A few days after being kidnapped, in February 1974, Patricia Hearst recorded a message to her family from the closet where she was held. “Today is Friday the eighth,” she said, “and in Kuwait, the commandos negotiated the release of their hostages, and they left the country.” News can function as a time-stamp, which is a truth that lies at the heart of American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, by The Run of His Life author Jeffrey Toobin.
The publishing heiress was seized by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a ragtag but dangerous group of radicals, and soon seemed to become one of them. She joined in robberies and went on the lam before being arrested, tried, convicted and pardoned. Was Hearst–who didn’t participate in the book–criminal or victim? Little reading between the lines is needed to see which conclusion (Option A) is drawn by Toobin, who had access to previously unexamined documents.
But while this tale is both well-known and insular (settings include a closet, a safe house and a jail), Toobin effectively positions it within the ’70s milieu, and that’s why it’s worth revisiting, no matter what you think of Hearst’s culpability. All this is going down alongside Watergate, post-’60s violence, inflation and the brutal end of the war in Vietnam–and that’s just in the first few chapters.
Seeing Hearst as a prism for her era gets harder after her capture. The trial was always going to be less gripping to read about than her life on the run, notwithstanding Toobin’s legal expertise. And so the book’s momentum tapers, but perhaps for good reason: the lesson that Toobin draws from Hearst, about how privilege can affect justice, is, unfortunately, timeless.
This appears in the August 08, 2016 issue of TIME.