Dear Abbie - The Non-Advice Podcast

The Case of Patricia Hearst

April 27, 2023 Abigail L. Rosenthal Season 1 Episode 146
Dear Abbie - The Non-Advice Podcast
The Case of Patricia Hearst
Show Notes Transcript

Usually, when I write the weekly column for “Dear Abbie,” I’m in a reasonably upbeat state of mind, but I’m moved to write this one by anger and indignation.

Abigail L. Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of The City University of New York.  She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now appearing in an expanded second edition and as audiobooks.  Dr. Rosenthal writes a weekly column for “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column,”  where she explores the situation of women. She thinks women’s lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal.  She’s written numerous articles that can be accessed at .

Usually, when I write the weekly column for “Dear Abbie,” I’m in a reasonably upbeat state of mind, but I’m moved to write this one by anger and indignation. My outrage is prompted by Dana Spiotta’s review, in the August 14th issue of The New York Times Book Review, of Jeffrey Toobin’s new book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

Patricia Hearst was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper magnate whose life is unsympathetically portrayed in the classic Orson Wells movie, Citizen Kane. Patricia, the granddaughter of that Hearst, was living in Berkeley, California, when she was kidnapped by a guerrilla group that styled itself the Symbionese Liberation Army or SLA.   Their claim to be genuinely “revolutionary” was, presumably, supported by their murder of Marcus Foster, the black superintendent of schools in Oakland.

A large sum of money was raised, ostensibly to pay Patricia’s ransom. It did not effect her release but was used to buy food and other useful commodities for the hungry in the area. A Native American group, refusing the stuff that was going to be donated on that basis, said memorably,

“We’re not that hungry.”

The book review is headlined, “’I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight,’” which is what the American public heard Patricia say when she professed to have freely joined her murderous kidnappers. On that occasion she was photographed standing in front of an outsized SLA logo, wearing a black beret, holding a submachine gun, and calling herself by her new revolutionary name of “Tania.” The subtitle of the Times review refers to her “career as an urban guerrilla.”

When eventually she was recaptured, having – on the same basis – “chosen” to participate with her kidnappers in their bridge-burning bank robbery (in which someone was killed) and a store robbery, she testified about her treatment by her kidnappers.

For two months she’d been kept blindfolded and confined to a closet. She never had a moment of privacy. In the closet, she was torture-raped by the leader of the murderous group, an African American whose nom de guerre was Field Marshall Cinque.

The jury discounted exculpatory circumstances and found her guilty of the crimes she had committed while with her kidnappers. After she served two years of her prison sentence, it was commuted. Eventually she received a pardon. Toobin comments: “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction.”

Shana Alexander, at that time a well-known journalist, wrote one of the first books about the case, Anyone’s Daughter: The Times and Trials of Patricia Hearst. In it, she accused Patricia of having betrayed her erstwhile comrades by testifying under oath about their treatment of her, and made it clear that thereby she had forfeited the respect of Shana Alexander.

A feminist writers’ group, to which I belonged, staged a little impromptu playlet inspired by the Hearst case. The woman who played the part of Patricia pretended to “complain” of being raped in a closet by a black man, but in such a way as to reveal how much it satisfied her fantasy life and that of the other women. Except for me, everyone laughed.

Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will, the groundbreaking book on rape, refused to believe that Patricia could have been raped, since her feminist comrades would never have countenanced such a thing.

Well that’s a relief!

A lady I knew at that time said to me, “She’s one girl!” meaning presumably that the faux ransom had fed thousands and you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. “Besides,” the lady added, “she’s rich and I hate the rich.”

But lady, I thought, puzzled. You’re rich.

Besides, she wouldn’t have been kidnapped, raped and psychologically broken by a cult of delusional murderers if she hadn’t been rich. She wouldn’t have been taken apart, privacy by privacy, if she hadn’t been the granddaughter of a widely-hated newspaper magnate. She wouldn’t have been positioned for a posed photo, distributed worldwide, with black beret, weapon and a Russian name, if she hadn’t been the “daughter of the ruling class.” Jeffrey Toobin would have had to find another title than American Heiress for his take-another-peek book. Would Middle Class Girl have had the same market value?

At the time of the Hearst trial, Robert Jay Lifton, whose book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China is probably still the best on the subject, wrote an Op Ed for the Times. There Lifton explained the step by step process of “terrifying coercion” by which Patricia had been broken, and why, even when her controllers were not physically present, she was no longer mentally free to escape.

I am a deep believer in human freedom but, in what Lifton calls “an absolutely controlled environment in which victimizers could mount a series of physical and psychological assaults on the self,” we can be broken.

How to explain the generally hostile views of this victim, at the time of her trial and now revived again? I see two things at work.

First there is the view that the self is a social construct, not a natural thing. If as persons we are nothing but the process of our socialization, then mind controllers are only doing what our parents, schools and friends did earlier. We owe our original controllers loyalty until the next set of controllers come along, at which time we owe them the same sort of loyalty. That was why Shana Alexander was so put off when Patricia Hearst failed to stick by her coercive persuaders.

Second, there is the belief that being kidnapped, subjected to torture-rape and humiliation, made to confess to every sort of worthlessness, and menaced with death if she refused to pose as a volunteer member, was what she really wanted. That’s why the feminists in my writers’ group laughed at her testimony.

Vot does Voman vant?

So Sigmund Freud asked, scratching his bearded head. It’s the great question and it prompts book after book about Patricia Hearst.

Let me help out here. What do you want? Is it to be brutally kidnapped by murderers with a far-out cult name? Is it to be torture-raped? Is it to be threatened and shamed for being where you are in life’s lottery? Is it for the dangerous group that has got hold of you to offer you the “choice” to join them and espouse its values publicly – or else?

Now let me ask what is for me the real question. Why, to convert the line from W. H. Auden’s poem into a question, do

“the seas of pity lie

Locked and frozen in each eye”?

Why no womanly sympathy for another woman? A woman who’s been spread out on the social map like any victim of the Spanish Inquisition?

Is it so hard for a woman who has not personally undergone this ordeal to picture herself as … maybe … vulnerable?