The abduction of Patty Hearst was a fantastic pageant. The Symbionese Liberation Army—a gang of crazy, mixed-up, mainly privileged white kids led by a black ex-con—kidnapped a millionaire’s daughter and commandeered the media as a platform. Cult or cell, these outlaws established their celebrity on a scale that, for a few months in 1974, surpassed that of Jesse James or even Bonnie and Clyde.
Even as the Watergate hearings revealed the conspiratorial underpinnings of the U.S. government, the SLA replayed the high ’60s. From the Berkeley “free speech” movement to televised apocalypse, their Patty-thon was ultimate guerrilla theater; Patty herself achieved media stardom in the year of the disaster film, when the ’60s were seeking metaphoric representation in Hollywood terms. Earthquake and The Towering Inferno—already in production—had all-star casts impersonating ordinary people coping with institutional breakdown. In the case of the Patty Hearst show, that institution was wealth, privilege, and power, with breakdown demonstrated both by the FBI’s inability to rescue Patty and her alarming transformation into a bank-robbing revolutionary. (Imagine, if you will, this happening to Jenna Bush.) There was no John Wayne, although this captivity story did ultimately recapitulate The Searchers—after nearly two years, Patty was saved from the savages (and her savage self).
Drawing on interviews with SLA co-founder Russ Little and amazing TV news footage, Robert Stone illuminates this fantastic narrative as vividly as it has ever been. The magnitude of the press coverage is only exceeded by the cluelessness of the law enforcement agencies and the Hearst family’s lack of comprehension—it’s fascinating to watch their unmediated response to Patty’s increasingly petulant tapes. Little, who was in prison when Hearst was kidnapped, remembers wondering whether his comrades were “stoned.” That’s an understatement. Although no drug could induce their delusion, it’s appropriate that the future Symbidiots met at the movies. Guerrilla is a testament to the power and pathos of shared fantasy. And recovered memory: Stone’s punchline has Patty interviewed on British TV; asked about her childhood, she recalls it as “pretty perfect.”