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  • Suburban Captivity Narratives: Feminism, Domesticity, and the Liberation of the American Housewife
  • Megan Behrent (bio)

On February 4, 1974, the heiress Patricia Hearst—granddaughter of the media mogul William Randolph Hearst—was kidnapped from her home in Berkeley, California.1 In reporting the story, the media reproduced a trope even older than the U.S. itself: a captivity narrative. To do so, they conjured an image of racially other captors defiling a white woman’s body. The New York Times describes Hearst being carried off “half naked” by “two black men” (W. Turner), despite the fact that only one of the abductors was African-American. From the earliest recounting of the story, Hearst was sexualized and her captors racialized. The abduction was portrayed as an intrusion into the domestic space, with Hearst’s fiancé brutalized as she was removed from their home. The most widely used image of Hearst was one of idyllic bourgeois domesticity, cropped from the announcement of her engagement in the media—which, ironically, provided her would-be captors with the address to the couple’s Berkeley home. As it turned out, Hearst’s captors, members of a group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, were almost all white, middle-class youth—with the exception of Donald DeFreeze (who went by Cinque in tribute to the leader of the Amistad rebellion), an African-American man who, after escaping from prison, sought refuge with the white radicals of the SLA whom he had met while incarcerated. DeFreeze’s prominent role in the SLA provided a link to Black nationalist militancy, aiding in the construction [End Page 247] of the group as other. Nonetheless, that Hearst’s abduction was carried out by a group of mostly white, middle-class radicals was all the more threatening, enacting growing fears about the permeability of the suburban American ideal and the danger of a growing radical and interracial movement that seemed poised to destroy it. The heavy symbolism deployed by the SLA took everything that middle-class, white culture feared most in the 1970s and wrapped it up in one countercultural ball of middle-class revolutionary politics. Each member had a party name—including De-Freeze who called himself Cinque Mtume, the first name a tribute to the leader of the Amistad slave rebellion while Mtume comes from the Swahili word for prophet—and a rank of General Field Marshal of the United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The name of the group referred to the symbiosis between struggles of all oppressed peoples, a point emphasized by their ransom demand that Randolph Hearst (Patty Hearst’s father) distribute food to the poor in Oakland. Fears stoked by Hearst’s abduction grew all the more palpable on April 3, 1974, when Patty Hearst announced that she was no longer being held against her will, but had joined the SLA. She changed her name to Tania, after the nom de guerre of Che Guavara’s comrade, and declared, “I have chosen to stay and fight” (Caldwell). From this moment on, Patty Hearst/Tania became the ultimate symbol of the countercultural wars and the anxieties they produced in 1970s America. The lesson was clear: if it could happen to Patty, it could happen to anyone.

Indeed, it was happening to everyone in 1974, or at least to young white women, who had been raised to aspire to postwar constructions of domestic femininity that Betty Friedan dubbed the feminine mystique, and who were suddenly escaping the rigid confines of its white picket fence. Controversial critic of feminism Caitlin Flanagan2 describes the resonance of Hearst’s case as follows:

The thing you have to understand about Patty Hearst, the reason that her fantastically sui generis story resonated so deeply within so many millions of ordinary American households, is that back then a lot of girls like her were disappearing. . . .

All of the mothers of all the missing daughters said the same thing back then, with the same mixture of loathing, [End Page 248] despair, and impotent anger. What had happened to turn that lovely daughter against you? “The culture.”

(“Girl, Interrupted”)

Like the stories of ordinary American daughters disappearing from ordinary homes, Patty Hearst...


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