Patty Hearst: How the Outlaw Heiress Became a Chameleon

Patricia Hearst in 'Serial Mom', Center: Hearst's 1975 mugshot, Right: Hearst and one of her prize-winning dogs.

Almost 40 years after her release from prison, Patty Hearst finds herself -- and her confusing and compelling story -- under public scrutiny again, thanks to a CNN documentary series, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, based on Jeffrey Toobin's 2016 book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Both capture the political chaos, social unrest, and taut social hierarchy that the Hearst heiress unwittingly found herself caught up in, when she was kidnapped from her Berkeley home in 1974.

Her reasons for joining her captors, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and carrying out a series of shocking crimes while on the run with them remain muddy, but in a 2016 Conan appearance, Toobin compared Hearst's year and a half-long rampage to an ISIS recruitment.

Toobin argues in his work that Hearst wasn't brainwashed, but that a solid period of isolation and indoctrination at the hands of her captors made her believe that changing the world by any means necessary was the right thing to do.

This is not an unreasonable assertion. During her 1975 arrest, after participating in two bank robberies (the second of which resulted in the death of Myrna Opsahl), a shoot-out (that she started while trying to rescue one of her captor-comrades), and a number of car thefts, Hearst told the arresting officer that her profession was "urban guerrilla." This was after she gave a clenched-fist salute to awaiting photographers from the back of a police car. Six out of eight of Hearst's kidnappers died in a fiery gun battle with the LAPD, but she remained on the run for a full 16 months after that, until her capture.

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Hearst made for a convincing and passionate revolutionary, but quickly became a sympathetic kidnap victim too. She and her family managed to convince President Carter to commute her 7-year sentence and allow her to go free after just 22 months. Utterly convinced that Hearst was "a model citizen in every way," Carter also managed to convince President Clinton to give her a full pardon in 2001.

After being pardoned, Patricia appeared on Larry King Live, and passionately spoke out against the SLA. Shortly after that interview, Hearst was granted immunity for testifying against four members of the SLA over the murder of Myrna Opsahl.

Hearst, at her core, is a script-flipper. She was able to convince a band of revolutionaries that she was one of them. Then she was able to convince the people in charge of the most respected institutions in the United States that she was one of them. All this time -- and this might be the most remarkable part -- she has somehow been able to simultaneously play both sides effectively.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, while arguing that her recruitment into the SLA was merely a survival tactic brought about by horrendous physical and mental abuse, she also publicly reveled in her ultimate-rebel status by making a series of tongue-in-cheek appearances in John Waters movies.

Waters put Hearst in 1990's Cry Baby, then 1994's Serial Mom, 1998's Pecker, and 2004's A Dirty Shame. Hearst shrugged off her work with the "King of Trash" as simply a case of talent and chemistry. "Well, he likes me and my work," she once said, "and I like working with him."

Cecil B. DeMented though, proved it wasn't that simple. Waters' 2000 movie was transparently inspired by Hearst's years on the run, featuring, as it did, the kidnapping of a rich, beautiful actress at the hands of movie-making guerrillas. The gang unleashes her inner rebel, and she grows to enjoy the anarchy of her new life. In the end (spoiler alert!), most of Honey Whitlock's kidnapper-comrades die in a battle with police -- one of them literally setting himself on fire to save her -- and she is arrested. The parallels aren't just unmistakable, they are blatant.

It's hard to figure out how and why the angry and traumatized woman from that Larry King interview would be involved in the making of a film that trivialized the experience. Though it's worth noting that John Waters has asserted repeatedly that Hearst "was brainwashed," and "whatever she did, she did to stay alive." Waters is also such an admirer of Hearst's that he has the glasses she was wearing at the time of her arrest framed in his downstairs bathroom.

It's a testament to Hearst's ability to play both sides that a woman who used her wealth and connections to get out of a prison sentence remains a potent symbol for a multitude of activists and rebels. In far-left corners, Hearst is still held up as a symbol of hope; an example that demonstrates that, with the right dissemination of information, you can turn even the wealthiest of debutantes into a fighter for the most vulnerable corners of society. Hearst returning to a life of opulence the second she got out of prison barely even registers. Neither does her current status as a Westminster Dog Show champion.  

Images of Patricia Hearst from the counterculture:
Left: A 1996 print by director/ designer Mike Mills.
Right: A 2004 image by America's most famous graffiti artist, Shepard Fairey.

Even her son-in-law, Talking Dead and @midnight presenter Chris Hardwick (he married Patricia's lookalike daughter, Lydia, in 2016), has found it difficult to know where the lines are for Hearst. In an interview with Larry King, Hardwick said that his mom-in-law was "super fun, really funny... I [told Lydia] 'I don’t know if I want your mom to see me do stand-up. I have a filthy sense of humor.' And she goes 'John Waters is one of her best friends! You’re not going to offend her.' And I didn’t -- she’s great.”

In the end, Patricia Hearst is a chameleon. She is a good girl, and a rebel, and a victim, and the ultimate survivor. She is down-to-earth, and a socialite. Her life is in kitsch counterculture, and it is in suburbia, as a mom of two. And, somehow, she makes all of it look perfectly natural. Somehow, she seems to have an uncanny knack of reflecting back whatever, and whomever, is in front of her -- and charming all of them.

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"I think if you spend too much time worrying about how everybody else is perceiving this, then you kind of miss your own life," she once told TV Guide. "I just don't like dwelling on myself as much as other people do."

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