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.

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  1. I may be a little off here, but I have little trust in Toobin.


    1. Toobin really is a colossal douchebag on a channel with no shortage of fuckwits. He’s like that annoying 9th grader that you put up with in high school until you’d had it and gave him a wedgie and the swirly at the same time in the can at lunch. In lieu of knocking his teeth in…

    2. No, you’re not (see below).

      It remains to be seen whether CNN, to save its own behind from a bankrupting libel action, put Jeffrey on a leash.

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  2. They threw her into a closet for six weeks, raped her and threatened

    Wait, was this the #MeToo part of her story?

    1. Technically, Hearst was not raped since, under California law at the time, rape required resistance (which she could not offer) and was negative by consent (which she could not refuse). Bailey made the distinction at trial and simply had her answer, “…Had sexual intercourse.” It was U.S. Atty. Browning, on cross-examination, who first used the term, “rape.”

      What actually happened was that a psychiatrist retained by the Hearsts, Dr. Frederick Hacker, gave an interview to Newsweek and the Examiner (Hearst’s newspaper at the time in SF), in which he mentioned how female kidnapping victims often develop “strange sexual relationships” with their male abductors. Hearst’s captors had been investigating how to brainwash her at the time, and Hacker’s revelation gave them ideas.

      So, rape? No.

      But, you would be accurate to call it a Nazi-style medical experiment (which psychologically, probably was worse).

  3. reading her to sleep at night with the works of Stalin.

    This is called Friday Night at Noam Chomsky’s house.

    Toobin blithely declared Hearst a thrill-seeking rich kid invoking class privilege who belonged in jail.

    Are you serious?!!

    1. It is pretty much any evening at a progressives home…..

    2. Well, what they actually read to her were passages from George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, which talks about putting “pigs” like her or her parents to death (@ p. 16). Elsewhere, Jackson specifically mentions the Hearsts (@ p. 3) as well as black establishmentarians like Louis Lomax (pp. 3-4) and declares, “When we leap to destroy the ‘owner,’ we’ll have these kinds of niggers to fight.”

      Hearst, of course, knew that the people who had her also were the killers of black establishmentarian Marcus Foster. In other words, her “bedtime reading” consisted of constant threats against her life by indirection as part of what the S.L.A. called a “war of nerves” against “the enemy.”

      Hearst was telling the truth here; Toobin’s intentional refusal to believe her and to prefer the accounts of her abductors, at least in his book, constitutes reckless disregard for truth, including what he could have learned by actually reading his own listed bibliographical sources.

  4. Drunk History did it better.

    1. Drunk History, Battle of Hastings, highly recommended. Oh and Catherine Park and King Henry, another winner.

      1. And any with Jenny Slate as I love her.

  5. It’s good to be reminded how deeply weird the 70s were every once in a while. Cos that’s where we seem to be headed again…

    1. I enjoyed the ’70’s just fine. still clean hallucinogenics, more freedom, far less of the police state…I’d gladly go back there. And start over knowing what we know now. I mean, did you live it? There are a lot of youngsters on here. I really appreciate your comments here, Rhywun, and have for, well, however long you’ve been around here, but did you actually live the 70’s?

      1. Yeah, I was in high school in the late 70’s. Didn’t really enjoy it then, and despised them for years afterwards, although I expect circumstances I was in affected that outlook. I’ve eventually made my peace with that decade, and can at least appreciate it for what it was.

        Go back though? Not unless I can take enough knowledge to avoid certain mistakes/understandings I had then.

  6. I’d rather hear the story from a legitimate news organization.

    1. “Legitimate” news organizations won’t tell the story at all, perhaps can’t, since part of being a “legitimate” news organization these days is believing in the strange kind of American fascism that almost all of the readers of this magazine reject.

      But, if Reason wants to carry the ball…

  7. Those 70s events fuckin’ rocked.

    Today we have HILLARY HAD STATE SECRETS ON HER COMPUTER!! and NUNEZ MEMO!! and HE TOUCHED MY HOT ASS!! and other who-the-fuck-cares.

    1. People with sideburns got in shootouts with the police. It was awesome.

      1. And the police had sideburns too! Crazy times.

        1. “Make my day” -Dirty Harry

      2. Vigilantes and radicals also denoted homemade bombs. Don’t forget that. That was before the internet knowledge base too.

        1. They had the Anarchist Cookbook.

  8. Plus, snitches weren’t messing it up for high school boys banging their female teachers.

    1. And I expect there were more of us that would admit that wanted to (not the snitching part).

  9. Phew!! After commenting on a ’70’s diss, I feel vindicated by all the following comments! Thanks guys!!

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  11. I, like Glenn Garvin, have followed the case from the beginning; unlike Glenn, I actually have (and have had for 35 years) the F.B.I. files on the case (Mr. Toobin at one point approached me for them, but I declined after it was clear I could not trust him).

    I cannot really complain about anything Mr. Garvin said, supra, but readers should know that Toobin’s book is full of genuinely grotesque errors that would put CNN in danger of a libel suit were it to be broadcast literally. It sounds like Glenn has seen the first episodes, and I have seen the trailers only, but one thing I immediately noticed was that the trailer has Patricia firing at Mel’s Sporting Goods Store from the wrong side of the street, and that’s so sloppy that I have to wonder whether the movie will be that much better than the book.

    1. Update (12 February 2018): So far, another roller-skate tour through pre-selected elements of the case; and, like a bull being played by a matador, viewers simply are being led down the primrose path while being deceived by the cape.

      For those who wish not to be stuck on the thorns at the moment of truth: William Harris claimed that the words Hearst recited on tape #2 were her own. Although formal radio-engineering reports made by the F.B.I. laboratory remain undiscovered to this day, one teletype has slipped through. On it, the Bureau admits that it could hear Donald Defreeze whispering the words of tape #2 to Patricia Hearst, after which she recites them verbatim into the machine.

      Billy Harris is NOT an honest witness, and sooner or later we all will know that. He has had 40 years to polish his story, but that is not going to save him.

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  14. I thought Toobin’s book was really poorly written.
    Bill Harris comes across in the CNN piece as a complete asshole.
    Little mention anywhere about Theon Wheeler and Mary Alice Siem.
    Appreciate this article by Glenn Garvin and comments by Robert Crim.
    It seems like the SLA sit somewhere between the Manson Family and the Weather Underground.
    I remember the tag line as “Death to the fascist insect who preys upon the lifeblood of the people.” not “the life” of the people.

    1. Actually, I gave him good grades for the writing (but for little else).

      Saying actually was: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

      Mary Alice Siem was Thero Wheeler’s girlfriend and last to see him before he escaped. Robyn Sue Steiner, girlfriend of Russell Little, admits that she, Nancy Ling Perry, Little, and Willy Wolfe sprung Wheeler and eventually linked him to Donald “Cinque” Defreeze. In a letter to Jan Curtis in August 1973, Perry confirmed details of Steiner’s revelation. I understand that Mizmoon Soltysik drove the getaway car and later was censured for driving it into a ditch (Wheeler and his guards had to pull it back on the road).

      Steiner, who was living with the Harrises at the time of Marcus Foster’s murder, says BOTH Harrises were party to the Symbionese conspiracy by then and adds that she, Robyn, stole the cyanide from Laney College. I can confirm only William Harris’ involvement, but that exposes yet another lie he told through CNN.

      Siem and Wheeler split from the group after Marcus Foster was killed; neither were party to kidnapping Hearst. Siem and Wheeler were attacked by Defreeze, Perry, and Soltysik, threatened with death, and robbed of $600 — not how to keep friends or guarantee their silence. Wheeler fled to Houston and was arrested two years later. Siem eventually went to the F.B.I. Rumor has it that Siem helped fund the early S.L.A. with her inheritance, but she has refused to talk about that.

  15. Update on the series: William Harris’ nose grows longer by the minute!

    Of course, not everything Harris says is an outright fabrication. But, he is a master at telling a half truth in a way that leads the listener to a total lie. And, one always can count on him to minimize to any extent possible his own participation in criminal activity.

    Given this, one has to wonder at just what kind of interviewing CNN’s reporters even tried to do. Their most aggressive approach occurred when they tried to get Harris to explain why Patricia Hearst would want to sleep with Willy Wolfe when he only had appeared before her previously, wearing a ski mask. But, they then allowed Harris to simply dismiss this without further probing.

    Never embarrass the source whose preferred account you prefer!

    Again, we have Mr. Toobin declaring his conclusion based on his truncated selection of evidence. The interview with Tom Matthews was a coup, but readers should know that the critical part of Matthews’ account has been suppressed — by the police as well as Toobin — and by law enforcement for 40 years.

    One may arrive at any conclusion he desires when all he does is look at the evidence he likes.

  16. Well, the series finally is over, and the verdict is in — and there is NO reason to alter my previous conclusion: One may arrive at any conclusion he desires when all he does is look at the evidence he likes. And, in six hours of video, never once did Jeffrey Toobin or his associates mention that Patricia Hearst feared death at the hands not only of her captors but of the police and F.B.I. as well.

    This is inexcusable from someone who calls himself an expert on the case worthy of a book contract from Doubleday.

    The following sources mention this critical dimension of the case:

    The Trial of Patty Hearst (commercial transcript);
    Patricia Hearst, Every Secret Thing;
    Steven Weed, My Search for Patty Hearst;
    United States v. Hearst, 563 F.2d 1331, 1338 (9th Cir., 1977), cert.den. 435 U.S. 1000;
    Robert Brainard Pearsall, The Symbionese Liberation Army;
    John Bryan, This Soldier Still at War;
    any book containing Hearst’s words recorded onto the seventh tape, e.g., Vin McClellan & Paul Avery, The Voices of Guns.

    Other books prove that politicians and law-enforcement personnel, themselves, incited Patricia’s belief:

    Marilyn Baker, Exclusive! The Inside Story of Patty Hearst and the SLA;
    John & Francine Pascal, The Strange Case of Patty Hearst;
    Jerry Belcher & Don West, Patty/Tania….

    1. And the list could go on. All but the legal opinion are listed in Toobin’s bibliography; he quotes all these sources in his text, and as CNN’s self-proclaimed legal analyst, he simply cannot be unfamiliar with the principal appellate opinion on the case. CNN billed its series by telling people, “You don’t know the half of” Patricia Hearst’s story. What the series proves is that CNN doesn’t know the half of it either, or that if it does, has elected not to enlighten any of us.

      In the actual Hearst trial, there was a government “expert” fully equal to Jeff Toobin in his pretense: Joel Fort claimed he had “consulted” some 283 books in the course of preparing testimony for the Government; included in his list were at least one tome providing brainwashing instructions once used by the French (not all brainwashing is done by communists) and another in which the murder of a Hearst is openly praised. Yet, Fort’s opinion was that Patricia was under no compulsion whatsoever and was, in fact, “the queen of the S.L.A.”

      Toobin has made clear his position is no different — and incidentally, he includes the second of Fort’s embarrassing volumes in his own bibliography as well and, on my personal knowledge, was aware of the other one also….

  17. Apparently, like Fort, Toobin believes that “consulting” a book consists of no more than picking it up and moving it to the far side of his coffee table. Fine: Maybe that is enough to avoid a perjury rap, but it falls far short of establishing that either Toobin or Fort are anything more than frauds.

    Like Toobin’s book, American Heiress, CNN’s series will serve to introduce the newer generations to one of the more fascinating criminal cases in our history. It is, however, no more than a roller-skate tour of evidence selected to advance a rather twisted version of what actually happened. Toobin has tried to convince us that he was the first man to scale the K2 mountain of evidence without oxygen. But, those familiar with the case know that all he really has done is fly an airplane over it. Four times in his book he refers to the F.B.I. case file as “HERNAP.” The actual name is “HEARNAP” — which says all that must be said about Toobin’s claims of scholarship upon access to “secret” F.B.I. files. The reality is that the copies of these files actually belong to me (I’ve had one set for more than 35 years), and what I can assure readers here is that the one person I did not share them with is Jeffrey Toobin.

    He’s talking through his hat.

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