The People v. Patty Hearst

The really good trials, for reasons that Aristotle could explain, have the power and appeal of folk drama. An evil deed has been committed off stage, now the chorus is assembled in a box to one side, the personified forces of destiny and the furies speak. If the trial is a criminal one, the satisfying ending seems to be when someone guilty is led off to prison, and if the trial is a politicial one, then the popular ending is freedom and vindication.

Some of the malice and confusion among the vast audience of the Patricia Hearst trial was probably owing to its being a modern play—qualified, ironic, and absurd—and it was hard to know whether it was about crime, as billed, or about politics, as it seemed. Either way, the trial did not satisfy, and the audience was restless throughout; petulant bombers let off bombs, reporters jostled and sneered, red-eyed Swarthmore dropouts lined up twenty-four hours in advance in hopes of seeing Her; assorted people, ignoring the fact that publicity is thought to harm defendants in trials, mounted an angry demonstration protesting that the white bourgeois press was paying too much attention to Patty and not enough to their favorite trial, of the San Quentin Six. Most people I talked to here in San Francisco said that they didn’t know much about trials, but they knew what they liked, and they hoped she’d really “get it.”

Indeed they probably could not have said why they felt that way. Seldom has the manifest content of the action (a “funky ten-thousand-dollar bank robbery,” one witness called it) seemed more unrelated to the latent content, the grounds on which she was actually tried and convicted—an outcome that seems to have precipitated a national mood of self-congratulation.

Among those who wanted conviction were, first, everybody who hates the Hearsts—this includes a lot of the press and a lot of Californians; the large number of people who hate the rich in general and are glad to see that they can be brought to trial the same as you and me; all those who hate radicals, and, related to them, those who mistrust anybody who takes the Fifth; and a group whose number we might have thought had diminished since the Sixties—those who mistrust the sexually “immoral,” people who smoke dope, spoiled brats who try to “get their own way,” and, in particular, undutiful children and rebellious women. How Patty got along with her parents and her fiancé Steve figured heavily in mail received against her by newspapers and government prosecutors. Finally, of course, we have all been taught to hate snitches. How cleverly the prosecution maneuvered the sympathies of these disparate elements into a symphony of public satisfaction.

Inside the courtroom the daily cast included the senior Hearsts, models of parental constancy, the fascinated sisters, F. Lee (called Flea in the San Francisco press) Bailey, a very smart man whose excellence as a lawyer was probably offset …

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Letters

No Charge June 24, 1976