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Was Patty Hearst the Coming Attraction for Modern Media America?

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to forget that there was a time, not all that long ago, when current events didn’t unspool in real time, being dissected and parsed across multiple media platforms ad nauseam.

In “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” author Jeffrey Toobin makes a strong case that, in retrospect, the evolution of American media to its current state was foretold in the bizarre, twisted tale of the 1974 abduction of an heir to the Hearst publishing fortune, and in the parallel story of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the ragtag group of misfit radicals who perpetrated the kidnapping.

“The legacy of the SLA may be nonexistent, but its story provided a kind of trailer for the modern world,” Toobin writes.

“The kidnapping of Patricia Hearst foretold much that would happen to American society in a diverse number of fields. The story illuminated the future of the media – especially television and book publishing – the culture of celebrity, criminal justice and even sports.

“The Hearst kidnapping itself had an effect on the politics of the 1970s, including on the career of the governor of California, Ronald Reagan. In other words, even though the kidnapping was an anomalous event, it provided hints of what America would become.”

Toobin knows whereof he speaks. A staff writer for the New Yorker and senior legal analyst for CNN, Toobin has written several books examining the American zeitgeist, most notably “The Run of His Life,” which was made into the recent FX series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

“American Heiress” is a copiously researched, fascinating chronicle of a two-year slice of American history, an intellectual time capsule full of long-forgotten trinkets and treasures, many of which deserve another look from a distance of 40 years. At the same time, it is a rip-roaringly good read.

At 9:17 p.m. on Feb. 4, 1974, the Berkeley, Calif., apartment of 19-year-old Patricia Hearst and her 23-year-old fiance, Steven Weed, was burst into by three gun-toting radicals who quickly knocked Weed unconscious and hustled Patty into the trunk of a waiting car.

Almost unbelievably, the story didn’t hit the news immediately, but when it did, Toobin maintains, it rocked a nation already reeling from recent events.

“If one could pinpoint a nadir for the American spirit in the 1970s, that moment in late 1973 might represent a fair choice,” Toobin writes, noting that in the previous year the American public had witnessed the Watergate hearings, the energy crisis and subsequent economic decline, the Yom Kippur War, quadrupled gas prices and Spiro Agnew’s resignation.

“America at this moment combined international turmoil, economic collapse and high-level depravity,” Toobin writes. “The historian Rick Perlstein wrote of this period, ‘America suffered more wounds to its ideal of self than at just about any other time in history.’ ”

In painstaking detail, Toobin describes the rise of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a small, quasi-political group of mostly female homegrown terrorists, who made their first appearance on the nation’s radar the previous November, when they assassinated Marcus Foster, the superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif.

With similar thoroughness, Toobin untangles the many improbable threads of the story, recounting Hearst’s experiences in captivity; the response of her family, the law enforcement community, the media and the nation to the abduction; her apparent conversion to the SLA; her participation in bank robberies; year on the lam; her capture; her trial, the circuslike nature of which captivated the country; and the commutation of her sentence and later pardon by two different presidents.

Into this uniquely American tapestry, Toobin weaves in skeins of compulsively consumable facts gleaned from scores of documents, including FBI summaries, 150 boxes of court documents, interviews with more than 100 people, as well as Patty Hearst’s memoir, “Every Secret Thing,” her testimony at trial and her interviews and media appearances over the years.

The one source he did not have access to was Hearst herself, who did not cooperate with the publication of the book.

“Though I was unable to speak with Patricia, I feel I had ample access to her perspective on the events described,” Toobin writes in the author’s note.

“On certain matters, as I describe in the text, the evidence about her behavior and feelings is contradictory. On the central issue of Patricia’s case and this book – whether, following her kidnapping, she made a voluntary decision to commit crimes with the SLA –there is conflicting evidence. In sum, I have reviewed as much evidence as I could find about Patricia and made my conclusions in good faith. I trust that readers will do the same.”

While Hearst’s guilt or innocence is still up for discussion, one thing is certain: “American Heiress” is as complete and compelling a snapshot of America in the mid-’70s as a reader is going to find.

NONFICTION

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst

By Jeffrey Toobin

Doubleday

371 pages $28.95

Barbara Sullivan is a copy editor at The Buffalo News.

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