1970s, book reviews, Camilla Hall, Jeffrey Toobin, nonfiction, patty hearst, SLA, Symbionese Liberation Army
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst was not what I expected. Since the author, Jeffrey Toobin, is a lawyer who did a great job examining the O.J. Simpson trial in The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, I thought we’d get new perspective on the Hearst trial now that 40 years have passed. But instead, most of the book is a general overview of the SLA, and similar books already exist.
The problem with a general overview is exactly that—generalizations. Hearst, no surprise, is the one SLA character portrayed most fully. But the others, especially the eight others who were part of the Hearst kidnapping, are treated as rote archetypes. Immediately, on page 15, we’re given the stereotypes we’ll be dealing with for the next 300 pages: the radical black man, the crazed Vietnam vet, the militant lesbian, the scary vixen, the empty-headed waitress, the idealistic young boy. Toobin rarely strays from those stereotypes throughout the book.
Since many of those players are dead—six were killed in a shoot-out with Los Angeles police in May 1974—they cannot speak for themselves. The quick-hit stereotypes assigned to them in the immediate aftermath of their deaths are the stereotypes that persist.
It troubles me that Toobin chose not to look beyond the tropes repeated so often over the years that the SLA players are just that one thing and nothing else. They’ve been stripped of their humanity and reduced to caricature as crazy radicals. I’ve been researching one SLA member—Camilla Hall—for 15 years and have discovered that she’s so much more than how Toobin chooses to describe her: “otherworldly poet,” “arty lesbian,” “zaftig,” “ungainly,” “erstwhile lover,” and “lovelorn poet.” I’ve found that she was a loving daughter, a loyal friend, a talented artist, a nurturing environmentalist, a caring social worker, and physically fit. She also bore a tremendous amount of grief, having watched her three siblings precede her in death. Readers of American Heiress should bear in mind that all of the SLA members were much more than one thing and should not readily accept the stereotypes given to us.
I am also troubled by the fact that Toobin bought legal and investigative documents from Bill Harris, an SLA member who was part of the Hearst kidnapping, which I think unduly influenced how the story is told. Only Bill and his wife, Emily, were the original SLA members to survive the L.A. shootout. Toobin calls Bill’s collection the “most important resource” for the book. But as a result, I sense that Toobin is swayed by Bill’s account of events. I wrote a note to myself around page 100: “I’m getting tired of Bill’s sympathetic portrayal.” Bill comes off as being the sole voice of reason throughout the SLA saga. Toobin makes a point to tell us that Bill did not agree with the decisions that Donald DeFreeze, the group’s de facto leader, was making. According to the book, Bill was the only SLA member who thought the Hearst kidnapping was a bad idea. He didn’t want anything to do with Hearst in the weeks after the kidnapping. And he was the only member who thought they needed an “exit strategy” after the Hearst kidnapping that didn’t involve a fiery battle with police. The following statement is representative of Bill’s portrayal throughout the book: “Harris, characteristically, thought DeFreeze’s idea was madness, though he did comply with the order to tag along.” If he thought the ideas were so crazy, why didn’t he speak up? Why didn’t he get out? Instead, Bill and Emily were with the SLA until its demise in September 1975. It’s also interesting that Bill (and Emily, too) doesn’t get assigned an archetype like the dead SLA members. Based on my research, “crazed Vietnam vet” could have also described Bill.
The writing feels rushed and clichés abound. Not only are towns “sleepy,” but so are neighborhoods and streets. Other towns are “bucolic.” Concord, California, is a “world away” from the more radical Berkeley. The book is long on facts that you can find anywhere else. I still consider The Voices of Gun by Vin McLellan and Paul Avery the definitive account of the SLA. American Heiress is short on analysis and the why? of things.
The most interesting part of the book is Part 5, after Hearst’s arrest. Here readers get a bit more insight into Hearst and her case than before was available, namely through letters written by Hearst that Toobin obtained. The most interesting part of this case, to me, is that Hearst received not one, but two presidential pardons. This is proof what money and fame can get you. As Toobin points out, “…prisons teem with convicts who were also led astray and who committed lesser crimes than Patricia.”
Clearly I’m a bit biased—there are very few of us who could be considered experts in SLA history, so I read the book with a more critical lens than most would. If you’re looking for an overview of the SLA, this book works (though I’d still first recommend The Voices of Guns). But try to keep in mind that the SLA cast of characters were not born bad people—what happened in their lives to cause them to make that turn toward violence? That’s an important question to consider, one that I’m most interested in exploring when writing about Camilla’s life.
More posts about Camilla and the SLA:
From the archives: The ethics of writing about those who have died
40 years ago today: Patty Hearst kidnapped