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. 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 …