I’m eagerly awaiting this CNN docu-series on Patty Hearst that begins tonight. I’ve been studying and researching the SLA for nearly 20 years — first as a master’s degree student in history, and more recently as a Ph.D. student in creative writing.
My focus is Camilla Hall, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army born in St. Peter, Minnesota. She was a member of the SLA during the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst and one of the six SLA members to die in the May 17, 1974, shootout with Los Angeles police.
I’m writing a narrative biography of Camilla — draft one is completed, and I’m currently revising it into draft two. My main argument, which appears in my introduction, is that the SLA is usually only associated with Hearst. Can most people name any other members? It saddens me that the others are forgotten, their names not even known.
My concern with CNN’s docu-series is that it will focus only on Hearst. That’s not to say her story isn’t incredible and dramatic — it certainly is. But to never mention or gloss over the others, especially those who died, is a major disservice to their memories. Were Camilla and the others making good choices? In hindsight, no. But these were not evil people. Camilla wasn’t a monster. It benefits us to understand her reasons for undertaking violence. Why did she feel she was pushed to her limits? Why did she feel that wielding a gun was the only answer? Decisions of hers and others involved are incredibly nuanced and worth examining.
I watched the 15-minute extended trailer and here are some of my observations:
* I’m pretty sure this is the first time that Bill Harris has ever appeared on camera to talk about his involvement in the SLA. This is a major “get” for the producers. My own attempts to contact him were futile.
* I also have never seen Steven Weed speak about this period of his life on camera in recent years. Again, this is a major coup for the producers.
* A docu-series is a great vehicle to showcase the audio communiques the SLA was known for. You can easily find transcripts, but it’s great to hear the communiques as they were meant to be heard.
* Let us remember this is a dramatic re-enactment. The SLA’s digs look pretty nice here. In reality they lived in increasingly cramped and squalid quarters during the three months they had Patty before the May 1974 shootout. They never left — can you imagine nine people sharing a small living space and one bathroom during that time? Accounts also suggest that they all shared one toothbrush.
* I have seen only the trailer so far, but I was not impressed with the May 17, 1974, shootout scene. It’s kept at such a distance. It’s not just a “dramatic” moment — six people died that day. The fact that Patty wasn’t in the house is not the only salient point. Those six died horrible deaths of burns and smoke inhalation, Camilla among them. These were all people with families, families who loved them and cared about them and were incredibly anxious because they did not know what was going on. For example, Camilla left behind two parents who were beside themselves with grief and concern over their only living child (their three other children died before Camilla — an incredibly tragic and sad family story).
I will be blogging my reaction to each episode of the docu-series. I will admit I am a little sad to not be involved. A producer contacted me last April after learning about my research on Camilla. We had a great phone conversation and there was talk of bringing me down to Austin (where the production company is located) to appear on camera. But nothing ever materialized, which confirmed my suspicions that the focus would again be on Patty and the others will have only mere mentions. I’m guessing these will be stereotypical portrayals (i.e. Camilla as the “militant lesbian.”).
If you search for the SLA on my blog, you can find other posts I’ve written over the years on this topic.