Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

American Captivity

The captivity narrative as creation myth.

Ed Simon

Patricia Hearst in front of SLA flag, 1974; CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

Of all the grim chapters in the annals of the Aquarian Age—Charles Manson overseeing the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders, an audience member being stabbed to death by the Hells Angels at the Altamont Free Concert, or the forced mass suicide of the Peoples Temple religious community in Guyana—the strange affair of heiress Patty Hearst’s kidnapping can be easily overlooked. A student at the University of California, Berkeley, the nineteen-year-old granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was abducted by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in February 1974, and for nineteen months the country was transfixed by the drama of the kidnapped socialite. Indoctrinated into embracing radical politics and renamed “Tania,” she participated in the manufacture of incendiary bombs and a bank robbery. The infamous Polaroid photograph of Hearst in combat fatigues and Che Guevara–style beret, brandishing a sawed-off M1 rifle and posing blank eyed in front of the black-and-red SLA flag with its herald of a many-headed hydra, provided a “special kind of sentimental education,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “Girl of the Golden West.” According to Didion, Hearst’s story of captivity had the glint of allegory about it: a “public coming-of-age with an insistently literary cast to it…a parable for the period.”11xJoan Didion, “Girl of the Golden West,” Vintage Didion (New York, NY: Vintage, 2010). First published 1982.

Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey would argue that Hearst had succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, having been effectively brainwashed into forming an emotional dependence on her captors, but the jury was unmoved and found her guilty of robbery and felonious use of a firearm. Protesting her own innocence in the 1981 memoir Every Secret Thing, published after President Jimmy Carter commuted her seven-year sentence to time already served (twenty-two months), Hearst claimed to be the victim of “the classic Maoist formula for thought reform,” a horrific program of indoctrination, beating, starvation, and rape that transformed her into an unwilling puppet in a criminal scheme.22xPaula Span, “Patty Hearst, Choosing the Glare,” Washington Post, September 26, 1988, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1988/09/26/patty-hearst-choosing-the-glare/6c271095-81ab-4c38-bcd9-4b82a8fb48cc/. Her version of the events has been met with skepticism (since it seemed to many that she was an enthusiastic participant), but awareness of the psyche-fracturing trauma of captivity usually tempers evaluations of her culpability. In an April 1974 statement released by the SLA, Hearst said, “We could be anyone’s daughter, son, husband, lover, neighbor, friend,” and even if that wasn’t the group’s intended message, her words implied that sufficient pressure could turn anyone into a believer or follower. Conversion, Hearst reminded Americans, is not always willed.

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