The narrative is familiar. The domestic details spring to memory. Early on the evening of February 4, 1974, in her duplex apartment at 2603 Benvenue in Berkeley, Patricia Campbell Hearst, age nineteen, a student of art history at the University of California and a grand-daughter of the late William Randolph Hearst, put on a blue terry-cloth bathrobe, heated a can of chicken-noodle soup, and made tuna fish sandwiches for herself and her fiancé, Steven Weed; watched Mission: Impossible and The Magician on television; cleaned up the dishes; sat down to study just as the doorbell rang; was abducted at gunpoint and held blindfolded, by three men and five women who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, for the next fifty-seven days.
From the fifty-eighth day, on which she agreed to join her captors and was photographed in front of the SLA’s cobra flag carrying a sawed-off M-1 carbine, until September 18, 1975, when she was arrested in San Francisco, Patricia Campbell Hearst participated actively in the robberies of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco and the Crocker National Bank outside Sacramento; sprayed Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles with a submachine gun to cover a comrade apprehended for shoplifting; and was party or witness to a number of less publicized thefts and several bombings, all of which she still refers to as “actions,” or “operations.”
On trial for the Hibernia Bank operation she appeared in court wearing frosted white nail polish, and demonstrated for the jury the bolt action necessary to chamber an M-1. On a psychiatric test administered while she was in custody she completed the sentence “Most men…” with the words “…are assholes.” She lives now with the bodyguard she married, their infant daughter, and two German shepherds “behind locked doors in a Spanish-style house equipped with the best electronic security system available,” describes herself as “older and wiser,” and dedicates her account of these events, Every Secret Thing, to “Mom and Dad.”
It was a rather special sentimental education, a public coming-of-age with an insistently literary cast to it, and it seemed at the time to offer a parable for the period. Certain of its images entered the national memory. We had Patricia Campbell Hearst in her first-communion dress, smiling, and we had Patricia Campbell Hearst in the Hibernia Bank, not smiling. We again had her smiling in the engagement picture, an unremarkably pretty girl in a simple dress on a sunny lawn, and we again had her not smiling in the “Tania” snapshot, the famous Polaroid with the M-1. We had her with her father and her sister Anne in a photograph taken at the Burlingame Country Club some months before the kidnapping: all three Hearsts smiling there, not only smiling but wearing leis, the father in maile and orchid leis, the daughters in pikake, that rarest and most expensive kind of lei, strand after strand of tiny Arabian jasmine buds strung like ivory beads.
We had the bank of microphones in front of the Hillsborough house whenever Randolph and Catherine Hearst (“Dad” and “Mom” in the first spectral messages from the absent daughter, “pig Hearsts” as the spring progressed) met the press, the flowers seeming to change with the season, azaleas, fuchsias, cymbidium orchids massed for Easter. We had, early on, the ugly images of looting and smashed cameras and frozen turkey legs hurled through windows in West Oakland, the violent result of the Hearsts’ first attempt to meet the SLA ransom demand, and we had, on television the same night, the news that William Knowland, the former senator from California and the most prominent member of the family that had run Oakland for half a century, had taken the pistol he was said to carry as protection against terrorists, positioned himself on a bank of the Russian River, and blown off the top of his head.
All of these pictures told a story, taught a dramatic lesson, carrying as they did the frisson of one another, the invitation to compare and contrast. The image of Patricia Campbell Hearst on the FBI “wanted” flyers was for example cropped from the image of the unremarkably pretty girl in the simple dress on the sunny lawn, schematic evidence that even a golden girl could be pinned in the beam of history. There was no actual correlation between William Knowland lying face down in the Russian River and turkey legs thrown through windows in West Oakland, but the paradigm was manifest, two Californias. Those cymbidiums on the Hearsts’ doorstep in Hillsborough dissolved before our eyes into the image of a flaming palm tree in south-central Los Angeles (the model again was two Californias), the palm tree above the stucco bungalow in which Patricia Campbell Hearst was believed for a time to be burning to death on live television. (Actually, Patricia Campbell Hearst was in yet a third California, a motel room at Disneyland, watching the palm tree burn as we all were, on television, and it was Donald DeFreeze, Nancy Ling Perry, Angela Atwood, Patricia Soltysik, Camilla Hall, and William Wolfe, one black escaped convict and five children of the white middle class, who were dying in the stucco bungalow.)
Not only the images but the voice told a story, the voice on the tapes, the depressed voice with the California inflection, the voice that trailed off, now almost inaudible, then a hint of whine, a schoolgirl’s sarcasm, a voice every parent recognized.
Mom, Dad. I’m OK. I had a few scrapes and stuff, but they washed them up…. I just hope that you’ll do what they say, Dad…. If you can get the food thing organized before the 19th then that’s OK…. Whatever you come up with is basically OK, it was never intended that you feed the whole state…. I am here because I am a member of a ruling-class family and I think you can begin to see the analogy…. People should stop acting like I’m dead, Mom should get out of her black dress, that doesn’t help at all…. Mom, Dad…. I don’t believe you’re doing all you can…. Mom, Dad…. I’m starting to think that no one is concerned about me anymore…. And then: Greetings to the people. This is Tania.
The context was instructive. Patricia Campbell Hearst’s great-grandfather had arrived in California by foot in 1850, unschooled, unmarried, thirty years old with few graces and no prospects, a Missouri farmer’s son who would spend his thirties scratching around El Dorado and Nevada and Sacramento counties looking for a stake. In 1859 he found one, and at his death in 1891 George Hearst could leave the schoolteacher he had married in 1862 a fortune taken from the ground, the continuing proceeds from the most productive mines of the period, the Ophir in Nevada, the Homestake in South Dakota, the Ontario in Utah, the Anaconda in Montana, the San Luis in Mexico. The widow, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a tiny strong-minded woman then only forty-eight years old, took this apparently artesian income and financed her only child in the publishing empire he wanted, underwrote a surprising amount of the campus where her great-granddaughter would be enrolled at the time she was kidnapped; and built for herself, on 67,000 acres on the McCloud River in Siskiyou County, the original Wyntoon, a quarried lava castle of which its architect, Bernard Maybeck, said simply: “Here you can reach all that is within you.”1
The extent to which certain places dominate the California imagination is apprehended, even by Californians, only dimly. Deriving not only from the landscape but from the claiming of it, from the romance of emigration, the radical abandonment of established attachments, this imagination remains obdurately symbolic, tending to locate lessons in what the rest of the country perceives only as scenery. Patricia Campbell Hearst tells us in Every Secret Thing that the place the Hearsts called Wyntoon was “a mystical land,” “fantastic, otherworldly,” “even more than San Simeon,” which was in turn “so emotionally moving that it is still beyond my powers of description.”
That first Maybeck castle on the McCloud River was seen by most Californians only in photographs, and yet, before it burned in 1933, to be replaced by a compound of rather more playful Julia Morgan chalets (‘Cinderella House,” “Angel House,” “Brown Bear House”), Phoebe Hearst’s gothic Wyntoon and her son’s baroque San Simeon seemed between them to embody certain diverging impulses in the local consciousness, northern and southern, wilderness sanctified and wilderness banished, the aggrandizement of nature and the aggrandizement of self. Wyntoon had mists, and allusious to the infinite, great trunks of trees left to rot where they fell, a wild river, barbaric fireplaces. San Simeon, swimming in sunlight and the here and now, had two swimming pools, and a zoo.
It was a family in which the romantic impulse would seem to have dimmed. Patricia Campbell Hearst tells us that she “grew up in an atmosphere of clear blue skies, bright sunshine, rambling open spaces, long green lawns, large comfortable houses, country clubs with swimming pools and tennis courts and riding horses.” At the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Menlo Park she told a nun to “go to hell,” and thought herself “quite courageous, although very stupid.” At Santa Catalina in Monterey she and Patricia Tobin, whose family founded one of the banks the SLA would later rob, skipped Benediction, and received “a load of demerits.” Her father taught her to shoot, duck hunting. Her mother did not allow her to wear jeans into San Francisco. These were inheritors who tended to keep their names out of the paper, to exhibit not much interest in the world at large (“Who the hell is this guy again?” Randolph Hearst asked Steven Weed when the latter suggested trying to approach the SLA through Régis Debray, and then, when told, said, “We need a goddamn South American revolutionary mixed up in this thing like a hole in the head”),2 and to regard most forms of distinction with the reflexive distrust of the country club.
Yet if the Hearsts were no longer a particularly arresting California family, they remained embedded in the symbolic content of the place, and for a Hearst to be kidnapped from Berkeley, the very citadel of Phoebe Hearst’s aspiration, was California as opera. “My thoughts at this time were focused on the single issue of survival,” the heiress to Wyntoon and San Simeon tells us about the fifty-seven days she spend in the closet. “Concerns over love and marriage, family life, friends, human relationships, my whole previous life, had really become, in SLA terms, bourgeois luxuries.”
This abrupt sloughing of the past has, to the California ear, a distinct echo, and the echo is of emigrant diaries. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can,” one of the surviving children of the Donner Party concluded her account of that crossing.3 “Don’t worry about it,” the author of Every Secret Thing reports having told herself in the closet after her first sexual encounter with a member of the SLA. “Don’t examine your feelings. Never examine your feelings—they’re no help at all.” “She experienced what I call the death anxiety and the breaking point,” Robert Jay Lifton, one of the psychiatrists brought in to examine her, said by way of explaining the moment when she bound over her fate to the SLA. “Her external points of reference for maintenance of her identity had disappeared,” Louis Joloyn West, another of the psychiatrists, said.4 Those were two ways of seeing it, and another was that Patricia Campbell Hearst was cutting her losses and heading west, as her great-grandfather had before her.
The story she tells in Every Secret Thing has been received, on the whole, querulously, just as it was when she told it during The United States of America v. Patricia Campbell Hearst, the 1976 proceeding during which she was tried for and convicted of the armed robbery of the Hibernia Bank (one count) and (the second count) the use of a weapon during the commission of a felony. Laconic, slightly ironic, appearing resistant not only to the prosecution but to her own defense, Patricia Hearst was not, on trial in San Francisco, a conventionally ingratiating personality. “I don’t know,” I recall her saying over and over again on the few days I attended the trial. “I don’t remember.” “I suppose so.” Had there not been, the prosecutor asked one day, telephones in the motels in which she stayed when she drove across the country with Jack Scott? I recall Patricia Hearst looking at him as if she thought him deranged. I recall Randolph Hearst looking at the floor. I recall Catherine Hearst arranging a Galanos jacket over the back of her seat. “Yes, I’m sure,” their daughter said. Where, the prosecutor asked, were these motels?
“One was…I think….”
Patricia Hearst paused, and then: “Cheyenne? Wyoming?” She pronounced the names as if they were foreign, exotic, information registered and jettisoned.
Now as then, she projects an emotional distance, a peculiar combination of passivity and pragmatic recklessness (“I had crossed over. And I would have to make the best of it…to live from day to day, to do whatever they said, to play my part, and to pray that I would survive”) that many people find inexplicable and irritating. Now as then, she speaks abstractly of why, specifically of how. “I could not believe that I had actually fired that submachine gun,” she says of the incident in which she shot up Crenshaw Boulevard, but here is how she did it: “I kept my finger pressed on the trigger until the entire clip of thirty shots had been fired…. I then reached for my own weapon, the semi-automatic carbine. I got off three more shots…”
And, now as then, the questions raised are not about her veracity but about her authenticity, her general intention, about whether or not she is, as the assistant prosecutor put it during the trial, “for real.” This is necessarily a vain line of inquiry (whether or not she “loved” William Wolfe was the actual point upon which the trial turned), and one that has tended to encourage certain fanciful excursions among the inquisitors. “Why did she choose to write this book?” Mark Starr asked in Newsweek, and then answered: “Possibly she has inherited her family’s journalistic sense of what will sell.” “The rich get richer,” Jane Alpert concluded in New York magazine. “Patty,” Ted Morgan observed in The New York Times Book Review, “is now, thanks to the proceeds of her book, reverting to a more traditional family pursuit, capital formation.”
These are dreamy notions of what a Hearst might do to turn a dollar, but they reflect a larger dissatisfaction, a conviction that the Hearst in question is telling less than the whole story, “leaving something out,” although what that something might be, given this doggedly detailed account, is hard to define. If “questions still linger,” as they do for Newsweek, those questions are not about how to lace a bullet with cyanide: the way the SLA did it was to drill into the lead tip just short of the gunpowder, dip the tiny hole in a mound of cyanide crystals, and seal it with paraffin. If this book “creates more puzzles than it solves,” as it does for Jane Alpert, those questions are not about how to make a pipe bomb: the trick here was to pack enough gunpowder into the pipe for a big bang and still leave sufficient oxygen for ignition, a problem, as Patricia Hearst saw it, of “devising the proper proportions of gunpowder, length of pipe and toaster wire, minus Teko’s precious toilet paper.” (“Teko,” or Bill Harris, insisted on packing his bombs with toilet paper, and when one of them failed to explode under a police car in the Mission District, reacted with “one of his worst temper tantrums.” Many reporters have since found Bill and Emily Harris the appealing defendants that Patricia Hearst never was, but Every Secret Thing presents a persuasive case for their being, as the author puts it, not only “unattractive” but, her most damaging adjective, “incompetent.”)
As notes from the underground go, Patricia Hearst’s are eccentric in detail. She tells us that Bill Harris’s favorite television program was S. W. A. T. (one could, he said, “learn a lot about the pig’s tactics by watching these programs”), that Donald DeFreeze, or “Cinque,” drank plum wine from half-gallon jugs and listened to the radio for allusions to the revolution in song lyrics; and that Nancy Ling Perry, who was usually cast by the press in the rather glamorous role of “former cheerleader and Goldwater Girl,” was 4’11”, and affected a black accent. Emily, Harris trained herself to “live with deprivation” by chewing only half sticks of gum. Bill Harris bought a yarmulke, under the impression that this was the way, during the sojourn in the Catskills after the Los Angeles shoot-out, to visit Grossinger’s unnoticed.
Life with these people had the distorted logic of dreams, and Patricia Hearst seems to have accepted it with the wary acquiescence of the dreamer. Any face could turn against her. Any move could prove lethal. “My sisters and I had been brought up to believe that we were responsible for what we did and could not blame our transgressions on something being wrong inside our heads. I had joined the SLA because if I didn’t they would have killed me. And I remained with them because I truly believed that the FBI would kill me if they could, and if not, the SLA would.” She had, as she put it, crossed over. She would, as she put it, make the best of it, and not “reach back to family or friends.”
This is the point on which most people founder, doubt her, find her least explicable, and it is also the point at which she is most specifically the child of a certain culture. Here is the single personal note in an emigrant diary kept by a relative of mine, William Kilgore, the journal on an overland crossing to Sacramento in 1850: “This is one of the trying mornings for me, as I now have to leave my family, or back out. Suffice it to say, we started.” Suffice it to say. Never examine your feelings. Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can. We need a goddamn South American revolutionary mixed up in this thing like a hole in the head. This was a California girl, and she was raised on a history that placed not much emphasis on why.
She was never an idealist, and this pleased no one. She was tainted by survival. She came back from the other side with a story no one wanted to hear, a dispiriting account of a situation in which delusion and incompetence were pitted against delusion and incompetence of another kind, and in the febrile rhythms of San Francisco in the mid-Seventies it seemed a story devoid of high notes. The week her trial ended in 1976, The San Francisco Bay Guardian published an interview in which members of a collective called New Dawn expressed regret at her defection. “It’s a question of your self-respect or your ass,” one of them said. “If you choose your ass, you live with nothing.” This idea that the SLA represented an idea worth defending (any idea being better than none) was common enough at the time, although most people granted that the idea had gone awry. By March of 1977 another writer in the Bay Guardian was making a distinction between the “unbridled adventurism” of the SLA and the “discipline and skill” of the New World Liberation Front, whose “fifty-odd bombings without a casualty” made them a “definitely preferable alternative” to the SLA.
As it happens I kept this issue of the Bay Guardian (which is not, by the way, a political paper, but one that provides a fair guide to local tofu cookery and the mood of the community), March 31, 1977, and when I got it out to look at the piece on the SLA I noticed for the first time another piece: a long and favorable report on a San Francisco minister who tended to “confront people and challenge their basic assumptions…as if he can’t let the evil of the world pass him by, a characteristic he shares with other moral leaders.” The minister, who was compared at one point to Cesar Chavez, was responsible, according to the writer, for a “mind-boggling” range of social service programs—food distribution, legal aid, drug rehabilitation, nursing homes, free Pap smears—as well as for a “27,000-acre agricultural station.” This agricultural station was in Guyana, and the minister of course was the Reverend Jim Jones, who eventually chose self-respect over his own and nine hundred other asses. This was another local opera, and one never spoiled by a protagonist who insisted on telling it her way.
March 18, 1982
From Bernard Maybeck, by Kenneth Cardwell (Peregrine Smith, 1977). ↩
From My Search for Patty Hearst, by Steven Weed, with Scott Anton (Crown; Warner Books, 1976). ↩
From Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party, by George R. Stewart (Houghton-Mifflin, revised edition, 1960). ↩
The statements of Lifton and West are in The Trial of Patty Hearst (transcript), by Kenneth J. Reeves (Great Fidelity Press, San Francisco, 1976). ↩