American Heiress, Camilla Hall, CNN, feminism, Jeffrey Toobin, patty hearst, Symbionese Liberation Army, women writers
The SLA story has been a story told primarily through men. The definitive book about the SLA, Voices of Guns, was written by Vin McLellan and Paul Avery. Les Payne and Tim Findley wrote a decent account, The Life and Death of the SLA. And of course, most recently, Jeffrey Toobin has resurrected the story, focusing squarely on Patty Hearst.
A few women hopped on the SLA bandwagon shortly after its demise — or in the case of Marilyn Baker, while the case was still unfolding in 1974. But Baker’s book, Exclusive! and Anyone’s Daughter by Shana Alexander tilt toward the sensational and solipsistic. But we do have Hearst’s own account, Every Secret Thing, in 1982.
The SLA always had about equal representation of women and men. During the time Hearst was with the group, there were actually only three men in addition to the six women.
It just struck me while listening to a CNN podcast discussion between Brian Stelter and Jeffrey Toobin that men talking about the SLA feels judgmental. I was especially bothered when they interview Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage. He was completely dismissive of the SLA, likening them to the island of misfit toys, and there was a round of laughter. I realize the SLA committed harmful crimes, but six of them died a horrific death at the hands of L.A. police. No matter what you think of the SLA, anyone’s death should be thought about in somber terms, not with laughter.
So far the CNN documentary on the Hearst drama uses primary sources of Toobin, Steven Weed (Hearst’s fiancé at the time of the kidnapping), and Bill Harris (a member of the SLA). Burrough is interviewed as well. A couple of women are represented — one a San Francisco Examiner reporter in 1974, and the other a professor commenting on the group’s mindset.
As a female writing about a female member of the SLA (Camilla Hall), I wanted to offer a fuller, complete snapshot of her life from beginning to end. Not as a way to excuse her crimes, but as a way to try to understand why she made the decisions she did. The problem I have with most of the information presented about SLA members is that they seem frozen in time. Who were they before they were domestic terrorists?
I believe that being a woman has helped me write about Camilla. She was a woman concerned that women’s collective voices were heard. She was a daughter of loving parents. She had a complicated relationship with her sister, marked by youthful petty jealousies yet lots of love, until the sister died when Camilla was 17. Camilla devoted herself for a time to working with teenage, unwed mothers as a county welfare officer. As a lesbian, she found her most fulfilling relationships with other women.
Toobin is a successful author with a lot of power, which means his version of the SLA story is the one that is heard most loudly right now. I’m glad there’s renewed interest in the Hearst story because it’s obviously captivating and mysterious. But as with any story presented, it’s not going to be complete and we should be looking for additional voices to add to the picture. Might some of those voices be women’s voices? It would be nice. Anyone who reads Toobin’s book or watches the CNN series should start by reading Hearst’s story in her own words.
Mark B. said:
Good points, Rachael. I’m currently reading Toobin’s book. I never did read Hearst’s. You’re right. I should get that perspective also–obviously. I wonder if were she to write it today, would it be the same book? Some stories, such as the alleged rapes of Patty Hearst by some of the men in the the SLA, or the exact nature of the relationship between Hearst and Willie Wolfe, are diametrically opposite depending on who is telling them–and when. Whom to believe? And how much can Bill Harris, as seen in the recent CNN documentary, be trusted to tell the truth? He seems like a total self-promoter. And then there is Camilla. Was she trying to escape, to give herself up?
I will look forward to your book on Camilla.
Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree — there are a lot of questions that have no answers, including the ones about Camilla. I think we’ll never know. Thanks for your interest…much appreciated!