Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Every Secret Thing By Patricia Campbell Hearst

(Click here for information on the 2019 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. For the titles that have filmed adaptations, we will also be looking at the movies as we go along. This week, the July selection, Patricia Hearst’s Every Secret Thing.) 

As I mentioned in announcing this selection, the Manson Murders seemed to be everywhere this summer, marking 50 years since those crimes. But 2019 also marked 45 years since the violent kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst and her strange and traumatic misadventure with a self-proclaimed revolutionary army.

While there are at least a few dozen dissertations worth of material in the media’s treatment of the case in 1974 and its place in the national culture over the last 45 years… time and space limit me to the actual book Hearst wrote (published in 1982) and a few words on the subsequent film version.

The book is divided into roughly four parts, opening with a chapter on Hearst’s early life and family, which is rather stiff and reads like a PR rep trying to repair a reputation badly damaged by tabloid headlines. The second chapter immediately goes into her kidnapping from her Berkeley apartment by a group of domestic terrorists calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, after which she is held captive in a closet, repeatedly raped and subjected to psychological torture, and forced to tape-record ransom messages to her parents detailing the SLA’s manifesto and demands for her release.

The book concludes with her capture by the FBI and the lengthy trial-turned-media circus, prison term, and quest for a presidential pardon.

But by far the most engaging section of the book is the lengthy third section, in which Hearst succumbs to the SLA’s brainwashing tactics (…or does she?) and famously declares her intention to “stay and fight”, leading first to a bank robbery in which the SLA “expropriates” cash for the always-coming revolution, and then to a cross-country odyssey, in which Hearst becomes one the last SLA members standing through sheer, dumb luck.

Noted journalist Alvin Moscow is credited as the co-author on the work, and it’s impossible to tell how much of the book is his and how much is Hearst’s. The post-Hibernia Bank robbery episodes are loaded with details and crackle with a grim sense of humor- Hearst remains a stubbornly likeable character, even as she casually participates in acts of terrorism and never quite loses the sense of privilege inherent in being a 19-year-old from one of America’s wealthiest families.

When the SLA buys her conversion to their cause and the blindfold comes off, the imagined nationwide network of revolutionaries, somewhere between the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, are revealed to be a group of insufferable white hipsters desperate to prove themselves to be down with their soul-brother leader, General Field Marshal Cinque Mtume, AKA Donald DeFreeze, an escaped ex-con who is nearly constantly drunk on hobo wine. Hearst is renamed Tania, although it is revealed that she is actually Tania II, the original Tania having abandoned the cause and decamped some months earlier. Constantly thrown in with sociopathic, bickering married couple Teko and Yolanda (Bill and Emily Harris), Hearst resolves to do what ever she needs to do to survive.

Despite a truly incredible level of incompetence, they do manage to pull off a successful bank robbery (the security footage from the robbery remains some of the most iconic imagery of the 1970s). But SLA is chronically unable to keep a low profile, whether it’ s constantly “appropriating” getaway vehicles, conducting a door-to-door recruitment campaign which nets a few locals interested in becoming “part-time revolutionaries” or Bill Harris’s apparent kleptomania, resulting in automatic weapons being fired over a shoplifted pair of socks in Los Angeles.

It’s after the latter incident that Hearst and the Harrises decide that it’s too dangerous to return to their safe house and hide out at Disneyland (!!!); it is there at a motel that they watch the FBI raid on live TV, as the other SLA members try to fight it out before being shot or perishing in the resulting house fire. Despite everything she has gone through up to this point, the most chilling part of the book is when Bill Harris declares himself the SLA’s new leader:

She turned solemnly to Teko and said, “Do you realize that you are now the head of the Symbionese Liberation Army? You are now General Field Marshal of the SLA.”

“Yes,” he replied softly, “I will do my very best to carry on the struggle as Cin would have wanted…”

“Tania,” she said, turning to me, “we both have to give Teko all the respect that we gave Cin because he is our leader now…. We’ve got to work as a team all the time… and we’ve got to support Teko because now he is our leader.”

“Yes, of course,” I said, “I really will try…”

(My margin-note reads “Oh no! Literally the stupidest one is in charge now!”)

Before they became white hipster revolutionary terrorists, the Harrises were white hipster academics, so they try to recruit new SLA members from the ranks of the Berkeley friends- they find some success, getting at least a few part-time revolutionaries (in another scene that is darkly humorous in the retelling, Bill Harris attempts to recruit a local black radical leader into their ranks and is summarily turned down. No street cred for you, dude.)

“Radical sportswriter” Jack Scott, an old acquaintance of the Harrises, helps ferry them out of the Bay Area as things heat up, sending them first to Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and then upstate New York. Assigned to be their minder (and mainly charged with trying to get the Harrises to keep a low profile for once) is Wendy Yoshimura, an “explosives expert” from another defunct revolutionary group. Yoshimura quickly emerges as both an ally to Hearst and the most level-headed and sympathetic character in this mess, mainly because she is the only one who calls Bill Harris out on both his racist fetishization of “third world peoples” and his gross misogyny. She also makes the Harrises crazy over her insistence that she’s going to surrender peacefully when they are inevitably captured, as well as her insistence in participating only in “symbolic” bombings. Hearst is fuzzier about the details of her relationship with Steve Soliah, another part-time SLA member, but it seems both companionable and consensual.

Eventually they return to San Francisco, and pull another bank job, this one is bungled when Emily Harris accidentally discharges her weapon, killing an innocent bystander (and the flow of the narrative slows as Hearst carefully establishes her own alibi…)

Successfully evading capture for another six months, the FBI eventually comes knocking, rounding up most of the fugitives in separate coordinated raids in September of 1975.

For anyone who has idly wondered why kidnapping victims don’t try getting along with their captors, Hearst will offer the definitive answer: because you will get crucified in the media afterwards.

From the FBI agents who hold a gun to the peaceably-surrendered Yoshimura’s head to get an unarmed Hearst to surrender (she candidly admits that she was so terrified she wet her pants), to the prison officials who deny her medical treatment, to the state-assigned psychiatrists that are most interested in the lurid details of the SLA’s sex lives, to a showboating  F. Lee Bailey badly bungling her defense (and shows up drunk for closing arguments), even after her liberation Hearst still has to deal with the tyranny of incompetent men. After suffering a collapsed lung that nearly kills her, she notes the irony of having been kidnapped by an anti-government group, only to be liberated to live in fear of dying due to governmental neglect.

In the final chapters, Hearst perseveres, seeming to finally remember that she IS a Hearst after all, fires Bailey, and embarks on a media campaign of her own to rehab her image and seek a pardon (her supporters include everyone from Cesar Chavez to John Wayne). It is somewhat murky how all of this played out, but Hearst somehow ended up being the only one tried for the Hibernia Bank robbery, while the Harrises got off extremely lightly for the second robbery (Emily Harris wouldn’t face murder charges until 2002).

Hearst would win a commutation of her sentence from Jimmy Carter in 1979 (and a pardon from Bill Clinton in 2001), and the book closes on Hearst’s return to public life, as Jane Pauley asks:

“But where can you go where you wouldn’t be known as Patricia Hearst?”

My response was immediate and from the heart: “I don’t see anything wrong with being Patricia Hearst.”

A number of filmed adaptions of Hearst’s story have been made (and Hearst herself is best known to a certain generational cohort as a regular in John Waters’s stock company of actors), but Every Secret Thing was officially adapted to the screen by screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, and uh… The Canyons…) Retitled Patty Hearst (1988), it is an arty, low-budget effort that received mixed reviews at the time (although Natasha Richardson’s performance as Hearst was widely praised). It is notable for early appearances by Ving Rhames and Dana Delaney, and a written coda that provides an update beyond the ending of the book.

Odds and Ends:

While on the run, the Harrises stop to take in some movies, and Bill Harris causes such a scene at an anti-war documentary, Hearst fears that they will be arrested for disrupting the peace. She refuses to go back the with them the next night for a revival of Citizen Kane: by this point she can abide anything but getting arrested at a screening of Orson Welles’s take on William Randolph Hearst!

And the Manson Family does end up figuring into this after all: Hearst fears for her life after spurning Squeaky Fromme’s overtures of friendship when they end up incarcerated together.

Availability: The book is out of print, but easy to find used, including the retitled paperback edition, Patty Hearst: Her Own Story.

Schrader’s film is available on a bare-bones DVD as an MGM Limited Edition.

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2 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Every Secret Thing By Patricia Campbell Hearst

  1. Sheesh says:

    I’ve got an ancient Ladies Home Journal with an article by FLB all about the case (one wonders if showing his hand to this extent was wise). Bonus: this issue also includes an article on that OTHER young lady whose name I heard constantly as a child (for very different reasons), Karen Ann Quinlan.

    And if you haven’t already, absolutely watch Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. It analyzes the media coverage along with the case itself.

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