CNN's Patty Hearst Docuseries Shows Surprising Depth

Jeffrey Toobin's book on the kidnapped heiress was a mess. This telling is much better.


Patty Hearst
Archival photo

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. CNN. Sunday, February 11, 9 p.m.

Not to be flippant, but I sometimes think Patricia Hearst—the kidnapped heiress turned bank robber turned brainwash victim, not necessarily in that order—has been my personal full-employment program. I've been writing newspaper and magazine stories about her almost from the moment she was kidnapped in 1974, a stream of assignments that shows no sign of ending.

I am, however, small economic potatoes compared to CNN's Jeffrey Toobin. After buying 150 boxes of research materials from one of Hearst's kidnappers—defense files compiled for their criminal trials, including secret FBI documents and reports from private investigators—he leveraged it into a series of blockbuster media properties: A book! A podcast! A movie! A TV series!

The film was deep-sixed by a timid studio, at least temporarily, when an angry Hearst played the #MeToo card. (Satiate unfulfilled longing for a big-screen treatment with all those Patty-porn flicks from the 1970s or even Paul Schrader's lacerating 1988 film Patty Hearst.)

But the TV show has arrived. Toobin's six-part documentary, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, kicks off on CNN with back-to-back episodes Sunday. And somewhat to my surprise, there is still considerable life in the story, despite who is telling it.

Hearst, an heiress to the Hearst media fortune, was an apolitical 19-year-old college kid when she was grabbed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of semi-literate and fully crazy "urban guerrillas" who had already killed an Oakland school superintendent for his imagined fascism. (He wanted to introduce student IDs to the school system.)

They threw her into a closet for six weeks, raped her, and threatened to kill her, reading her to sleep at night with the works of Stalin. When Hearst emerged two months later, she declared she had switched sides—"I have chosen to stay and fight"—and was now at war with the "pig Hearsts." What followed was a lunatic rollercoaster ride of bank robberies, shootouts, and bombings that ended with most of the SLA members dead and Hearst in the custody of the FBI, claiming to be brainwashed.

As I wrote when Toobin's book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst appeared in 2016, "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."

Toobin, however, proved himself equal to the task, managing to somehow produce a text with the batty lynch-mistress vehemence of his former CNN colleague Nancy Grace that was nonetheless as dull as the Stalinist semiotics the SLA loved.

With barely a few sentences about real-life instances of what psychologists called coercive persuasion that might lend weight to Hearst's brainwashing defense—American POWs in North Korea who confessed to preposterous accusations of biological warfare, the bank-robbery hostages so smitten by their captors that they prompted the coining of the phrase "Stockholm syndrome," the hundreds of members of Rev. Jim Jones' doomsday temple in Guyana who let him talk them into mass suicide—Toobin blithely declared Hearst a thrill-seeking rich kid invoking class privilege who belonged in jail.

There was no reason to expect anything different from The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. But, startlingly, Toobin proves himself a much better storyteller when the medium is video, at least for the first five hours or so.

A large part of that is due to the surprising presence of a couple of long-silent participants in the Hearst drama. One is Steven Weed, Hearst's fiancé (and, ahem, former high school math teacher) at the time of her kidnapping.

To many of the Americans following the case, Weed seemed a sketchy character from the beginning, a sexual wastrel in search of teenage nookie and a lifetime lunch ticket from a rich daddy.

The impression was bolstered in the tapes Hearst sent from underground proclaiming her conversion, which described him in progressively more brutal terms until cutting him loose as "a sexist, ageist pig" that she never wanted to see again. Up close, the picture got worse; Weed, in those days, apparently had some quality that his acquaintances found extraordinarily grating.

I've bumped into a number of them over the years and they all behave much like the proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall used book store in Southern California did when he saw me picking up a battered old copy of a book Weed wrote about the Hearst case. "I lived down the hall from Steve at Princeton," he said, shaking his head. "What an asshole!"

Why Weed, now a sunken-cheeked old man nearing 70, would want to put himself back in the line of this fire is a perplexing question. But he actually acquits himself quite well, relating small details of his life with Hearst that turn her from a tabloid caricature to the cute, charming teenager she really was. Weed even—rather gallantly, under the circumstances—defends her, decrying the portrait of a spoiled rich kid taking a walk on the wild side painted by Toobin: "I think it's not that simple."

The other surprise guest is William Harris, a bluff ex-marine who was part of the SLA team that grabbed Hearst and styled himself "General Teko" in the group's grandiloquent communiqués.

If Weed's interviews make Hearst seem more human, Harris' make the SLA guerrillas much less so, destroying any notion that these were simply frustrated idealists who pursued their cause with a slight but understandable excess of enthusiasm.

A bully (Rolling Stone, in a 1976 account of life in the SLA, memorably described Hearst snapping "Kiss my cunt, Adolf!" to his constant orders) and a fool (his errors led the FBI to the group's Los Angeles hideout, where six members were killed in a shootout), Harris still glows with the murderous arrogance of the 1970s New Left.

He laughs like he's recounting a fraternity prank as he describes Hearst's kidnapping and prickles with irritation that he had to go to prison for murder because the SLA fatally shot an bystander during one of its bank robberies. Her death, he loftily declares, was trivial compared to his historic duty to obliterate capitalism: "It didn't change anything about what I was doing."

The woman who was killed, Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four, was in the bank to deposit her church's collection-plate receipts. Even by the SLA's insane definition of "enemy of the people," she was innocent of any offense. The moral obliviousness of the SLA and its supporters to her death is a stark indictment that, to this day, they do not even comprehend.

One of those supporters was a woman named Micki Scott, who with her sociologist husband, Jack, helped conceal the SLA for several months before sending the members back to California and their fateful encounter with Mrs. Opsahl. In the documentary, Scott is asked if she ever had any second thoughts about helping them. Her eyes widen as she says it was a decision of conscience. "I can't imagine how I would feel if I didn't do it," she replies. It clearly does not occur to her for even a moment to wonder how Mrs. Opsahl's children would feel.