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American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin – review

This retelling of Patty Hearst’s life on the run with cack-handed revolutionaries is strangely uninvolving

Few cases in the history of American crime can have been more picked over than that of Patty Hearst, the heiress who was kidnapped in 1974 by the ramshackle revolutionary outfit known as the Symbionese Liberation Army: by my count, there are already more than a dozen nonfiction books about her, not to mention two novels, her own memoir, a feature film, several documentaries, numerous academic papers and – the eyes widen – two porn movies. Why, you might wonder, would anyone want to go there again? At the beginning of his book, Jeffrey Toobin justifies his decision to revisit the story by insisting that he regards it as a “trailer for the modern world”. Not only did the kidnapping “illuminate” the future of the media and celebrity culture; it also helped to tilt the politics of the US rightwards, a state of affairs that has continued ever since. But as he also notes, it was nevertheless an “anomalous event”, and in the end, it’s this freakish singularity that his narrative drives home. Forget context. Never has a battier story been told with so straight a face.

When 19-year-old student Patricia Hearst was kidnapped on the night of 4 February, she was living quietly in a duplex apartment in Berkeley, California, with Steven Weed, her fiance and former high school teacher. Her life changed in the course of a few moments. One minute, this moderately rebellious but highly privileged granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst (famously the inspiration for Citizen Kane) was playing house with Weed, the next, she was a prisoner, albeit one who would be treated, or so her captors said, according to the “Geneva convention”. (Weed was well named: having told the armed invaders to take whatever they wanted, he fled the scene; later, while Patty was still missing, he would give disloyal interviews about the Hearsts to the press.)

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