memories of the ’70s – Patty Hearst

The danger of being an heiress became the fixation of the news cycle in 1974 when Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randoph Hearst was kidnapped.

But the story didn’t stop there – Hearst was coerced and brainwashed, becoming, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the radical group who took her hostage. The SLA was made up of ex-cons who wanted to create a South American-style urban guerrilla group in the US.

The 19 year old was living in Berkeley, California with her fiancee in February 1974 when she was kidnapped by the SLA, who hoped to swap Hearst for group members in jail.

When this idea failed, the SLA demanded the Hearst family give $70 worth of food to every needy Californian to gain Hearst’s release. The family donated $6 million in the San Francisco area but the group felt it wasn’t worthy of Hearst’s release.

In April 1974, two months after being kidnapped, Hearst made a public declaration that she was joining the SLA and had changed her name to “Tania”. Two weeks later, photographs of “Tania” emerged, taken during a bank robbery showing her wielding an automatic weapon during the crime. Communications released by the SLA from “Tania” confirmed her continuing belief in the SLA goals.

A warrant was issued for Hearst and in September 1975, 18 months after being kidnapped, Hearst along with other SLA members were arrested by police. Hearst was charged with bank robbery and in January 1976 went on trial. Her lawyer F. Lee Bailey and consultants portrayed her as a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, and that she was not the self-proclaimed urban guerrilla but a prisoner of war and the victim of abuse and brainwashing.

Hearst was found guilty in March 1976 of bank robbery, sentenced 35 years, which was commuted to seven years. Hearst served 22 months and then had the rest of her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and later granted a full pardon by President Bill Clinton.

I read about Hearst in my first year of college, part of my sociology course on understanding group dynamics and peer pressure. I remember believing in her being a victim, and felt sad that she was treated like a criminal, when she was always the victim. For the 1970s she was a rich girl gone bad, who deserved her treatment, but in reality she was a young woman who became a daily newspaper story.