I have no doubt that my dad would approve of my memoir. He was the type of guy who enjoyed meeting people. I like to think he had such a big personality that he’s not going to let death stop him from meeting new people, which he can continue to do through my book. I think he’d be thrilled to know his name will be in print.
But as I work on my next project, I face a different scenario. I have reams of documents on Camilla Hall, a member of the 1970s Symbionese Liberation Army. I wrote about Camilla for my master’s thesis in history. Camilla’s story drew me in. She was a St. Peter native, a southern Minnesota girl just like me. She was a pastor’s daughter and strong believer in social justice. In many ways, she was an outsider, and I feel that way at times, too. Her story is a compelling one, filled with narrative tension, intriguing characters and lingering mysteries.
Camilla died in a shoot-out with Los Angeles police on May 17, 1974, along with five other SLA members. Patty Hearst and two other original SLA members not involved in the shoot-out continued a fugitive lifestyle for more than a year.
Camilla had three siblings—all of whom preceded her in death. Her parents long outlived their children, but they are now dead, too. Relatives who are still alive are distant. Camilla remains the SLA’s least-known member. In effect, I am the keeper of her story, one of few people who know her life intimately.
I’ve been sitting on this story for about eight years. After I finished my thesis, I continued to do more research, including spending two weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area—where the SLA formed—thanks to a Jerome Travel and Study grant in 2008. My full intent throughout this time is to write a narrative nonfiction book about Camilla, modeled on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
But whereas I feel so certain about my dad’s wishes, I remain unclear about what Camilla wants. She’s not here to tell her story. But does she want her story told? Who I am to decide that the world should know about her? What if she doesn’t want to be known? What if she wants to recede into the shadows of history? But on the other hand, maybe she wants her story out in the open. It just doesn’t feel right to make that decision on my own.
How do other writers choose to write about the dead? I’m not talking about famous dead (if you were famous in life, then you probably don’t mind that people still know your name and your story). I’m talking about someone rather obscure who has no family or friends left to express their wishes. Am I putting too much thought into this? It just seems really important to me to try to intuit what Camilla would want before moving forward.
Robert Brian Crim said:
Have you talked to Greg Lang? He knew her at Hennepin Cty. Welfare.
I suspect Hall and Angela Atwood shared similar paths to the SLA. After Atwood quit the Great Electric Underground over the style of the new waitress uniforms, she is reported to have become so poor that she was forced to choose between feeding her cats and feeding herself. So, she tied “letters of introduction” around the cats’ necks and turned them loose on the streets. Steven Weed’s book has an interesting extract from Angela’s journal, which he got from Tim Findley. Both Hall and Atwood had romantic ties to the SLA — Hall via Mizmoon, Atwood via Joe Remiro and, occasionally, Russell Little.
Camilla, I understand, had a similar experience. She worked for the Oakland parks but was let go when (as I recall) some grant ran out. She finally disappeared underground c. 20-22 February 1974 (though her ties to the SLA date from two months earlier), surfaced in the Hibernia robbery (where she physically escorted Patricia Hearst into the bank), and next was seen during the firefight in L.A. She tried to follow Nancy Ling Perry from one of the crawl spaces beneath the house (SoCal houses don’t have basements but are set on slabs). Ling emerged and started shooting at the cops, was cut down. Hall was a big girl, got caught in the size of the opening. Some say she too was firing a pistol at the police and, in any event, a sniper blew the back of her head off. Grisly but mercifully quick. Atwood was with Hall’s group, died of ashes burns. On autopsy, her body weighed 68 pounds.
Interested in her early life but fair warning: I have my own manuscript with quite a bit on her already. Was aware she had spent time in SoCal (per FBI records). Email if you wish to talk.
Rachael, Hi, I knew Camilla at Berkeley, I lived in a sublet apt on Channing Way. At that time (1973) the neighborhood was popular with the LGBT students, the woman I sublet the apt from was a friend of Camilla and her some of her SLA pals. Camilla and her (future SLA) friends were being advised by the charismatic Berkeley professor Colston Westbrook. I was a VN-Vet Berkeley student, Camilla got a lot of bad advice from Thero Wheeler, he didn’t mix well with my friends.
Interesting – what you’re doing online, do you know any members of Camilla’s family?
I later became a U.S. Federal Officer, a colleague/friend was at the shootout, at the time he was a young FBI Agent (we met much later in my career).
Write me if you like, please don’t give out my contact info – not interested in crime aficionados, etc.
Hi Jack, yes I’d like to chat. You can email me rhanel (at) hickorytech (dot) net.
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David Maderich said:
Did you ever write a book on Camilla? I, too, was fasinated by her as a young child in Minnesota in 1974.
David, I’m still working on it!
Karen F. Dunn said:
Rachel, I for one would very much support your giving voice and form to Camilla Hall’s story. For whatever reason, I immediately felt a strong connection to her as of the day I saw the Los Angeles shootout reported on May 17, 1974. i was 13. I don’t know what Camilla would want, but from reading your post I have trust that you would be doing her memory, and her family’s memory, a great service. Thank you. I hope you decide to continue your work on telling her story.
Thank you so much, Karen. I would like to hear more about what you just wrote. So few people remember Camilla and I’m intrigued that you were struck by her story on the day she died. Feel free to email me: rhanel (at) hickorytech (dot) net.