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That Girl: The Captivity and Restoration of Patty Hearst | The Nation

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That Girl: The Captivity and Restoration of Patty Hearst

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National ArchivesAn FBI simulation of Patty Hearst in a wig, 1974

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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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.")

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