Was Patty Hearst Brainwashed?

A new look at an old kidnapping case misses one of the most important elements of the story.


Patty Hearst, during the April 1974 Hibernia bank robbery.
Closed circuit camera. Public Domain

Col. Frank H. Schwable was an Annapolis graduate with 23 years' service in the U.S. Marine Corps and a chest full of medals won as a combat pilot in the Pacific during World War II. His commanding officer in Korea testified that Schwable "was one of the brightest, finest, most conscientious, and, during the war, one of the bravest officers I have ever known." Sent to South Korea as a staff officer, he yearned for a combat command and volunteered to fly reconnaissance missions. On July 18, 1952, his plane mistakenly drifted over enemy lines and was shot to pieces. Schwable and his co-pilot successfully bailed out of the plane before it crashed but were captured by Chinese troops within minutes.

Schwable did his best to not give anything away to his captors. For several weeks, he insisted he was a new arrival in Korea who hadn't even been assigned a post and had little knowledge of the war or the American order of battle. The Pentagon, however, issued a press release identifying him, and soon the Chinese knew he'd been there for months, knew his exact assignment, and even knew the names of his wife and children. They made it clear his interrogation was about to take a harsh new turn.

Locked alone in a small room for hours a day, weeks at a time, Schwable had nothing to do but imagine what might be in store for him. Finally he was moved to a darkened tent, where he was questioned 11 hours a day. After several weeks of that, he was placed in a hut about the size of a large dining-room table, where he was ordered to sit stiffly at attention except during designated sleeping hours. As winter arrived, the hut grew so cold that the can into which he urinated froze over. When he contracted diarrhea, he was allowed to go to a latrine, but there was no toilet paper. He had to use frozen tree leaves instead.

Eventually his captors began demanding that Schwable falsely admit to planning a bacteriological bombing campaign against North Korea. "They say black is white and you try in every way you can to show that black isn't white, but there is no use because you end up—black is white," he would recall after the war. The interrogation escalated until the Chinese threatened to kill him if he didn't confess. "There was absolutely no reason in the world why Frank Schwable should not have believed them," wrote military historian Raymond B. Lech, who recounted Schwable's tale in his harrowing 2000 account of life in the POW camps, Broken Soldiers.

Everything Schwable had to endure—the physical discomfort, the fear, the isolation—was boring away at his brain. "I can only portray this phase of the treatment by likening it to sitting for some 10 uninterrupted weeks on the floor of a closet in a deserted house," he would say later. He was living "under such a cloud of fear, futility and make believe—yet bitter realism—that confusion reigned supreme and I existed in a world of fantasy that is beyond my description." By the end of November, four weeks after his capture, Schwable was confessing to a litany of war crimes that expanded on a daily basis, most particularly his (nonexistent) role in a (nonexistent) U.S. aerial bombardment of North Korea with disease-ridden insects. As he penned his confession, he was no longer certain he was lying: "It was real to me, the conferences and how the planes would fly up there and how they would go about their missions—that was real."

For three days beginning February 22, 1953, Radio Peking aired his taped confession, which had also been filmed. When his signed confession was shown to his co-pilot, whose treatment had been similar, the man immediately broke and signed his own. The two men had been separated immediately after their capture, but the co-pilot caught a glimpse of Schwable from a nearby cell about three months into his interrogation and was shocked; the colonel, he said, looked like an exhausted little mouse with sunken jowls and droopy eyes, moving as if sleepwalking.

Schwable wouldn't be released until September 1953, a few months after the armistice that ended the Korean War. Even then, Winfred Overholser, a former head of the American Psychiatric Association who examined him, determined that Schwable was not competent "to exercise any substantial degree of judgment as to what he was about; that he was unable to judge the demands of the situation fully; that he was really, in essence, without a will."

I doubt if Patricia Hearst, the callow teenage newspaper heiress whose kidnapping and supposed conversion to gun-toting, bank-robbing urban guerrilla had a lock on the attention of a stunned America for 18 months in the mid-1970s, has ever heard of Schwable, whose ordeal was basically an asterisk to a little-remembered war that ended before she was even born.

And though Jeffrey Toobin, author of a new poison-pen account of Hearst's bizarre adventure, spends nearly 400 vituperative pages dismissing her claim that the crimes she committed after her kidnapping were the result of psychological coercion, it seems clear that he, too, knows nothing of Schwable, for he doesn't mention the colonel's case even once.

In fact, the passage above about Schwable is nearly as long as Toobin spends on the entire subject of Korean War POWs, or on the Swedish hostages who sided with their captors in a 1973 bank robbery (the incident that gave rise to the expression Stockholm syndrome). Yet both those cases involved essentially the same elements as Hearst's: normal people who, in the grip of totalitarian captors wielding their absolute control of information as a psychological battering ram, were induced to behave in a manner that was, for lack of a better word, crazy. Toobin's refusal to seriously consider the implications of this makes American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday) a disagreeable and very disappointing book.

It is not easy to botch an account of the Hearst case, which overflowed with primal cultural fears, political nutballery, criminal bang-bang, and lurid sexual subtexts. Hearst, the mildly rebellious (she cut high school classes and boinked her math teacher) 19-year-old daughter of the publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, was dragged half-naked and screaming from her apartment one night in 1974 by gunmen who shot up half the neighborhood in the process.

Nobody was wounded that night, but that's mostly a reflection of the urban-guerrilla skills of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the dippy collection of '60s leftovers who carried out the kidnapping.

Toobin sometimes seems to have painfully little knowledge of the era of which he writes. "The kidnapping of Patricia Hearst is very much a story of America in the 1970s, not the 1960s," he writes. "The 1960s were hopeful, the 1970s, sour." I don't know if the adjective "sour" perfectly applies to the Vietnam War, the Days of Rage, Bull Connor's dogs, the 1968 Democratic convention, and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, but I think the only person who found the 1960s "hopeful" was another artifact of the decade, Charles Manson.

Toobin does have the SLA's number, though. The group's 10 members were idiots spouting slogans like "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people!" They "spoke in a kind of pidgin leftist dialect," Toobin writes, "with phrases borrowed from the fashionable sources of the era," particularly their terrorist wing: Uruguay's Tupamaros, Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy's Red Brigades.

"In truth, the rhetoric means little," Toobin writes. "The words were scarcely understood by the SLA members who uttered them." The real depth of their political analysis became apparent the night of the Hearst kidnapping, when they kept shouting, "Where's the safe?! Where's the safe?!" They thought the rich kept their money not in stocks, bonds, and real estate but in bundles of greenbacks stashed behind paintings on the wall.

The SLA arose from one of the New Left's loonier projects, the idea that consciousness-raised prison inmates—the more violent, the better—could become the vanguard of the revolution. In California, the movement's stronghold, outlaw-chic Marxists fanned out through the prisons, deluging prisoners with turgid rhetoric. The inmates, who mostly saw an opportunity to score canteen goodies and furtive sexual favors, eagerly complied. At its best, the prison movement led to some bad music (Bob Dylan's croaking hymn "George Jackson") and awful social science (the famous Stanford prison experiment). At its worst, it unleashed an unholy violence that often as not consumed the revolutionaries as well as their intended targets.

No inmate saw the possibilities of the prison movement more clearly than Donald DeFreeze, who at age 30 had a rap sheet showing an impressive if inept fascination with guns and explosives. (One of his arrests came after he ran a red light on a bicycle while carrying a homemade bomb in the basket.) He molded the nucleus of the SLA inside prison, organizing the college-kid activists who visited him there into a support group, then took it underground after escaping.

DeFreeze's lumpen origins aside, most of the SLA members were case studies in the transmutations that were terrifying parents all over America in those days. Mizmoon (née Patricia) Soltysik had been an honor student, a cheerleader, and a Future Farmer of America. Her sometimes-lover Camilla Hall, daughter of a Lutheran minister, had been an earnest social worker after college. Nancy Ling Perry worked for the Barry Goldwater campaign before heading off to Whittier College, Richard Nixon's Quaker-founded alma mater. Willie Wolfe dreamed of being an archeologist and spent his high-school summers hunting fossils.

Before the kidnapping, the SLA had already used cyanide-tipped bullets to assassinate the popular (and, not incidentally, black) Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster for suggesting student ID cards—or, as the SLA called them, "Bio-Dossiers through the Forced Youth Identification Program" for the "Internal Warfare Identification System." Two SLA members had been arrested for the murder, and the plan was to offer to trade Hearst for their release, or, failing that, to impose a healthy revolutionary war tax on her family.

Back at their hideout, the militants tossed her into a darkened closet, where she would stay for the next six weeks. She was raped repeatedly, told her parents were trying to low-ball their ransom demands, warned that the FBI was planning an armed raid that would get her killed, and read to at night from Stalin's opus Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Occasionally, to prove she was still alive, Hearst would be ordered to tape a message to accompany the bombastic "communiqués" that the SLA regularly sent to the media.

Despite the communiqués' grandiose claims to multiple military units and their invocations of the Geneva Convention, as if the SLA were a signatory to international agreements, the group had neither the patience nor the skill for the slow process of cadre building. Their revolution was a cross between a kid's dress-up game and a McLuhan-esque media event. "Despite the rhetoric of the communiqués, the SLA was not a vehicle for social or political change; it was a spectacle, an instrument for getting attention for its own sake," Toobin observes.

It worked. As the communiqués kept coming, the kidnapping turned from a California story to a national one, making the covers of both Time and Newsweek, the 20th century equivalent of breaking the internet. The SLA's haunting taunts—"I am the nigger who hunts you now," warned DeFreeze in a tape after police leaked his identity to the press—and its decision to substitute a Hearst-family-funded food giveaway to the poor for a conventional ransom demand won the group back some of the support on the left it had lost with the Marcus Foster murder.

The SLA's tactics had an impact inside its safe house, too. Hearst underwent a profound psychological inversion while in captivity. Her tapes to the news media took on an increasingly strident tone. "You said it was out of your hands; what you should have said was that you washed your hands of it," she warned her father after the food giveaway devolved into a hideous Hobbesian riot. Two months after her kidnapping, she accused her parents of "playing games" with her survival, called her father "a corporate liar," and declared, "I have chosen to stay and fight." She announced she was taking the nom de guerre of Tania, Che Guevara's East German intelligence handler. A couple of weeks later, security cameras recorded Hearst, carrying a rifle, among several SLA members robbing a San Francisco bank.

From there, events took on a hallucinatory cast. The victim of a carjacking reported that Hearst was one of his kidnappers. She sprayed 30 shots into the wall of a sporting-goods store to free an SLA member being arrested for shoplifting. With two other SLA soldiers, she watched on TV as six of the group's members exchanged over 8,000 rounds of gunfire with cops in an apocalyptic shootout that ended with their hideout burning down around them. (She also listened as reporters speculated that she was inside, too.) She fled across the country to Pennsylvania, then returned a few months later to California, where she helped a newly expanded SLA carry out bombings and bank robberies, including one in which a customer was killed. When the FBI finally caught Hearst in September 1975, she listed her profession as "urban guerrilla."

Yet within weeks of her arrest, Hearst's lawyers were filing legal documents arguing that her 15 months as a terrorist and fugitive were a delusion brought on by—though they carefully avoided the term—brainwashing.

The question is: What happened inside that SLA safehouse? Did Patricia Hearst, college art major, publishing heiress, and matron in the making, really have a political epiphany in which she realized her parents were pigs and America a fascist concentration camp? Or was she a civilian version of Col. Schwable's broken soldier, cracking up under intolerable duress?

Toobin offers a third option: that Hearst was the equivalent of a jailhouse rat, cynically—and "rationally"—doing and saying whatever was convenient at the moment. "She reacted to her challenges in rational ways," he writes. "Surrounded by passionate outlaws who told her that the police were out to kill them, Patricia hit the road with her comrades to try to escape….But when they were all caught, Patricia was rational once more. A jail cell, and the prospect of many more years in one, prompted her to make haste to embrace her former life of privilege."

Toobin is undoubtedly correct when he argues that the SLA never planned, much less possessed the capability, to deliberately brainwash Hearst. To give you a sense of the group's grasp of science: These are people who turned their TV to the wall during meetings so the government couldn't spy on them through the screen. When they heard news reports that her parents were using psychics to help track her down, they instructed Hearst to keep her thoughts inside her brain.

Yet even if it was by chance, Hearst was buffeted by powerful psychological forces. First, outside events aligned in a way that seemed to confirm to Hearst much of what the SLA was saying. Attorney General William Saxbe, in an ill-advised comment to reporters, said the minute the FBI learned where Hearst was hidden, "they'd go get her," consequences be damned—a seeming corroboration of the group's warnings that the authorities regarded her life as acceptable collateral damage if it helped crush the revolution. And when the SLA-mandated food giveaway went off the rails, it was apparent confirmation of her family's indifference to Patricia's fate.

Meanwhile, SLA members inadvertently confused Hearst with their inconsistent behavior; one militant might yell death threats at her while another did her hair and made girl-talk chatter about a jailed boyfriend. "Their schizophrenic treatment of Patricia reflected the muddled thinking within the SLA," Toobin writes. "Literally and figuratively, the comrades didn't know what they were doing. But this non-strategy turned out to be a strategy itself, and so the body and the mind of their captive were whipsawed accordingly."

But it's doubtful that the Chinese who ran the POW camps for American soldiers during the Korean War were drawn from a behavioral-psychology faculty either, and certainly the Stockholm hostage takers didn't plan to rewire their captives' brains. The psychology between hostages or prisoners and their captors is twisted and poorly understood. Yet over and over we've seen that captives in isolation, in fear for their lives and with their access to information tightly controlled, make inexplicably awful choices.

What happened in those cases is something psychologists call coercive persuasion, not brainwashing. But American courts don't recognize that concept; a defendant trying to mount a psychological defense must either plead insanity (which obviously didn't fit in Hearst's case) or straightforward there-was-a-gun-to-my-head coercion (also not viable for Hearst, since there were plenty of opportunities for her to have escaped during her 15 months on the run).

Hearst's attorney, F. Lee Bailey, attempted to delicately thread the needle on the coercion defense, trying to enhance Hearst's testimony about coercion with some psychiatric testimony about her fears. But his witnesses weren't convincing, and the move backfired altogether when the prosecution countered with its own shrinks, who portrayed Hearst and the other SLA members as slutty political werewolves, the literal embodiment of every parental fear of the 1960s.

"How did a nice girl like that or a nice boy like that become an SLA member?" asked one of the prosecution witnesses, then answered his own question: Hearst had started sleeping with boys at the age of 15 and had "a very independent view about sexuality." She even complained about her fiancé "not responding to her own sexual initiatives when she had those desires." It may seem quaint now, when teenage three-ways are a staple of teenybopper TV channels like The CW, but the specter of untrammeled adolescent sexuality was still a potent one in the last strongholds of Lawrence Welk America in the mid-1970s. At a party in the Mississippi town where I was working as a reporter on the day Hearst was convicted in 1976, an argument about the verdict ended when one of the participants shouted, "She's guilty! She's been fuckin' since she was 12!"

Toobin observes, correctly, that the real loser in the case may have been the psychiatrists, who testified with such obdurate certainty, in such dialectically opposed directions, that the average person could hardly conclude anything other than that "psychiatry could scarcely be much of a science."

Yet if the shrinks had indeed, in his acid phrase, "sacrificed professional humility for a fatuous certainty," they also illustrated the issue at the heart of the case: the divide over the concept of free will. Toobin, quoting historian Rick Perlstein, says the defense psychiatrists "offered up what was essentially a left-wing view of the self—as plastic, protean, moldable—and of human beings as the product of their environment, not quite responsible for their individual decisions and acts." The prosecution's experts, Toobin notes, "reflected a more right-wing view…that individuals were accountable for their own actions and that indulged children, rich or poor, had no right to blame circumstances for their choices in life."

It seems to me there's room for a third view, which is that if you kidnap a teenager, throw her in a closet, rape her for six weeks, and then warn her with apparent justification that the police will shoot her to pieces the first time they get a chance, some odd behavior may be the result.

The jury, like Toobin, didn't accept the defense's argument—the first time around. Though he doesn't mention it, 11 jurors attended a reunion a year later, where they talked a good deal about the damage their six-week sequestration during the trial (under circumstances, obviously, that were much easier than those endured by Hearst) had inflicted on their marriages and professional lives. They then unanimously declared that if they were doing it again, they'd vote to acquit.

Hearst's conviction and sentence—seven years in prison, about the average for a bank robbery in San Francisco's federal court—ought to lay to rest any idea that she got a 1-percenter discount from the criminal justice system. Yet Toobin chooses to concentrate on her family's campaign to get her sentence commuted, which he actually compares to the efforts of her grandfather, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, to use lurid and sometimes apocryphal atrocity yarns to draw the United States into the Spanish-American War: "As before, the Hearsts' tale was believable, if not exactly true." That's a stretch LeBron James would be proud of, especially when you consider the campaign's "success." When President Carter signed the commutation in 1979, Patricia was released just five months before her probable parole date.

Toobin's daft conflation of a five-month sentence reduction with a war that took upward of 60,000 lives is of a piece with American Heiress' one-sided approach. There are, undeniably, some weird anomalies in the Hearst case. She has often been inconsistent (sometimes wildly so) in her accounts of what happened. And some of her actions—in particular, her use of a gun to free one of her SLA comrades from the shoplifting bust instead of taking what seemed like a perfect opportunity to turn herself in—certainly defy attempts to portray her as a helpless victim.

So there's room for reasonable people to disagree about the interpretation of the facts. But Toobin could have done a much better job of engaging the questions that those facts raise. On top of that, his book is persistently, unpleasantly colored by distaste for what he sees as the indolence and dissipated bloodlines of the Hearst family, particularly its female components. At times it seems the whole of American Heiress is a setup for Toobin's parting shot that Hearst, now a widowed grandmother, won a prize for her Shih Tzu in the 2015 Westminster Dog Show. "The story of Patricia Hearst, as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable, ending," notes Toobin in a tone that suggests he's reading an indictment. "She turned into her mother."

It is indeed disconcerting—though also sort of amusing—to overhear jailhouse chatter in which Patricia's mother Catherine read an entire Northern California town out of the book of life over its merchandising choices. ("Three stores selling waterbeds! Can you imagine, in Marysville?!") But to me this pales next to Emily Harris, one of the SLA soldiers, explaining why she shotgunned a Sacramento housewife to death during a bank robbery: "So what if she got shot? Her husband is a doctor. She's a bourgeois pig."

Sisterhood is powerful!