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The Bizarre Story of a Kidnapping and Its Aftermath: 'The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst'
November 26, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

If you wrote the Patty Hearst (top) story as fiction, no one would believe it.

It would sound like some clumsy attempt to capture the radical zeitgeist of the 1970s, with caricatures so outlandish and a plot so bizarre none of it could exist in the real world.  

Smithsonian’s The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, reminds us it not only happened, it kept us breathlessly waiting almost two years for the finale.

As laid out primarily through contemporary television news footage, Hearst’s story seems odd today for one other reason: It was a sensational story that didn’t feel like it was just the cheap celebrity drama du jour.

It felt like there were larger personal and social issues at work, including a young woman whose violently upended life we suddenly didn’t understand, and an extreme manifestation of lawless radical politics.

To recap the story briefly, newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, a student at Berkeley, was forcibly kidnapped on Feb. 4, 1974, at the apartment she shared with her fiancé Steve Weed.

A series of “communiqués” that often felt more like political manifestos, established that she had been taken by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a tiny group led by an ex-convict named Donald DeFreeze and nominally dedicated to securing rights for women, the oppressed, and the poor by any means necessary.

The SLA was hardly the first activist group incubated in the 1960s that ultimately decided nonviolent change was a fantasy and the people had to take direct action against the police, the government, and anyone else who represented the system.

They would be among the last of that particular line, if only because their tiny membership was soon all killed or imprisoned

What made the whole story riveting to most of America was Hearst’s own declared evolution from child of privilege to “urban guerrilla,” a woman who referred to the police and her parents as pigs.

One of her communiqués ended, “Death of the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.”

Top that, aspiring caricaturists.

After six of her comrades were shot or burned to death in a shootout with law enforcement at their Los Angeles not-so-safe house, Hearst disappeared for nine months with the other two surviving SLA members, Bill and Emily Harris.

When Hearst was captured and asked her occupation, she responded with the “urban guerrilla” line. By the time she came to trial, for an SLA bank robbery in which she participated while holding a gun, she had shifted gears and pleaded that she was just a terrified kidnap victim who thought she was doing what she had to do to stay alive.

She was convicted, at least partly by the prosecutor’s clever use of something that, curiously, isn’t mentioned in The Lost Tapes. When she was captured she was wearing a necklace given to her by her SLA boyfriend, who had been killed in the L.A. shootout.

If she had no genuine loyalty to the group or its members, the prosecutor asked, why was she wearing this necklace nine months later?

She served 23 months in prison before getting a commutation from Jimmy Carter and eventually a pardon from Bill Clinton.

She married her bodyguard (right) and they remained married until his death 38 years later. She settled some time ago into the life of the comfortably affluent and her avocations include raising champion dogs.

But her public legacy, one she doubtless would prefer not to carry, lies in one small and, truthfully, somewhat brief moment when she seemed to represent the last lost rebels of a tormented era that ended with the humiliating departure of a president and the crushing resolution of the Vietnam War.

Smithsonian does a solid job here of compressing news clips into a coherent narrative, In the end, though, we still don’t know what part of herself Little Girl Lost took so seriously.

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Network is the 1976 classic film about TV news & entertainment blurring into one big goop. One of the subplots concerns a group of underground militants,parodied as the Ecumenical Liberation Army,negotiate a weekly reality show focusing on a Crime of the Week. A great scene featuring the militants arguing over syndication,distribution & commercial rights complete with talent agents and lawyers as if it was an episode of Seinfeld. The scene ends with a Hearst-type figure, complete with beret and automatic weapon, belittled by the group leaders for putting the organization's cause above profit.
Nov 26, 2017   |  Reply
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