American Heiress is an in-depth account of the 1974 abduction of media heiress Patricia Hearst focusing on the social, cultural and legal implications surrounding the crime as well as the bizarre and outrageous series of events that occurred in its aftermath.
Still riding high from the acclaim that the television adaptation of The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson generated, writer and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin turned his attention to yet another high profile legal drama that captured the zeitgeist of its era: the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. While this is hardly the first book to take a look at this incident, Toobin’s legal acumen and astute observations bring fresh insights. He also provides some sharp analysis that makes it worthwhile to revisit an event that is still seared into the public’s imagination after more than 40 years.
At its heart, the book strives to debunk many popular misconceptions that have surrounded the actors in this particular drama, and it reminds readers of the discontentment that was alive and well in the bay area following the failed ‘Summer of Love’ social experiment. Toobin doesn’t compound us with any revelations that might serve to augment the story as we know it, but he does provide perceptive portraits of the individual players. He lambasts individual SLA members and their gaudy but hollow ideology and he is justifiably critical of unsympathetic figures like Patricia’s fiancée, her mother, and her lawyer, the infamous F. Lee Bailey. Remarkably, Toobin is quite kind to Patricia’s father, Randolph Aperson Hearst, who was struggling with the specter of the mythic Hearst legacy and was honestly working towards the safe return of his daughter.
The centerpiece of this story is, of course, the enigma of young Patricia Hearst. For obvious reasons, Hearst declined to be involved with the book leaving Toobin to rely on existing evidence and the occasional educated conclusion to uncover the story behind the figure he justifiably dubbed ‘the Mona Lisa of the 1970s’. Toobin paints a vivid portrait of a young woman who was leading a life she wasn’t particularly happy with, and argues that this discontentment may have created a more amenable mindset when she was offered the prospect of leading the life of an underground revolutionary. He shows that she reveled in her dark notoriety and quickly embraced the pidgin Marxism espoused by the SLA, but she was eager to abandon it once the bloom was off the proverbial rose. To his credit, Toobin never forgets that Hearst was, in fact, the victim of a crime but he does not attempt to minimize her culpability in the handful of SLA offenses that ultimately landed her in prison. In the end, Toobin concludes that Hearst was a shrewd opportunist who navigated her way through a taxing series of events in order to survive and come out on top.