Review: The Radical Transformation of Patricia Hearst

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Patty Hearst, armed and impassive, as Tania of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the ill-defined radical group that kidnapped her in 1974. Credit Bettmann, via Getty Images

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“American Heiress,” Jeffrey Toobin’s new book about Patty Hearst, is a clever companion piece to “The Run of His Life” (1996), his book about the O. J. Simpson case. Mr. Toobin has used the same winning formula of delving deeply into an American crime story that had tremendous notoriety in its day and retelling it with new resonance.

Ms. Hearst’s tale is much more bizarre than Mr. Simpson’s. And much less of it has to do with legal proceedings, Mr. Toobin’s specialty. But in an age of terrorism, the chronicle of how a sedate heiress named Patricia morphed into a gun-toting, invective-spouting revolutionary calling herself Tania holds a definite fascination.

Ms. Hearst did not cooperate with this account. And she would hate it if she read it. Nor would she appreciate that this book contradicts her memoir, “Every Secret Thing,” or that Mr. Toobin purports to know what she was really thinking, on the basis of voluminous but incomplete evidence. The witnesses to Ms. Hearst’s behavior during her years underground certainly made a lot of observations about her. But the crucial people — those who may or may not have brainwashed her — knew her for only three months before they died.

It’s not that “American Heiress” is meanspirited. It’s just that Mr. Toobin — who read her love letters, reviewed material available to investigators and bought an extensive set of files assembled by one her revolutionary comrades — wants to understand exactly what happened to Ms. Hearst despite her clearly dishonest accounts after the fact, including in court. So this book is adversarial by definition. It credits its subject with a strength and resilience that would not have prevailed had she not also been a determined liar.

One of the few unassailable facts is that Ms. Hearst was kidnapped and thrown into a car trunk at 9:17 p.m. on Feb. 4, 1974, by people calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. She had been at home with her fiancé, Steven Weed, whose response to the attackers was to exclaim, “Take anything you want!” They did.

Amazingly, almost every detail from this point on remains open to interpretation. How badly was the kidnapping victim treated? It’s true she was confined to a walk-in closet that locked from the outside and that she went through extreme sensory deprivation. But would this become the basis for brainwashing?

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Or were her captors, about whom Mr. Toobin has a lot of background information, partly stalling as they figured out what to do with her? Of Donald DeFreeze, the leader who became briefly ubiquitous as Cinque, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s general field marshal, and whose planning skills were hugely problematic, Mr. Toobin writes: “DeFreeze was almost the opposite of a master criminal; he was most inventive in finding ways to get caught.”

Mr. Toobin’s book looks closely at the group members’ goals, only to find that, collectively, they couldn’t agree on any. Posturing and making demands were what they did best. Yet Mr. Toobin maintains that by the time the captors began to demand that the Hearst family sponsor a food giveaway in California, Ms. Hearst was in sync with her captors’ attitudes. She had a television in the closet, and seeing her parents make public statements annoyed her; in a statement of her own, she even complained about her mother’s mournful black clothes.

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