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An Ordinary Girl


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

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.

  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.

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