Not So Stockholm: The Patty Hearst Case
In a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, young heiress Patty Heart was kidnapped in the ‘70s and, in a twist no one saw coming, joined the radical organization that held her hostage and helped them rob a bank. It was like if Paris Hilton was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda and started building bombs herself. But there’s a few problems with that story, namely that it’s probably almost entirely wrong.
The Hearst Family
Patty Hearst was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, who was sort of a Depression-era Donald Trump. He’s considered the father of yellow journalism and the basis of the main character of Citizen Kane, though perhaps his most enduring legacy is as a character in a movie called Mank.
In early February 1974, Patty Hearst was a 19-year-old student at U.C. Berkeley, which was lucky for the Symbionese Liberation Army because that’s also where the “army” of about a dozen people were headquartered. On February 4, 1974, they knocked on her door, beat up her fiance, and drove away with Hearst in the trunk of their car like a bunch of cartoon villains.
A few days later, the S.L.A. wrote to a local radio station that they had Hearst and wouldn’t release her until the Hearst family donated $70 worth of food to every poor person in California. That doesn’t sound like a big ask, but it was $420 (nice) in today’s money and would have totaled $400 million, or more than $2 billion today.
Negotiations Break Down
The Hearsts were rich, but they weren’t that rich, so they attempted a compromise by donating $2 million with an M. The S.L.A. countered by demanding only $6 million more because they were apparently very bad at negotiating, but the Hearsts insisted on Patty’s release first, which was a slight problem because it doesn’t seem like they ever intended to release her at all.
Let’s Check In With Patty
While all this was going on, Hearst was being held at S.L.A. headquarters, and by all accounts, she was tortured. Though the S.L.A. insisted she was treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention, no one seems to dispute that she was kept blindfolded in a closet almost 24 hours a day, only let out for meals, for several weeks. She also testified that two S.L.A. leaders raped her and her captors alternately threatened her with death and attempted to convert her, which is usually a bad way to do that.
The next time anyone saw Hearst was in the middle of a San Francisco bank, calling herself “Tania,” sporting a stylish new hairdo, and holding a big ol’ rifle that she pointed at bystanders while the S.L.A. made off with the bank’s cash. Though she appeared to be a gleeful participant, surveillance footage revealed that she herself was being held at gunpoint.
A few days before and after the robbery, the S.L.A. released recordings of Hearst announcing she’d joined the S.L.A. of her own free will, denouncing the “pig Hearsts,” and rather pointedly insisting no one at the bank pointed a gun at her. A renowned expert in brainwashing later studied her speech patterns and those of S.L.A. members, compared them to these recordings, and determined that Hearst was almost certainly reading statements written for her.
The Police Raid
On May 17, police finally pinned down the location of the S.L.A. hideout and surrounded the place, resulting in the deaths of two-thirds of the group. They didn’t find Hearst, though. She’d been out committing crimes with the remaining two S.L.A. members, all of whom went on the run after returning unnoticed to a not-so-friendly welcome.
Smiling Through It
They caught up with her on September 18, 1975 at a San Francisco apartment, where she calmly told police, “Don’t shoot. I’ll come with you.” That was the last normal thing she did for a while, grinning through her arrest, listing her occupation as “urban guerrilla,” and releasing a statement that she felt “free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there."
Soon, however, it became clear that Hearst was anything but. By the time she was arrested, her weight had dropped to 87 lbs., and psychologists who evaluated her described her as a “zombie.” It only took a few weeks for her to renounce the S.L.A., and her lawyers and the public started to wonder if she had this newfangled “Stockholm syndrome.”
“Stockholm syndrome” was a very new idea at the time, and it’s not even clear that it’s a real thing. During the Swedish bank robbery that gave the phenomenon its name, the police bungled the operation so badly that the hostages were simply more afraid of them than their captors. In the highest-profile cases, the victims don’t so much seem to display any special affinity for their captors as a fear for their lives or just normal human empathy.
The Brainwashing Defense
In Hearst’s case, once she got her wits about her, she explained that she was afraid if she acted against the S.L.A. or tried to escape, they would kill her, even after her arrest. She had good reason: When she testified against them, she found a dead rat in her cell, prompting authorities to move her to solitary confinement for her own safety, which must have brought back fond memories. Her lawyers needed a diagnosis for her defense, though, and Hearst admitted she eventually couldn’t tell the difference between her own thoughts and what she was pretending to believe, so they went with Stockholm syndrome and “brainwashing.”
She Got a Pretty Unfair Trial
It was pretty hard to prove Hearst’s psychological distress, though, because the judge disallowed testimony from the defense’s psychologists while admitting that from the prosecution’s, who insisted that Hearst never feared for her life and totally wanted it. Her sexual history was dragged through the mud, and her continued possession of a stone carving given to her by one of the men who she said raped her, which she said she thought was a valuable artifact, was presented as evidence to that effect. Whether she was guilty or not, she was definitely slut shamed all the way to prison.
Commuted and Pardoned
Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison, but she only served 22 months, after which President Carter commuted her sentence. She was eventually given a full pardon by President Clinton on his last day in office. Apparently, he needed some goodwill for some reason.
Was She Really Brainwashed?
In the end, it’s impossible to know what was really going through Hearst’s mind in those 18 months. There are plenty of people who still believe she really was just a rebellious teen who took her own horrific kidnapping as an opportunity to piss off Mommy and Daddy, but for the rest of her life, the closest she ever got to making a political or criminal statement was accepting roles in John Waters movies and Frasier, which is a crime against taste, if nothing else.
Top image: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons