Friday, February 02, 2024

My 50-Year Search for Patty Hearst

(Editor’s note: The following essay comes from Roger D. Rapoport, a Michigan-based author, film producer, journalist, and playwright who now heads the Heartland Independent Film and Drama Forum. He’s seen his articles published in Esquire, The Atlantic, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals. Rapoport’s books include the Michael Moore biography Citizen Moore: The Life and Times of an American Iconoclast (1976) and Grounded: How to Solve the Aviation Crisis (2010), which he co-wrote with Captain Shem Malmquist. His latest book is the “true crime novel” Searching for Patty Hearst [Lexographic Press]. It transports readers back to February 1974, when Hearst—the 19-year-old granddaughter of American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst—was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California, apartment by a revolutionary guerilla group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army [SLA]. As PBS-TV’s American Experience Web site explains, Patty Hearst soon “transformed into a seemingly willing accomplice; over the [19] months of her kidnapping, she participated in crimes, claimed allegiance to the SLA, and defended her captors as valiant heroes. From tape recordings, her trial testimony and own telling of the story years later, several different versions of events emerge, but there seems to be no resolution to the questions about her transformation. Her parents thought that she had been brainwashed; experts suggested that she was a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, mistakenly identifying with her captors in an effort at self-preservation. Yet it is also possible that Hearst repudiated her upbringing to flirt with radical terrorism.” Press materials say that Rapoport’s Searching for Patty Hearst “explores alternative theories of the crime and delves into the complex psychology of many of the key actors in a drama that kept the country riveted.” Below, the author recounts his evolution from a reporter covering the Hearst abduction to a novelist seeking to tease out hidden truths about the case through the techniques of fiction.)

Second chances surround every writing project. Even in your darkest moments, when all your hard work seems lost, never let anyone tell you to give up.

The catch is you have to be patient. A book I wrote in 1974 with kidnap victim Patty Hearst’s fiancé Steve Weed was abandoned due to unforeseen circumstances. I was Weed’s co-author, and as I was happily moving on to page 276 with the enthusiastic support of our publisher, Ballantine Books, he unexpectedly pulled the plug.

At a time when 20-year-old Hearst, who had joined her kidnappers in a San Francisco bank robbery, was still at large, Steve was determined to rewrite our book. He wanted to pull out key elements of the inside story of their three years together that began when he was her math teacher at a private school near San Francisco.

Steve went on to publish a different book, partially based on the interviews and writing I had done during a collaboration. As a journalist I continued to cover the case for newspapers and magazines, scoring a big interview with Patty’s kidnapper, Bill Harris, after he was paroled. I also interviewed the Los Angeles coroner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, who autopsied six of the Symbionese Liberation Army captors after they died in a Los Angeles Police Department firefight.

I continued following the story for decades as numerous non-fiction books were published on the kidnapping that also inspired fiction projects, including Stephen King’s The Stand and a work-in-progress dropped by Joan Didion.

(Above) Her family’s flagship newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, headlined Patty’s abduction on February 5, 1974.

Six years ago, I ran several ideas by Megan Trank, an editor who had begun her publishing career as an intern at my own company. She told me a novel on Patty Hearst was the one she’d actually read. I wrote the last chapter first, and once she gave a thumbs-up, I began work on the manuscript acquired by my publisher James Sparling at Lexographic Press. A great deal of editing and revision, plus an AI-developed cover, led to the book being published in January just ahead of February 4, 2024—the 50th anniversary of Hearst’s kidnapping.

One of Sparling’s key decisions was to add me as a character in the story, which was much harder than it sounds. That challenge gave me an opportunity to question some of my assumptions. I began to see that the book required a narrator struggling to reach the truth on the question of Hearst’s guilt or innocence. I could not pretend to be omniscient on a story with so many holes.

In interviews and at bookstore and library events, I’ve been pleased to find that most readers discover historical fiction is a window to the “true story.” In this case, because Hearst’s “conversion” to the revolutionary cause of her SLA kidnappers remains debatable, fiction is a great way to give life to all points of view. I prefer this approach because it goes beyond the celebrity motif to provide equal time to forgotten people central to an unforgettable story.

One of the great luxuries of basing a novel on true events is a chance to continue reporting, even after the book is out. One of the first people to call me after publication was Hearst’s Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapper Bill Harris who was now, after decades of legal battles, in a position to talk about subjects that had been off-limits. Equally helpful is the fact that many of the political issues addressed in the Hearst case remain front and center today.

Patty’s denunciation of her family as capitalist pigs turned much of the public against her. Overnight, she went from being a charity case, with millions of dollars donated to pay for her ransom, to becoming a public enemy. In Searching for Patty Hearst, I look at some of the factors that led to her apparent “conversion” and the legal battle she faced attempting to recant it.

By presenting all sides and giving the entire supporting cast—including her family, lovers, police, FBI agents, the coroner, journalists, psychiatrists, and me—equal time, readers can come to their own conclusions. Fiction has an advantage because it opens readers up to the possibility that only through painstaking research can they reasonably decide who to believe.

Strategic omission is a key issue in my novel. When Steve Weed told me that some of the facts in our 1974 Ballantine book were too hot to handle, he was pinpointing the pitfalls created by assuming a single point of view is gospel.

He knew that telling the whole truth and nothing but ran the risk of damaging his chances of reconnecting with Patty Hearst after she came home. This was a very sensitive issue, since she called off their wedding in a communiqué. At the time she told the world she had fallen in love with one of her SLA comrades, Willie Wolfe. In a sense, the book we were working on was his love letter to Patty, asking her to take him back after Wolfe died in that LAPD firefight.

Thus, telling the world how he helped Patty cheat on a geometry exam or how her mother used the N-word on a roots trip back to Atlanta, Georgia, could potentially kill his chances to reconnect.

As it turned out, despite all of the brainwashing theories, when she was finally freed after 22 months in jail for bank robbery, Hearst did not come rushing back into Weed’s arms. She married her bodyguard.

Publishing a redacted “true story” was not a possibility for Ballantine Books, and Weed went on to happily work with another publisher. My novel focuses on all of these details and makes it clear that any narrator’s account needs to be balanced with other points of view, all deserving serious consideration.

(Left) Author Roger D. Rapoport

Mark Twain made this point well when he said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

What I learned by writing both a non-fiction and fiction account of this half-century-old case is that even when two people are in the same room at the same moment they can easily walk away with conflicting accounts that sound credible. When people tell you what they heard or saw with their own eyes, you need to ask yourself if their memory was compromised. Stress can interfere with their ability to accurately recall what happened. Stress can compromise their memory of an event.

Fiction gives you an opportunity to represent protagonists who are no longer available for comment. Re-creating the thinking of someone who is gone requires reading what they had to say, looking at recordings of their interviews and appearances, and then balancing their point of view with the record of events. In the process, historical fiction looks at many possibilities. It also encourages younger readers bombarded with self-serving information to never simply assume a single narrator has all the answers.

Good journalists cross-examine the experts, making sure that the reader doesn’t treat opinion as fact. Novelists take this process one step further, going into rooms where no one was taking notes and making an educated guess about what “really” happened. In the end it’s up to you, the reader, to write the perfect ending. It is up to you to come to your own conclusions.

READ MORE: An excerpt from Roger D. Rapoport’s new Searching for Patty Hearst can be enjoyed here; “The Crime of Living: What the Kidnapping of Patty Hearst Teaches Us About Assumption and Perspective,” by Kelly McClure (Salon).

No comments: