The Invisible Leash: The Patty Hearst Case and the Crazy Things Victims Do

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Last Updated: 30 Mar 2021
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In April 1974, roughly two months after they kidnapped Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) released a photo of Hearst as evidence that she was no longer a kidnap victim but a willing member of their group. In the photo, Hearst is pictured alone (no other members of the Symbionese Liberation Army are evident). She stands off centered in the photo (to the left) in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s symbol, a seven-headed cobra (“Symbionese Liberation Army”).

Her stance is aggressive: her legs are apart as if she is braced and ready to shoot; her gun is pointed (not at the viewer, but off to the viewer’s right); and her finger is on the trigger. The gun itself is a serious weapon, a carbine. And Hearst’s attire is militaristic and revolutionary: she wears pants, tight, military-type clothing, and a beret of the same sort worn by revolutionary Che Guevera, in the famous photo of him snapped by Alberta Korda (“Che Guevara”). Moreover, the background color in the photo of Hearst is red, a color that suggests violence and aggression.

In the lower right corner of the photo, another machine gun rests against the wall, only the upper portion of the gun is visible (its barrel), and it’s pointing upward, toward the top of the photo. While this photo is meant to depict Hearst as a willing member of the SLA, it isn’t quite successful. That is, it suggests a more complex truth: that people sometimes play roles that do not fully describe them and in which they are not at home. A close look at the photo reveals that Patty Hearst, though she assumes the stance of a guerrilla, is anything but that.

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Her gaze is not directed violently at the viewer; instead, she looks to the side, transforming herself into the object of the gaze rather than being the gazer. This is in sharp contrast to Korda’s famous photo of Che Guevara, whose hat style Hearst has adopted. In his photo, Guevara faces the audience squarely and audaciously (“Che Guevara”). Hearst’s posture may be audacious, but the direction of her gaze reveals submission. Other details in the photo also suggest that she is less than at home in her role as aggressive warrior.

Her gun, for example, is pointed to the side - just as is her gaze. She’s not threatening the viewer with the gun; she’s exposing herself to the viewer. Plus, though none of the SLA members are present in the photo with Hearst, the unmanned, projecting gun in the lower right corner of the photo draws the eye and reminds the viewer that just off stage lurks a threat. With her glance to the side, Hearst seems almost focused on this threat. Indeed, a quick look at her eyes reveals dark circles under them.

Her mouth is pinched and drawn. These are indicators that she may be uncomfortable, even stressed in her new role. In fact, the photo, along with an audio communication from Hearst on which she called her father a “corporate liar” and explained that she was joining the SLA and taking a new name (“SLA: Tania”), caused her fiance and her parents to “[speculate] that Hearst had been brainwashed or coerced. ” They did not believe that the Patty Hearst they were seeing and hearing was the “real” Patty Hearst (“SLA: Patty Hearst).

And, indeed, Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, seems to have changed over the course of her kidnapping. Compare, for example, two of her communiques with her parents. The first was received February 12, only 9 days after armed gunman kidnapped her from her fiance’s apartment on the night of February 4, 1974 (“Radically”). In this communique, she says: Mom, Dad, I’m OK. I’m with a combat unit that’s armed with automatic weapons. And these people aren’t just a bunch of nuts.

They’ve been really honest with me but they’re perfectly willing to die for what they’re doing. And I want to get out of here but the only way I’m going to is if we do it their way. And I just hope that you’ll do what they say Dad and just do it quickly. And I mean I hope that this puts you a little bit at ease and that you know that I really, really am alright. I just hope I can get back to everybody really soon. (“The Patty Hearst Tapes”) Here Hearst focuses almost entirely on her own situation, telling her parents who has taken her and what her parents need to do to free her.

She mentions that her captors are serious but says very little about their political agenda. She sounds, in fact, very much like one might expect a kidnapped, 19-year-old to sound. By day 59 of Hearst’s captivity, her communiques reveal that her focus has changed from herself to the SLA’s cause. Mom, Dad. Tell the poor and oppressed people of this nation what the corporate state is about to do. Warn Black and poor people that they are about to be murdered down to the last man, woman, and child.

Tell the people that the energy crisis is nothing more than a means to get public approval for a massive program to build nuclear power plants all over the nation. The message goes on in this vein and culminates with the following: “I have chosen to stay and fight. I have been given the name Tania after a comrade who fought alongside Che in Bolivia. It is in the spirit of Tania that I say, ‘Patria o Muerte, Venceremos’” (“The Patty Hearst Tapes”). The Latin phrase means “Fatherland or death: We shall overcome” (Cox), and it suggests Hearst’s transformation from heiress to warrior.

Clearly Hearst had changed, and after she was caught on video camera robbing a bank with the SLA only a few months after she’d been kidnapped (Ramsland), Americans caught up in the story were left to debate whether a person is always responsible for his or her own actions. In an article published in the National Review during Hearst’s 1976 trial, one commentator gave specific voice to the questions many people were asking themselves: When given the opportunity, why didn’t Hearst “reassert her own individuality and [try] to escape? And, even more succinctly, the commentator asks: “Is Hearst guilty? ” (“What Is Guilt? ” 258). Hearst was eventually sentenced to 7 years in prison for helping the SLA with their criminal activities (including bank robberies), but President Carter had her released after only 22 months (Chua-Eoan), and, in 2001, President Clinton pardoned her (“Radically”), wiping her record clean. President Clinton’s pardon suggests that Hearst was not responsible for what she did. It suggests that under specific conditions, a person can behave in ways for which she must not be held responsible.

In a nutshell, it suggests that those who have endured traumatic experiences (victims) are not necessarily accountable for what they do. And, indeed, by most accounts, Hearst’s experience was traumatic. During the first several weeks of her captivity (prior to her participation in the first of several bank robberies), she was (according to her own accounts) kept in a dark closet. She was “sexually assaulted” (“Truth” 201). She was told that her parents were “insects” and that she was a member of a class of people that was “sucking blood” from the commoners.

When her father visited San Quentin (as part of a ransom demand made by the SLA), and he reported that the conditions of the prisoners there was fine, Hearst’s captors reportedly told her that her living conditions (in the cramped, dark closet) were similar to those of the San Quentin prisoners. The take home message for Hearst was that her “tiny cell, stale air, and gloomy walls were [considered by her father to be] an acceptable environment for his daughter. ” Her captors led her to feel increasingly alienated from her old life and from her family (“Tania’s World”).

Subject to severe trauma, a person may not behave rationally or in keeping with what might be expected. For example, in 2007, when police found and liberated Shawn Hornbeck, a boy who had been abducted 4 years earlier (when he was only 12), one of the questions that surfaced repeatedly was: why didn’t he run? During at least the last two or three of his years of captivity, his captor (Michael Devlin) allowed Shawn a tremendous amount of freedom. Shawn went to school, rode his bike, and had multiple opportunities to report his situation to authorities, but he didn’t (Tresniowski, Grout, and Finan).

Shawn’s attorney speculates that an “invisible leash” kept Shawn from running (qtd. in Tresniowski, Grout, and Finan). And C. Robert Cloninger, a medical doctor at the Sanson Center for Well-Being in St. Louis, indicates that victims may “[bond] with their abductors” in order to “feel safe”: Once you’ve begun to identify with your captor, you don’t have to fear them anymore, because you’re in harmony with them…We see this in hostage situations, where the emotional brain short circuits the rational brain. (qtd. in Tresniowski, Grout, and Finan)

It was this same “invisible leash” that made Hearst do the seemingly crazy things she did: rob banks, hide from the law, remain with the SLA. A close look at her history and a careful look at the now infamous SLA photo of Hearst reveal the truth: she may have pretended to be Tania, but that was a temporary role, assumed under extreme circumstances to protect herself. Her transformation from “an apolitical rich girl” to a “gun-toting radical” (“Radically”) tells us more about the events that she was caught up in than about who she was.

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The Invisible Leash: The Patty Hearst Case and the Crazy Things Victims Do. (2017, May 05). Retrieved from

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