macmillan books these days but the selection of available audiobooks is much smaller than print or even ebooks, so that's where I am giving myself some flexibility. And I thought this book sounded fascinating when I heard about it in the fall. I have heard about Patty Hearst my whole life but I didn't really know much at all except that she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and later joined them or possibly had Stockholm Syndrome, and participated in or was forced into participating in a bank robbery. That was 100% of my knowledge.

First of all, a real basic that no one seems to know: she didn't even go by Patty. Her father was the only person who called her that and because he used that nickname in press conferences, the media latched onto it. She was 20-years-old, engaged to a man who used to be her high school teacher (ew. He was only in his 20s though, but still. Ew), a college student. She was wealthy, sure, but William Randolph Hearst did not trust his silver-spoon kids with either his money or his media empire, and so no one had as much money in this family as was commonly assumed.

The SLA was a small ground of radicals who I believe possibly also had some mental dysfunction and/or had a small-scale version of mass hysteria a la Jim Jones. They were lead by Cinque, one of only two African-Americans in the group, and they presented themselves as a division of a large worldwide army. There weren't even 10 of them. Before the kidnapping, they murdered a school board leader in San Francisco, which was pretty awful. Two of their members got picked up after that, and the original plan was to trade Patricia for their two imprisoned members, and barring that, they wanted to use her to ensure their imprisoned members would get decent treatment, saying they'd treat her as they heard their "comrades" were being treated.

What I also didn't know was that it was 19 months before Patricia was rescued/captured/found. I had no idea this went on for so long!

Mr. Toobin lays out a strong argument that Patricia was not intentionally brainwashed or coerced. But that she was naive, inexperienced, and always fell hard for figures of authority. Not to mention, that it was the rational thing to do--to go along with the kidnappers. So he does give her more agency than the brainwashing contingent, but also argues that she wasn't evil or a radical or anything like that, but that she made expedient decisions based on her situation. which she did again after being found when she reverted back to being a dutiful Hearst heiress (even falling in love with and eventually marrying one of her bodyguards, a police officer.) Would you or I have reacted in the same way she did? Likely not as we are different people, but it's hard to say we'd have done "better" or that we would have been harder to  convert to the SLA way of thinking. It's difficult to understand why Patricia made the decisions she did, but it's not difficult to empathize with the horrible circumstances she found herself in, kidnapped by a group of heavily-armed, unstable individuals.

Overall, the reporting felt thorough, even-handed, and gave good context to the times when all this happened. It was eye-opening to a seminal American event that in some ways defined a generation. Mr. Toobin brought his legal expertise without drowning the narrative in legalese. In fact, it was very readable. The audio was excellent, although you do have to overlook the very deep male narrative voice that often had to speak Patricia's words, in a light, simpering tone. But that sort of thing is inevitable in any audiobook.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from Overdrive via my library.

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