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An Ordinary Girl

Trance

by Christopher Sorrentino
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 516 pp., $26.00

Patricia Hearst
Patricia Hearst; drawing by David Levine

It began badly. When a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army claimed credit for the November 1973 murder of the Oakland schools superintendent, Marcus Foster, in a wild “communiqué”—“notice is hereby served on the enemy political police state and all its lackeys”—Sixties radicals could only be as perplexed as anyone else paying attention. Why kill a well-respected black leader dedicated to education reform? Here was Kent State turned on its head, for the sympathy was with the members of “the system”—Foster and his middle-class family, and his frightened deputy, Robert Blackburn, injured in the attack. The hour was late in America for the SLA to be condemning Foster’s new student ID card program as an “Internal Warfare Identification Computer System,” or for their closing slogan, “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE.”

The militant left had lost its momentum, partly because the outrage that had given it power dissipated with the release of the Pentagon Papers, the end of the draft, and Watergate. By 1973 Berkeley was one of the few places where the young could still be heard discussing “the Man” and “the pigs” with no trace of irony, and could still be heard, as Joan Didion once wrote, “talking favorably about the bombing of power stations.”

Three months after the Foster killing, the SLA committed an “action” less grave but far more publicized. On the night of February 4, 1974, Steven Weed, a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley, answered the door to his apartment on Benvenue Street and was beaten up by an armed trio he took to be thieves. All they left with, though, was his live-in fiancée, Patricia Campbell Hearst, who had been watching television in her alpaca slippers.

The captors were an odd and combustible mix: seven dissatisfied white sons and daughters of the upper middle class led by an escaped black convict, hardened and radicalized by time served for armed robbery in a California prison.1 Blond and thin, Patty—the name is now redolent of the period—was dragged away in her bathrobe, or “half naked,” as many news reports chose to put it. She was the nineteen-year-old daughter of Randolph Hearst and granddaughter of the late William Randolph Hearst, the press magnate whose castle in San Simeon George Bernard Shaw described as “the place God would have built, if he had the money.” Within days, the bewildered FBI had the U-2 flying sorties over the High Sierra, combing campsites for the SLA.

The group described the abduction as an arrest for the crimes Patty’s parents had committed against the oppressed, and demanded that her father, “corporate enemy of the people,” distribute millions of dollars of food to the poor of California before any negotiations could begin. Which he did, but no negotiations followed.

What turned public fascination into a kind of mania was Patty’s apparent transformation into a committed member of the Army itself. In a series of audiotapes sent to radio stations within a two-month span beginning a week after her capture, she changed—or was it seemed to change?—from a scared and pleading teenager—“Mom, Dad, I’m okay…. And I just hope that you’ll do what they say, Dad, and just do it quickly”—to a different kind of parental nightmare:

I have been given the choice of, one, being released in a safe area, or, two, joining the forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people. I have chosen to stay and fight.

Accompanying this last recording was a photograph of Patty, now using the name “Tania” after a woman who fought alongside Che Guevara in Bolivia. The young woman who weeks earlier had selected for her wedding china a Herend pattern of hand-painted flowers and butterflies now wore a jumpsuit and beret, and carried a cut-down M-1 carbine loaded with a fully automatic banana clip. She wielded the same weapon later that month while participating in the robbery of the Sunset branch of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, during which two people were shot and injured by an SLA member, Nancy Ling Perry. In a series of security camera photos taken four to a second, Patty Hearst seemed to be saying, according to students from the Berkeley School for the Deaf brought in to analyze the pictures, “I’m Tania. Up against the wall, motherfuckers.”

Christopher Sorrentino’s lively and clever novel about Patty Hearst and the SLA, Trance, hews very closely to the documented history. An author’s note at the end suggests a casual relationship with fact: “I have disregarded the record whenever it’s served my purpose to do so.” But that is not in evidence in the novel, notwithstanding a few deviations. (Perhaps there were legal concerns.)

One of the book’s puzzles is that it begins when the above events are in the past. In the opening pages, “Tania” is already in Los Angeles showering Mel’s Sporting Goods with .30-caliber rounds from a submachine gun, providing cover for her two shoplifting comrades as they escape a security guard, and already asking with pride, once they get back to the VW van, “How’d I do?”2 Fleeing the scene, bickering and grandstanding, Tania, Teko, and Yolanda—the author uses the actual SLA noms de guerre, though he changes some real names—ditch the van and commandeer a series of escape vehicles, the last a van with the driver still aboard, a teenager, Dan Russell. In a brief moment when they are alone, Dan asks Tania, “When did you decide to go with, join their army deal?” She shrugs and replies, “I just started listening and learning from like the day I was taken away, and I started changing my views about things. It was a real process, the way I see it.” This is an odd beginning for a retelling of a story whose interest for many lies mainly in the mystery at its heart: How willing was she? Did Patty truly become Tania? Trance treats the answer as a given. She did.

Tania, Teko, and Yolanda—the latter two are a quarrelsome husband and wife—plan to reunite with their comrades, but they never do. The episode at Mel’s, a costly blunder, has tipped off the authorities to the SLA’s presence in Los Angeles, and “the pigs” soon close in on the other six, including the undisputed leader and sole black member, Cinque, and the quieter Cujo, a young prep school graduate who has become infatuated with Tania. Sorrentino portrays Tania as equally enamored with him, though, late in the novel, she grudgingly admits to herself that when she was held captive, the sex she had with him, as well as with Cinque and Teko, was the result of her “humiliated surrender.”3

The day after the Mel’s incident, the six die inside a burning house in Compton after a prolonged shootout with the police. Tania and her two remaining comrades, as in real life, watch the live broadcast of that confrontation, in horror, from a motel near Disneyland called the Cosmic Age, while newscasters speculate that she is inside the flaming rubble.4 “I wish I were there with them,” Teko says, pounding on the bed. Tania crawls to the bathroom and lies on the floor, distraught, holding in her hand the stone monkey that hangs around her neck, given to her by Cujo.

Sorrentino’s novel goes on to trace what is sometimes called “the missing year” in the Hearst story, between the fire and her capture by the FBI in 1975. His account is based on Hearst’s lengthy statement to the FBI and on facts provided to journalists in later years by others involved. After the fire, Tania, Teko, and Yolanda return to the Bay Area, badly shaken and short of cash, desperate to find someone to harbor them. They get in touch with Susan Rorvik, an activist they know, who introduces them to a leftist sportswriter named Guy Mock, hoping he will help them leave California. Guy, “an intense, wiry, nervous man with the constant predatory gaze of an owl and a receding hairline,” is based on Jack Scott, a writer who provoked so much anger with his 1967 article in Ramparts supporting a proposed black boycott of the Olympics that his house was firebombed. Like Scott, Guy has been cut loose from two jobs in university athletic departments for his controversial views, in particular that athletes ought to challenge the authority of their coaches, and for making powerful enemies—including Spiro Agnew, who called him “an enemy of sport.”

Guy is bitter about the violent deaths in Compton:

We can’t forget that they lost the war, even if not many people happened to notice it, that’s what it was to them…and in the end they were massacred by the state for having waged it, massacred in an act of lawlessness under color of authority.

When he meets the three survivors, though, he challenges them about the crimes the SLA has committed. They point out that they did not participate in the Foster murder. “I was just an average Berkeley housewife then,” says Tania. But Teko “lays out a sinuously convoluted rationale” for it, “in which he seems to have complete faith.” He tells Guy that Foster was complicit in a plan for, among other things, “fascist police agents patrolling the halls [of schools] with shotgun and attack dogs” and “fascist concentration camps for so-called troublemakers.” “He was just a fucking fascist,” Tania adds. Guy is taken aback: “He hadn’t realized that the SLA took its rhetoric literally.”

Guy asks them about the Hibernia Bank robbery:

What was the necessity of shooting two bystanders? Hadn’t you already obtained your objective of “expropriating” funds?

“It became imperative to obtain resources by any means necessary,” says Yolanda.

“It was totally compulsory. We were forced into it since being underground had totally depleted our funds.”

“We like couldn’t work,” explains Tania.

But what about the shootings?

“Oh, everyone was real shaken up by that,” says Teko.

Nevertheless, Guy, wily and more intelligent than the SLA crew, seems to think he can reform them and bring them to a more palatable radicalism, and he is too excited by his potential place in history to dwell on how difficult that will be. He is also fascinated by the fugitive heiress. He feels, sitting across from her in a dilapidated North Berkeley apartment, faced with her inscrutable gaze, “the sense of wonder you might undergo in opening up an oyster and finding a pearl.” He also hopes for a book deal:

So they’ve fucked everything up, and they’re mostly wrong, and every exchange they shared with him wobbled at the edge of argument…. He sees a group of people. He sees a narrative. He sees himself having lunch with an editor.

Guy agrees to shelter the three on the condition that they get rid of their weapons, and presents the book project to them as their opportunity to give their side of the story. He and his reluctant wife shepherd them across the country—briefly to New York City, on to a rural safe house in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, then to another in Jeffersonville, New York. Lying low in the remote countryside, with not only Cinque but most of the original group already dead, the three remaining soldiers are at loose ends. Guy keeps them as isolated as possible. On their deck and in the rolling fields and woods outside the house in Pennsylvania, they read Marx and Régis Debray, and do drills—jumping jacks, paratroop push-ups, treading water with a backpack full of rocks—to prepare for a revolution that looks more and more unlikely.

Teko has adopted the role of new front man, looking vigilantly for signs of laxity to stamp out. But he doesn’t command the authority, with Tania or Yolanda, that Cinque had. Nor does he have much influence on a fourth fugitive Guy has taken in, Joan Shimada, perhaps in the hope that she, several years older than the others, will be a moderating influence. (“A babysitter’s what you’re saying,” Teko says to Guy when Joan is introduced.) Based on Wendy Yoshimura, Joan was born in the Japanese internment camps of World War II and is wanted in connection with bombings of government property in California, but she insists that she isn’t joining any army. “I don’t know who do you think you’re giving orders to,” she tells Teko, “but it’s not me.”

Teko and Yolanda resent her insubordination and worry, with good reason, about her influence on Tania, who seems impressed by Joan’s stubborn independence. But Tania still believes, even when Teko’s badgering angers her, that Joan “couldn’t possibly grasp how close, how very much her family Teko and Yolanda are.”

With too much time on their hands the group mostly argues—about what to do next, who has gone soft, whose turn it is to do the dishes. They put off tape-recording the statements Guy sees as the heart of his book on the SLA, partly because they question his motives. When he prods them to start working, and tries to get them to talk about Tania, Yolanda says, “I told you it was fucking bullshit, Teko…. He’s just trying to exploit us. To get to her.”

Guy is indeed disingenuous and self-interested, but he is more of an asset to them than they realize. Harboring them is not only a major expense (as his wife reminds him) but a serious risk, though they show no appreciation. What is more, encouraging them to give up their guns and start telling their side of the story, however selfishly motivated, is also in their best interest. Guy understands what the SLA members are loath to admit, even if they are beginning privately to suspect it: Tania’s conversion was, and is always to remain, the pinnacle of the SLA’s career. “She’s your best argument on your own behalf,” he tells them. The revolution will not occur, let alone be televised, so they might as well try to gain sympathy and respect. Guy tells his wife:

They’re a highly suspect organization, politically speaking. Nonsensical. But the politics have to take a backseat to the show. Maybe they say they want to overthrow the government. Maybe they even believe it. But if anything, these guys’ relationship to power is parasitic. Symbiotic, if you will, heh. What they really excel at is preempting the regularly scheduled programming.

Unlike the arrogant and prickly Guy, Tania and the others are not flesh-and-blood characters. The novel’s short glimpses into their past lives hold out the promise of fuller portraits that never materialize. Faced with the challenge of bringing to life misguided people with little self-understanding, Sorrentino plays up their absurdity. Early in the novel, Cujo wistfully envies Cinque’s poise and swagger: “Oh, how he couldn’t wait to be a real urban guerrilla! Oh, how he couldn’t wait to be black!” Another comrade, Gabi, who has reservations about the group, says, “This is turning into one of those whatchamacallits I read about in Time last year. Cults.” The SLA members are often treated less as people than as the objects of a clever mockery that leaves them consistently upstaged by their author.

Teko and Yolanda eventually decide that Guy intends—once he has the tapes and notes they have finally begun to compile—to cut them out of the book profits and call in “the police death squads.” When Guy begins to sense their paranoia, and to see they are threatening him with violence, he drops the book project and agrees, in “a rare confluential moment,” to help get them back across the country, without him, to California. There, as Teko tells him, a “second team” of radicals, including Susan Rorvik, is at work preparing the way for continued revolution.

At this point Guy recedes into the background, reappearing later only to attempt a last desperate gambit: he approaches Tania’s parents and offers to sell them information about their daughter. But her mother, hard-edged and nobody’s fool, will have none of it.5

The SLA, with a few new members, commits another bank heist in Carmichael, California, with Tania driving one of the escape cars. During the robbery, a blast from Yolanda’s shotgun kills an innocent customer, Myrna Opsahl, who is depositing the week’s donations for her church. Sorrentino portrays this real-life shooting as accidental, the fault of a misfiring weapon, as it may have been. But this scene, so traumatic and fateful for the characters, feels flat and undramatic. Immediately after their getaway, Teko is all bluster. Yolanda, “pale and shaking,” repeatedly says, “She was just a bourgeois pig,” a mantra she doesn’t seem to believe. Tania “thinks she feels awful about the woman. Definitely she feels fearful, and not of abstract retribution; for the first time she recognizes her likely punishment will be years in a cell.” But Sorrentino’s satirical take on the SLA has left us cold to their plight. They aren’t quite real enough for us to care about.6

Another recent novel about the Patty Hearst case, Susan Choi’s American Woman (2003), also has a relative outsider as its main character, based on Wendy Yoshimura (called Jenny here). She voices increasing skepticism about the SLA and tries to undermine their influence on Hearst. Again we don’t witness Patty’s conversion, but the author gives her a human frailty and carefully charts the personalities within the group. In one scene, “Pauline,” i.e., Patty, tries to convince Jenny to participate in a bank robbery:

“It’s my job to persuade you to stay. To recruit you. You didn’t think we’d be an army of three forever?” Pauline paused, watching her searchingly. “It’s the first thing I’ve been given to do on my own….

“I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. You know I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. But you won’t ever tell them.”

In Trance, Sorrentino does not try to account for Tania’s transformation from heiress to terrorist, providing only a few brief flashbacks to fill in the decisive months immediately following the kidnapping. We are mostly kept at a distance from her thoughts. When Guy questions Teko, Yolanda, and Patty about the abduction, he “turns his eyes on Tania. She recedes into the couch, as if she were embroidered on its surface, an anchored superficiality. Her own eyes are steady, and looking at nothing.”

Even when, later, she establishes a measure of independence and begins to resist Teko’s demands, descriptions of her state of mind have a hollow ring to them, perhaps by design: “Tania feels as restless as Joan: bored with the SLA, eager to leave, troubled by Myrna Opsahl’s murder, anxious about getting caught. The standard gamut.” As FBI agents begin to amass clues, they close in on the group. Near the end, just before they capture Tania in a San Francisco apartment in September 1975,7 her mother laments that her daughter has become less a person than an object of obsession and projection for strangers:

What I think is, I think they are trying to take some of her for themselves or to put something of themselves in her…. She belongs to them now.

Day after day in the newspapers, on the television. You lose something. You become a reflection, all detail and very little depth. It’s as if she’s in a trance….

The notion that Patty Hearst lost control of her identity seems sound, but it points to a difficulty inherent in the novel’s conception. Sorrentino’s book is something like what Don DeLillo called “imaginative biography,” referring to his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra. In Trance, which stays nearer to the facts, it is even more clear that the author is interested not only in writing a convincing novel but in giving an account of history.

But the roles of novelist and historian can come into conflict, particularly when the truth is simpler and more obvious than we might like it to be. Trance is better history, in a sense, than it is fiction, because the truth as Sorrentino portrays it—the absurdity of the SLA, the shallowness and pliancy of Patty Hearst—is all too simple.

In any discussion of Patty Hearst, the words “brainwashed” and “Stockholm syndrome” are bound to appear, stock terms that carry a whiff of the occult or pathological. Yet perhaps, as Sorrentino implies, her change is not so confounding to reason as it might seem. Here was a girl of nineteen, largely insulated by money from the world outside the gates. At a press conference shown in Guerrilla, Robert Stone’s 2004 documentary, Patty’s fiancé was asked, eight weeks after her kidnapping, “What is her political point of view, would you say?” Steven Weed answered: “Previous to the last two months I would say that she really didn’t have one.” In the months treated only glancingly in Trance, she was isolated from anyone she knew or trusted; held in a closet, sometimes blindfolded; cajoled into sex, perhaps raped; and exposed to a steady supply of Marx, Mao, Eldridge Cleaver, and George Jackson, much of it read to her by the attractive Cujo. And then she was given tastes of freedom—the removal of the blindfold, a bath, companionship—as reward for her gradually overcoming whatever reservations she may have had. Is it so difficult to imagine she did so?

In her evasive 1982 memoir, Every Secret Thing, Hearst generally took the line (while periodically contradicting it) that she cooperated only to protect herself. That is a credible explanation for her first two months in captivity but wears thin over the seventeen months that followed, in which she made no attempt to escape and left many signs, as Sorrentino suggests, that she had come to believe in the SLA cause. Although just what she was thinking remains unknowable, it seems plausible that conformity, powerful under any circumstance, would have gained extraordinary force in such a cloistered and intense atmosphere. No one has been able to explain how thirty-nine followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult came to believe they would reach another life aboard a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet if they simultaneously killed themselves. Besides, hadn’t the SLA demanded, instead of ransom, that Patty’s father give away food to the poor? There was the narcotic of revolutionary fervor, of moral certainty.

Vin McLellan and Paul Avery’s The Voices of Guns, a thorough and mostly judicious account by two reporters who covered the story as it unfolded, reports that a lawyer close to Patty Hearst who had spoken to her just after her arrest denounced F. Lee Bailey’s unsuccessful defense in her 1976 trial in the Hibernia Bank robbery—that she had acted under threat and coercion for nineteen months. “The jury heard the Hearst parents’ version,” the lawyer said. “The family just couldn’t accept that she had become Tania. That the SLA had twisted and turned her in a very brutal way—but that she had changed.” Randolph and Catherine Hearst wouldn’t be the only ones to resist this notion—that the self can move so dramatically between unwilling and willing, acting and being; that such a thing can happen to an ordinary girl.

  1. 1

    Underscoring the education level of many of the SLA core members, their name was derived from “symbiosis,” a term used in biology for a coexistence of unlike organisms for mutual benefit. What had brought the crew together was that a number of the whites had volunteered in prisons with an organization called Venceremos, tutoring black inmates and helping them organize politically. 

  2. 2

    The Mel’s incident, which occurred 101 days after the kidnapping, doesn’t appear until page 341 of the best nonfiction account I know of, Vin McLellan and Paul Avery’s The Voices of Guns (Putnam, 1977). 

  3. 3

    In Hearst’s memoir, Every Secret Thing (Doubleday, 1982), she denied having had any love for Cujo, a.k.a. Willie Wolfe, a former National Merit Scholar finalist and the son of a well-to-do anesthesiologist. This seems contradicted by her recorded statements and writings by her and other SLA members later found by the FBI. 

  4. 4

    The footage from that shootout, shown in some detail in Robert Stone’s excellent 2004 documentary Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, reveals an eerie similarity to the standoff between federal agents and another mysterious anti-government group, the Branch Davidians, in Waco, Texas, in 1993. After both incidents, despite little preexisting support for the victims, the public strongly protested the strong-arm tactics used by law enforcement. Sympathy with the SLA probably reached its peak immediately following the fire in which most of them were killed. 

  5. 5

    Jack Scott later served as the unattributed principal source for a widely read Rolling Stone article about Hearst, “Tania’s World.” He was expected to testify in the trial of sometime SLA member Kathleen Soliah—Susan Rorvik in Trance—when he died of cancer in 1999. 

  6. 6

    Hearst was not in fact punished for this particular crime. The Myrna Opsahl case remained officially unsolved until 2003, when four participants including Teko and Yolanda (Bill and Emily Harris), having long ago adopted law-abiding lives, pleaded guilty (rather than face Hearst’s testimony) and were sentenced to between six and eight years in prison. 

  7. 7

    Patty Hearst would later be convicted for her willing participation in the Hibernia Bank robbery. Her twenty-five-year sentence was reduced to seven and commuted by President Carter in 1979 after twenty-two months of time served.