Ordinary heiress, extraordinary life: Patty's got a gun

Jill Radford is impressed by a study of the kidnap that gripped 1970s America - and the ensuing trial

November 13, 2008

I enjoyed this "retrospective essay" on the remarkable story of Patty Hearst, the American heiress kidnapped in 1974 by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

Its early chapters retell the story of how this "ordinary" 18-year-old heiress, living a suburban life in Berkeley with her fiance Stephen Weed, made headlines in the US, first when she was kidnapped, and again when she was caught on camera - brandishing a gun in a bank raid. William Graebner's narrative moves to Patty's arrest 18 months later and her trial in 1976. The story is itself fascinating, and several times I turned to its many endnotes for further insight; it is certainly detailed and well researched.

But Graebner's essay offers far more than narrative. It contextualises a story that "shocked the nation" in its historical context, midway between the permissive radicalism of the 1960s and a backlash that anticipated the new conservatism of the Reagan era. Caught between the discourses of modernism and the emergent postmodern, Patricia Hearst was judged by the courts, the press and a fragmented and traumatised American public.

The later chapters apply discourse analysis to psychological, criminological and political theory. Graebner draws on cultural symbols from Gloria Gaynor's 1979 hit I Will Survive to Ira Levin's 1972 novel (and subsequent film) The Stepford Wives to examine both the impact of the 1960s legacy of alternative politics, drugs, counterculture, black power, feminism and the new Left, and the emergent right-wing conservatism that followed it, characterised by assertive family values, victim blame and faith in the heroic.

Graebner argues that the trial of Patty Hearst was one of those "great public trials and media spectacles" that, once every half-century or so, captured the American imagination because "they placed in relief the central conflicts, tensions, and anxieties of the age, peeling the cultural onion to reveal layer upon layer of meaning".

As security cameras recorded Patty's actions, the trial turned on not whether, but why, she did it. The consequent battle of the experts focused on the "fragile" self, raising the scary spectre that any ordinary American woman could be transformed, or transform herself, into an urban terrorist. In this way psychology itself was put on trial and, like Patty herself, was found wanting.

Defence arguments highlighted her experiences as victim, a captive of the SLA, acting under duress. The duress arguments failed, but there was no dispute over the facts of her abduction. Patty spoke of being blindfolded, confined in a cupboard and told that as a "prisoner of war", death was the penalty for attempted escape.

She was subjected to rape and sexual assault and continuing attempts at coercive persuasion. Given the constrained choice of joining the SLA or death, Patty opted for staying alive, co-operating with her captors and never attempting escape.

Graebner illustrates how the social, political and cultural context shaped the verdict. Had Patty's trial occurred a few years earlier, the courts, he suggests, would have been receptive to arguments that she had been "converted under duress or otherwise deprived of free will" and not responsible for her actions. However, by the mid-1970s, the new Right was irritated by victim arguments, whether victims of sexual violence, racism, poverty or conflict, including returning Vietnam veterans who had been prisoners of war. They rejected victimhood, favouring the ideal of "survivor as hero", characterised by agency, personal responsibility and resistance. Patty, Graebner argues, was no hero in this postmodern discourse, convicted because she "chose" survival over heroism.

Graebner combines erudition and scholarship with a sense of humour, not least in relation to a statement by a prosecution expert that all that remained of Patty's SLA-generated concerns about social issues was her commitment to revolutionary feminism. Graebner's comment is that the expert "had all but said that Patty was in the ... bank because Stephen Weed wouldn't do the dishes".

Patty's Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America

By William Graebner
University of Chicago Press
212pp
£10.50
ISBN 9780226305226
Published 29 October 2008

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