The ubiquitous legal journalist and author returns with a detailed but swiftly moving account of the 1974 kidnapping that mesmerized the nation.
Readers of a certain age will be astonished that this case is more than 40 years old. So much has changed, as New Yorker staff writer Toobin (The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, 2012, etc.) effectively points out. He reminds us, for instance, that live TV feeds from crime scenes were a novelty that spread rapidly after the coverage of a shootout between some members of the Symbionese Liberation Army—the motley crew that kidnapped Patricia Hearst, the young heiress of the noted publishing family—and the federal and local authorities. Toobin begins with a quick account of the kidnapping, an introduction of the principals, and some 1970s cultural history, and then he moves into the slow conversion of Hearst into a trash-talking urban guerrilla (the term she later used to identify herself), her involvement in SLA criminal activities, and her sex life. The author occasionally shows us the doings of those left behind—principally her family and her fiance, Steven Weed, who does not come off well, then and now. (He bolted when the SLA arrived.) Toobin ably charts the bizarre inability of authorities to figure out this crew of barely competent revolutionaries. Once Patricia is caught and on trial for her SLA–related activities, the author’s considerable legal knowledge propels the narrative. He shows us that both the prosecution and the defense lacked competence, especially celebrated defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, whom Toobin paints as an opportunist inebriated with alcohol and celebrity. The author ends with an update on the principals and notes that Hearst resolutely refused to contribute to his book.
Despite the lack of participation from Hearst, this is a well-informed, engaging work from a highly capable author.