A short excerpt from my manuscript on Camilla Hall and the SLA

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Camilla head shot

The first photo I saw of Camilla Hall. 

I don’t often post works-in-progress here, but I do get a lot of questions regarding what I’m working on now. If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know that I’m writing a narrative nonfiction account of Camilla Hall, one of the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, that notorious 1970s revolutionary group most famous for kidnapping Patty Hearst.

I’ve worked on this a looooooong time. God-willing, I’ll have some time this summer to plug away. Here’s how it starts.

When I turned the newspaper page in 1999 and saw Camilla Hall’s photo for the first time, I stared at it for a good long while. I’ve been known to stare at photos of models and actresses, and when I was little I pored over my older sister’s high school yearbooks, captivated by the even teeth and feathered hair of her classmates. I was trying to divine what made them so beautiful, as if the secrets to beauty, popularity and success would pop up from the page if I looked hard enough. But in this photo, Camilla was not beautiful in the classical sense. She was a smiling, bespectacled blonde, her fine hair parted in the middle and falling into a neat bob at her shoulders. The date of the picture is unknown, but Camilla appeared to be in her mid-20s.

    She didn’t live to thirty.

            I stared at her photo not to divine beauty, but to try to understand her actions. In 1974, Camilla, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, died in a violent shootout with police. It was the end to the SLA’s few months on the run, months in which they had kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, robbed a bank, and before Camilla’s involvement, killed an Oakland school superintendent. All in the name of revolution.

            In the short cutline under Camilla’s photograph, I learned that she had grown up in a town just up the road from me. That small-town Minnesota could breed a female terrorist—and keep it a well-hidden secret—intrigued me. Here, in the black and white of the newspaper, was a mystery waiting to unfold.

* * *

I was conceived around the time of the Hearst kidnapping, and born five months after the shootout with Los Angeles Police Department SWAT teams that killed Camilla and five other SLA members. But the SLA had a way of sticking around, such that I grew up knowing its story.

In my rural Minnesota home, my family diligently watched the television news every night. Dad was a gravedigger and mowed cemeteries, and his work depended on the weather forecast. He used the weather report to plan his next day’s schedule. Before the meteorologist spoke, though, we had to sit through fifteen minutes of news. So I remember when President Jimmy Carter pardoned Hearst in 1979 and sprung her from jail, even though I was just five years old at the time.

By virtue of her place in one of America’s most famous media families, and by virtue of her famous kidnapping, Patty Hearst ushered in the era of instant celebrity. She was a media darling. Her words (“Mom, Dad, I’m OK”), images of her (especially the one of her holding a gun, posed in front of the SLA emblem), and her narrative (her rise, her fall from grace, her rise again), played amazingly well on TV, newspapers, and magazines. Patty was everywhere. After her pardon, she popped up again on news programs and talk shows in 1982 for the release of her book recounting her SLA days, Every Secret Thing. And every so often, tabloid shows like A Current Affair or Inside Edition featured the SLA story. But Patty was always the blinding sun, and all the other SLA members orbited in the shadows on the periphery. How easy to forget there were others, or to never even know in the first place.

You can read my other blog posts on Camilla and the SLA here and here and here.

Check out these books about the SLA if you want more information: The Voices of Guns by Vin McLellan and Paul Avery, and American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin.