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On Patty Hearst’s kidnapping

Some friends and I of a certain age have long been fascinated with the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst , granddaughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Patty, who was 19 when she was kidnapped by a radical group calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, was with her captors for a year and a half. At some point, you see, Patty stopped being a kidnapped person and started being a full-fledge member of the SLA.

If you grew up in the 1970s, you saw pics of Patty donning a revolutionary-style beret and carrying an uzi as often as you saw photos of HR Puffnstuf.


Between February 1974 and March 1976. Patty was on the cover of Newsweek no less than seven times.

Over at The Atlantic, writer Caitlin Flanagan has written a provocative piece about the kidnapping and why she thinks it resonated so powerfully with America.

Patty’s case was fascinating for a lot of reasons, none more so than the fact that she wasn’t “rescued” until after she was caught on surveillance tape aiding her captors in the robbing of a San Francisco bank.

Had this proper, rich girl really been brainwashed by these brutes?

The SLA’s agenda was muddled but this much was clear: They didn’t like classism or racism. In fact, the group did not demand money from the Hearsts, they demanded the family distribute $70 worth of food to every needy person in California — an operation that would cost an $400 million. Sounds like Robin Hood, right? Except the SLA were also violent: the year before the group murdered a popular Oakland school official.

To this day there is speculation that Patty, who changed her name to Tania while cavorting with the SLA, wasn’t brain-washed as much as she was caught up in the excitement and drama of her captors’ mission. Maybe taking off the pearls and picking up an automatic weapon was thrilling for the young socialite?

Others think she was doing whatever she could to save her life. Patty, who was engaged to be married before the kidnapping, had been raped several times by male SLA members. She was kept in a closet. Over time, she learned that by showing empathy to her captor’s cause, the assaults would stop. The more agreeable she was, the more privileges she got. Soon Patty was able to use the toilet and brush her teeth.

Eventually, Patty fell in love with one of her captors, who had given her a necklace with a small monkey carved out of leather to symbolize their love. He was later killed when police in Los Angeles bombed the house where he and other SLA members were hiding. Patty and several others weren’t in the house. They remained at large for nearly another year until they were caught and sent to jail. (Click photo to enlarge):

If Patty was faking the brainwashing, she didn’t stop once she was in custody. When filling out papers in prison, Patty listed her occupation as “Urban Guerilla.”

Flanagan thinks the case fascinated – and scared the hell out of – millions of Americans because the 1970s were such strange time for families with teen-aged girls. She writes of scores of young women – including her older sister – who were “disappearing,” whether they were packing knapsacks and splitting for San Francisco – in her sister’s case, Europe – or they were just changing: dressing weird, bringing home unsavory boyfriends, bucking college and doing drugs.

America wanted to know why Patty betrayed her family because, Flanagan argues, she was a metaphor for all the daughters they didn’t know anymore. In the end, when Patty was on trial, the jury watched for a sign that she was still the same nice Hearst girl and not this terrible Tania. They didn’t get it. Instead they learned that inside Patty’s purse at the time of her arrest, was the monkey necklace from her dead SLA boyfriend, and their hearts fell.

Patty Hearst spent two years in prison. She was released in 1979 after her sentence was commuted by president Jimmy Carter. In 2001, on the final day of his presidency, Bill Clinton granted Patty a full pardon.

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3 thoughts on “On Patty Hearst’s kidnapping

  1. All the best cult-related crimes took place in the late 60s / early 70s. Our cults these days are just boring in comparison.

  2. This brought back memories of literally bumping into Patty Hearst right after her marriage to Bernard Shaw in April 1979. I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone and had sailed with a group of high school friends to the island of Contadora (off the Pacific coast of Panama) for Easter break. We used to go ashore to hit the casino and bar. My friend Steve and I were walking down a path and saw a very tiny woman and a very large, imposing man walking toward us. It wasn’t until we stepped aside to let them pass that Steve and I realized why she looked so familiar…it was Patty Hearst! We didn’t find out until later that they were celebrating their honeymoon there. At that time, I recall everyone being fascinated with the whole SLA story. And, here we were only a couple of months after she’d been released from prison. I remember feeling a little creeped out…she looked just like her pictures…waiflike, with somewhat hollow, sunken-looking eyes and she didn’t crack a smile or seem to have any emotion really. Her husband just stared at us as if to dare us to do something. We were playing it cool but he must have seen the recognition in our eyes. Only later did we learn he had been a bodyguard. I smiled and nodded at them but I distinctly remember getting goosebumps because she seemed “creepy” (for lack of a better word). My friend Steve was a laughriot a minute and after we passed them, he looked at me and bet me $20 to walk up to her and call her Tania. Uh, yeah right, her husband was really big and I was only 16…I declined. We’d gotten used to seeing the deposed Shah of Iran (who had been granted sanctuary on the island) driving his jeep around all the time. There was nothing like the 70’s for fascinating cult/capture/exile stories and a beautiful tropical resort island to bring them all together! It would be a good idea for a “Survivor” season if i hadn’t already happpened in real life. Who knew an island off the coast of Panama would be an epicenter for two of the era’s most fascinating domestic and international stories. And, all we cared about on that island was thst the casino and bar didn’t care about your age and the drinks were cheap. Ah, the carefree days of youth! Did I mention another friend’s dad (with the US Army stationed in Panama) was part of the team that investigated the Jim Jones site in Guyana? Yep, the good ole’ 70’s indeed!

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