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article imageReview: 'American Heiress' book about Patty Hearst is riveting reading Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jan 4, 2017 in World
Staff Writer at The New Yorker, Jeffery Toobin has released a book about the bizarre kidnapping and then trial of publishing empire heir Patricia Hearst in his new 2016 book, "American Heiress."
What caught this reporter's attention is the fact that abduction became a strange twist and turn of events that has taken 40 years to discern, thanks to the determination of Toobin and his investigative-journalist skills. Toobin noted that no one has really investigated fully all the details surrounding the kidnapping and subsequent trial and turn of events that shocked the nation.
Like Toobin, this reporter was only 11 years old when radical militant counter-cultural operatives calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army took Hearst from her apartment. At the time in February of 1974, she was 19-years-old, sharing the apartment with her then boyfriend-fiance; both students at the University of California at Berkeley. The events that unfolded over the coming months changed the profile and protocol of kidnappings in America, as Hearst became a member of the SLA.
While Toobin asks the question, did she really join the SLA? Or, was Patricia Hearst suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? The book delves into all the complexity. The Stockholm Syndrome is a condition where the abducted identifies with the captors. Simply reading the prologue and opening chapter where Toobin describes the abduction with its ugliness and violence, it is not that far-fetched to see why Hearst may have agreed to go along with her captors as a way to save not only her life, but to ensure the safety of her then boyfriend, Steven Weed. After all, she was a Hearst, one of the most prominent families in the nation and no doubt her abductors wanted to use that to their advantage.
Still, that term "Stockholm Syndrome" had not been used before. And, while the initial case seemed similar to other high-profile kidnapping cases like the "Lindbergh Baby," in the past, this situation took twists and turns no one could have speculated.
The New York Times in its review of the book back in August of 2016, praised Toobin for his investigative work. "The book’s real power comes from Toobin’s ability to convincingly and economically evoke a broad range of people."
And, it is this extensive if not broad range of people and events leading up to the kidnapping that is the most riveting. One thing that pulled this reporter to read Toobin's book is the fact that the bank robbery of the Hibernia Bank by the SLA in which Hearst participated in happened in my neighborhood. What was even more shocking was Toobin's investigative details of the SLA members themselves.
For those not acquainted with the Sunset District where the robbery took place, let me explain. Over 40 years ago, the Sunset District was and in some ways remains a middle-class/working class neighborhood. The City then, for its liberal reputation had many conservative enclaves; especially "out in the Avenues" as locals refer to the area. The Sunset was respectable, but low-key, down-to-earth, where ordinary-everyday people lived with their families.
As a kid I was always baffled as to why some weird militant group would want to attack/rob such an ordinary place. The residents of the Sunset were basic ordinary people. If they wanted to send a message, why not rob a bank near Hillsborough in some upscale place along the SF Peninsula where the Hearst family lived?
The Hibernia Bank, while originally a bank liked to Irish immigrants, was basically a people's bank, like Wells Fargo or Bank of America. Why rob the people if this militant group was rising up to speak out for the people? One of the SLA's first demands in the first weeks of the abduction was that the Hearst family feed the poor.
Well, Tobin provided an answer for me as he presented a sketch-profile of each of the SLA members and the backstory that lead to the formation of such a strange group.
Among this strange group of of so-called 'revolutionaries' was Joe Remiro. He had been born and raised in The Sunset District; Bingo! There within Toobin's outline-description was the connection and that's all I needed to know to understand why. Some of Toobin's findings sent a chill down my spine. I say this because for a native-local like me, it is "too close to home" as they saying goes.
Remiro and some of the other SLA members were just middle class people. Remiro was not much older than my older brothers and he could have attended St. Anne's (my grandma's parish) as a kid growing up. Toobin notes that he went to Catholic school and attended City College of SF. So the question is "what happened to him to turn out this way?"
Well, according to Toobin's research, basically Remiro and the rest of them were impacted by the 1960s — that decade of radically 'mind-altering' and upsetting change, that continued into the 1970s. Only, Toobin refers to the 1970s as a time when America was suffering from a nervous breakdown.
I would agree, only for the early part of the '70s because culturally if I remember correctly, the rest of the decade was bland. My childhood recollections and opinions aside, this SLA group for all its peculiarities was dangerous. And, Remiro with his experience from the Vietnam War behind him was perhaps the most influential in terms of use of military-like force to make a point.
In his commentary for the Sewall Academic Program of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Chris H. Lewis, PhD noted. "We can only understand the 1970s as a decade of disillusion, cynicism, bitterness, and anger by examining it in the context of the aftermath of the Vietnam War. As well as Watergate and the Cold War," Lewis added.
"The American people were increasingly disillusioned with the government and their democratic institutions in the 1970s. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal damaged Americans' faith in their government and their leaders."
Lewis' treatise seems to coincide with much of the investigative research Toobin did for his book. Looking back at those very critical times of the early 1970's it is clear to see much of the nation was upset by the turmoil the war in Vietnam had caused.
"Burdened with this political disillusionment," Lewis noted, "American society in the 1970s was also under siege by economic decline and declining standards of living. For many Americans, the 1970s became a decade of transition--marked by confusion, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling that America had lost its direction, as if the very future of the 'American experiment' and the 'American Dream' might be in question."
As I continued reading Toobin's detail about Remiro and the others, I realized that like so much in life as we get older we recognize things are not all what they seem. On the surface, Remiro may have started out in life with basic wholesome aspirations, attending Catholic school and living a middle class life in the ordinary and sturdy Sunset District. But as Toobin notes, that seemingly ordinary life in The Sunset District was not able to save Remiro from the influence of a world in turmoil, especially during his tour of duty in Vietnam. As cited by Wikipedia Remiro was part of the 101 Airborne Division. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam. And, Remiro "participated in search and destroy missions in Vietnam and became addicted to drugs while there."
Perhaps the most upsetting and in some ways very sad profile is that of the SLA's official leader known as 'Cinque Mtume — a name he took over his birth name of Donald DeFreeze. Even the NY Times review notes that Toobin's research points to a very unbalanced and literally broken man.
Originally from Ohio, DeFreeze's father had broken both his arms on different occasions as a way to punish DeFreeze as a child. He then ran away at age 14 to Buffalo, NY, which even though he had found shelter with a local minister there, fell into a bad crowd and was pulled into a life of petty crime.
This fact alone by itself, speaks volumes, especially of the extreme violence befalling to him by an abusive father. Needless to say, even as DeFreeze moved again, married and had children, no convention or effort at rehabilitation could sustain him. He was an altered and disturbed person who became entangled in the prison system before he made his way westward to California.
What Toobin uncovers in "American Heiress" is to me, something very similar in madness to the revelations behind the 'Manson Family' murder spree. DeFreeze was delusional and very paranoid. Like Manson, he too envision himself as a 'messiah-like' leader. For some strange reason he sets out to assassinate then Oakland Unified School District superintendent, Marcus Foster.
Like Manson, DeFreeze gets the help of his SLA members to carry out the dastardly deed; yet unlike Manson, DeFreeze does the killing himself in the most brutal of ways — up-close and without flinching. Strangely, the kind clergyman who took DeFreeze in when he ran away to Buffalo was also named Foster. And as Toobin notes the level of DeFreeze's unbalanced reasoning knew no boundaries.
The then superintendent of Oakland Schools — Marcus Foster had been a champion for the schools. He wanted to help the African-American community as he too came from a struggling urban neighborhood. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Foster's way out was through education and this was something he wanted very much to safeguard and improve for the children of the Oakland schools as he took on the job of Superintendent for the school district.
DeFreeze became outraged when he learned that Foster implemented a student ID and security structure as a way to weed out drug-dealers from school campuses. Why did DeFreeze became unhinged? Toobin reports that his findings show, DeFreeze viewed the approach as an offense. DeFreeze had been a supporter of the 'Prison reform movement' and some how saw this as an abuse of power. Toobin writes that DeFreeze was extremely obsessed with tracking down Foster and killing him — a man he had never even met.
Toobin's details provide a 20/20 clear-hindsight view window into the past. A window which shows how inter-connected and enmeshed the various events and people where who kidnapped Hearst. How The SLA got to the UC Berkeley campus and formed the idea to kidnap Hearst is even more strange, sad and shocking.
No, I will not explain it. You have to read the book. Yet, I agree with the NY Times review, Toobin does have a command of our judicial system in criminal cases. The NY Times cites. "Toobin uses his knowledge of the justice system and his examination of the evidence to pierce the veil of spectacle and make sense of many contradictory elements." This ability is what makes Toobin an outstanding journalist. And, again he is one who eloquently asks, was Patricia Hearst really acting out of fear and extreme duress or at some point during her entire ordeal did she just act out of self-interest? Some critics of the case and subsequent trial believe that her status as a Hearst allowed her that privilege.
Ironically, as I pointed out to Toobin, the Hibernia Bank branch in The Sunset District where the bank robbery took place, decades later in the 1990's became a video store. And perhaps that irony of circumstance took a surreal twist of events. Hearst was for a short time, an actress in several of director John Waters' films. Some of those movies, like "Cry Baby" were available for rent at the then Hollywood Video store on the corner of Noriega Street and 22nd Avenue in what had been the Hibernia Bank of that notorious robbery of 1974.
A well-written, well-researched book, "American Heiress - The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst" is a riveting and insightful read. It provides insight not only into the events of the kidnapping case and trial but a detailed view into the times of the 1970s. To learn more about the book and journalist-author Jeffery Toobin, visit his web site.
More about Jeffery Toobin, Patricia Hearst, Patty hearst, The 1970s, San Francisco
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