It had only been 2 months since the high-profile kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst when she shocked the world with a public appearance. For those present for the robbery at Hibernia Bank on April 15, 1974, watching Hearst confidently wield an assault rifle would not align with the narrative of the young hostage they knew.
Along with other members of the small domestic terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), Hearst took charge of rounding up civilians under the pseudonym “Tania.” Months later, she would be spotted in another minor theft where she opened fire into a storefront, though no one was harmed.
Her eventual arrest led to a controversial trial that questioned if the so-called Stockholm Syndrome was behind Hearst’s crimes. Mental health professionals have been trying to make sense of this unusual case for decades, but they’ve yet to reach a definite conclusion.
Early Life, Kidnapping and Crime
Born on February 20, 1954, Patricia Hearst was among media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s many grandchildren. While she grew up privileged, the young heiress had a rebellious streak during her teen years.
At the time of her kidnapping, the 19-year-old Hearst was engaged and pursuing higher education at the University of California in Berkeley. On February 4, 1974, a group of armed men and women made their way into the apartment Hearst shared with her fiancé. After beating the fiancé into submission, the group took the heiress to a nearby location and left her tied up and blindfolded in a closet.
The group called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army , and at first, they made demands in exchange for her release. One such demand was for the Hearst family to donate $70 worth of food to every needy person in the state of California, which the family began to comply with until distribution became complicated and the group refused to release her.
To make matters worse, the SLA forced Hearst to make recordings detailing her situation and expressing their demands. In one recording, she recites, “I am being held as a prisoner of war and not as anything else … I am being treated in accordance with international codes of war.”
After negotiations with the SLA fell through, Hearst made another recording stating she had willingly joined the group and adopted the name Tania. The infamous robbery took place not long after. While the police managed to take out most of the SLA in a raid, Hearst and two others remained in hiding for a year before the FBI caught up with her in San Francisco. She was arrested on September 18, 1975, and charged with the federal crime of bank robbery.
Arrest, Trial and Patty Hearst’s Mental Health Defense
In the immediate aftermath of her arrest, Hearst appeared to retain her loyalty to the SLA. She was also showing signs of severe trauma — she weighed just 87 pounds, psychologists measured a significant drop in her IQ and she suffered from terrifying nightmares.
Hearst’s attorney, F. Lee Bailey, used the now-infamous Patty Hearst mental health defense to spearhead her case, claiming the SLA had brainwashed Hearst from the beginning and that she only committed crimes while under duress. When asked during testimony why she didn’t try to escape, Patty responded, “Because if I walked away, the other members of the SLA would have come looking for me … and I felt that the FBI was looking for me, too.”
The prosecution’s argument relied heavily on Hearst’s rebellious phase as evidence of her being a willing participant. The defense ultimately failed to convince the jury that Patty Hearst was a victim of brainwashing, and she was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years in prison.
She would serve only 22 months before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. On January 20, 2001, she was granted a full pardon by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.
How Patty Hearst Describes Her Brainwashing Ordeal
In the years following her release, Hearst openly discussed her ordeal in interviews and produced a memoir, Every Secret Thing, about the experience. “I had become a different person,” she wrotes, “a person who would do whatever they wanted me to do.”
The SLA had coerced, raped and abused her, and Hearst was forced to read and memorize their manifestos. According to her, the brainwashing didn’t end when she was finally reunited with her family. “Even after I was freed,” she recalls, “I felt like I was still under their control, still living in fear of what they might do to me. I had been trapped in a nightmare for so long that I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be free.”
In a 2018 interview with The Atlantic, Hearst explained that her abductors “used physical and emotional abuse, sleep deprivation and other techniques to break me down.” The SLA pressured and traumatized her further by making her feel at fault for her circumstances. “They made me feel guilty and responsible for my own kidnapping,” she added.
What Do Psychologists Say About the Case?
Hearst’s case is still controversial and raises questions of how someone can brainwash another person to the point of committing a crime. For many psychologists, this case is a clear-cut example of Stockholm Syndrome.
While some researchers have argued that Hearst’s behavior during her captivity is consistent with the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, others, such as Margaret Singer, who testified against Hearst at her trial and authored the 1995 book Cults in Our Midst, was convinced that Hearst willingly took part in the crimes committed by the SLA.
What Is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm Syndrome is used to describe situations in which hostages, usually women, develop feelings of sympathy and affection toward their abductors. The term was coined after a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where the victims appeared to have developed a sincere relationship with their captors.
The “diagnosis” is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) and has little basis in medical psychiatry. In the 2019 book See What You Made Me Do, author Jess Hill condemns Stockholm Syndrome as a case of a police psychiatrist discrediting a female witness who was critical of the police. “Symptoms” of the syndrome are consistent with conditions such as PTSD, and using it as a legal defense is unwieldy at best.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues related to trauma, you don’t have to go through it alone. Contact Restore Mental Health today ask to speak to one of our compassionate counselors. We’re here 24/7 to help you get started on your journey to a better life.