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Not "Anyone's Daughter": Patty Hearst and the Postmodern Legal Subject

From: American Quarterly
Volume 52, Number 4, December 2000
pp. 639-681 | 10.1353/aq.2000.0050

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American Quarterly 52.4 (2000) 639-681

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IN 1979, VETERAN REPORTER AND TELEVISION NEWS COMMENTATOR SHANA Alexander published an elaborate account of the Patty Hearst trial. Her title, Anyone's Daughter, was taken from Hearst's so-called revolutionary manifesto, the "Tania Interview," in which the purported voice of Patty Hearst says of revolutionaries, including herself, "We could be anyone's daughter, son, husband, lover, neighbor, friend." This statement gave the author her potent theme: Patty Hearst held Alexander's attention because she did not have to be the offspring of a newspaper magnate -- she could have been anyone's daughter. Hearst's rejection of her birthright, her radical break from upper-class mores, her confused identity and multiple personalities (as Patty, Tania, Pearl, and finally Pat during the trial) told a story of repressed rage and desire ostensibly present in all young women who collectively felt trapped within the social expectations of "normal" white female adolescence.

Alexander was by no means alone in trying to interpret Hearst's cultural meaning. Patty Hearst's kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 sparked an industry in books, articles, and films. Hearst contributed her own account with Every Secret Thing in 1982. By then, her ex-fiancé, Steven Weed, had already published his 1976 tell-all narrative, My Search for Patty Hearst. And F. Lee Bailey, her notoriously self-promoting lawyer, had demanded exclusive rights to publish his version of the Hearst case as part of his payment for services. The Hearst case contained all the elements of a feature-length film, and indeed it became one in 1988 with the release of Patty Hearst.

Kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment on 4 February 1974, the "beautiful heiress" became worldwide news as she became the SLA's prisoner of war. Between 12 February and 2 April, the SLA issued a series of communiqués, demanding that Hearst's parents set up a food distribution program for the poor and promising Hearst's release, until, on 3 April, the SLA detailed Patty's conversion to her new revolutionary identity of "Tania." Twelve days later, the SLA staged a robbery of the Sunset office of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, during which "Tania" identified herself on the surveillance camera, dramatically demonstrating on film that she had joined the revolutionary struggle.

In the SLA's 17 April communiqué, "Tania" claimed that she had willingly participated in the robbery. She stated, too, that protestations about brainwashing by Steven Weed, her parents and the FBI were "ridiculous to the point of being beyond belief." She dismissed her ex-fiancé as a "clown," a "sexist, agist pig," and asserted that she was a revolutionary feminist, a sexual agent in control of her own destiny. Precisely one month after this stunning communiqué, one hundred policemen surrounded and stormed the Los Angeles hideout of the SLA and, in a televised shootout, killed all of the group's members except for Patty and Emily and John Harris. On that day, Hearst and the Harrises were involved in a shoplifting escapade, in which Patty fired shots to assist in the escape. In a 7 June communiqué, "Tania" eulogized the bravery and "badness" of her dead comrades, while declaring her feelings for slain SLA member William Wolfe, known as "Cujo," whom she described as "the gentlest, most beautiful man I've ever known." At this point Hearst and the Harrises went underground and were not arrested until more than a year later, on 17 September 1975. (It was during the "missing year" that Hearst and the Harrises drafted the "Tania Interview" for publication as a book.) The long-sought fugitive underwent weeks of psychological testing to determine if she was mentally competent, and on 4 February 1976, Patty Hearst's trial finally began.

This surfeit of information generated by the SLA, and the overproduction of meaning by the media, suggests why Patty Hearst is perhaps the best of all postmodern subjects. Her story at once registers and resists the desire to find a single meaning. Despite all attempts by journalists, psychiatrists, and jurists to explain her persona through either the tragic story of a female captive/brainwashed victim or the dark...



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