Patty Hearst, in handcuffs, was escorted into the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles in 1976. (Charles E. Young Research Library, U.C.L.A.)

More than 45 after the event, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst still fascinates people. The mystery of what really happened to her is one that still makes people curious. Was she a victim of brainwashing (what would become known as Stockholm syndrome) or did she really believe the actions of her captors were justified?

Patty Hearst was born into great privilege. Her grandfather was William Randolph Hearst, who created the largest newspaper business in the world. In 1974 she was 19 years old and studying art history at the University of California. On the 4th of February a group of women and men broke into her apartment. They attacked her fiancé and grabbed her, putting her into the trunk of their car. For the next two months she was held captive and blindfolded in a closet.

The group that kidnapped her were called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Their goal was to start a guerilla war against the U.S. government. They viewed America as a “capitalist state”. Their initial plan was to exchange Patty for two members of the SLA who were in prison at the time; this was quickly rejected by President Ronald Reagan. They demanded Patty’s father donate millions of dollars to the needy around the country. Her father refused to comply with this demand.

Two months after the kidnapping the SLA released a recording of Patty where she announced that she had joined their fight. She also said that she had adopted a new name – Tania. Shortly after the release of this tape she was caught on camera participating in a bank robbery with other members of the SLA. In May, members of the SLA were chased by police after another robbery. Their getaway car was found outside a safe house, a shootout ensued between law enforcement and the SLA and 6 people died.

Patty and several other members fled and began traveling around the country to avoid capture. She was eventually arrested in 1975 in San Francisco. She listed her occupation as “urban guerilla”. During her trial her lawyer tried to argue that she had been coerced into participating in the bank robberies and that she had been brainwashed by the SLA. This trial happened only 2 years after the bank robbery in Sweden which led to the term “Stockholm Syndrome” being coined. People’s understanding of brainwashing behaviour was limited and the public perception was that Patty was fully aware of her actions over the past couple of years. The jury also felt this way as it only took them 1 day to find her guilty. She was sentenced to 7 years in prison. Her sentence was later commuted by Jimmy Carter, and she was given a full presidential pardon by Bill Clinton.

Today the question still lingers: was Patty Hearst a victim or can she be held accountable for her actions? Our knowledge today of abusive relationships has vastly improved from the 1970s and people are more aware of the damage they can have on a person. It’s entirely possible that for almost two years Patty Hearst lived every day fearing for her life, fearing that if she did not comply with her captors wishes she would be murdered. If this were to happen today I don’t think a jury would convict her as quickly as they did in 1975.

-Michelle O’Brien
Contributing Writer
Girl Museum Inc.

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