'Radical Story of Patty Hearst': Inside New CNN Docuseries

Executive producer Jeffrey Toobin on the enduring intrigue of the 1970s mystery and why he went ahead even though Hearst didn't want to participate

Patty Hearst was a socialite and newspaper heiress before a 1974 kidnapping changed her life forever. Credit: Bettman/Getty

When Patty Hearst was violently kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment in 1974, she became a nationally known victim. Just a few weeks later, she was a criminal – or a badass revolutionary, depending on whom you asked. In the end, it seemed the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst is either a survivor of brutal months-long abuse and mental manipulation, or she's a privileged upper-class rebel and a master at shaping her narrative. Only Hearst knows the truth.

Hearst's story endures because we'll never fully understand what happened, according to Jeffrey Toobin, author of the 2016 book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, and executive producer of the new six-part CNN docuseries The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, which premieres February 11th.

"Much of it ultimately comes down to the question of what were her motivations when she was with the SLA," Toobin says, referring to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the violent group of radicals who abducted Hearst and whom she then joined in robbing banks, shooting up Los Angeles streets and planting pipe bombs under cop cars. "Was she brainwashed? Did she voluntarily participate? That is the question that continues to fascinate people, and it fascinated me."

The documentary tries to answer those questions using archival footage as well as interviews with news reporters who covered the story in 1974, friends of SLA who hid the fugitives, former LAPD and FBI officers, Hearst's ex-fiancé, her lawyers and even a member of the SLA itself, who – shockingly – claims to have been the one to tie her up and put her in the trunk of the getaway car.

What's notably missing is an interview with Hearst herself, who on January 11th released a statement decrying the documentary, Toobin's book and a planned film based on the book. (Twentieth Century Fox promptly canceled the movie.) Citing the #MeToo movement, she called out Toobin directly, objecting to him using one of her kidnappers as a source, trivializing her experience and sending her what she described as an arrogant interview request.

"It was offensive to me that a man would have the audacity to tell a woman that he would have the last word on her trauma," Hearst wrote.

Prior to the release of Hearst's statement, Toobin spoke with Rolling Stone about the documentary and why he decided to move forward in telling Hearst's story without her approval. (He declined a follow-up request to comment on the statement.)

What is Patty Hearst's legacy today?
I think the story stands as a great window into the craziness of the 1970s and it lingers as a mystery into what went through a woman's head. The facts of the story are not in dispute. She doesn't deny that she robbed the three banks, and she doesn't deny that she shot up the sporting goods store in Los Angeles. The facts are largely – not completely – but largely undisputed. What's disputed is her motivation. What's in her head? And that, you know, it's about the mysteries of the human heart and the human mind and why people do what they do.

Why do you think she did it?
Well, you know, it's such a complicated question. I sort of wrote a whole book to try to answer that question. I think she was kidnapped in a horrific way, but I think she really did become a voluntary member of the SLA. And she committed a series of horrific crimes, and she had many, many chances to leave the SLA – over a year and a half. And so it's nonsense.

Did you hear anything interesting from Hearst when you first reached out to her for an interview?
Well, no. She would never talk to me and she, you know, made it clear through intermediaries that she wished I was not doing it.

Interesting, because she has been interviewed in recent years.
Yeah, many times by people who are not terribly familiar with the facts and who allow her to give her version of the story without bringing up, um, more uncomfortable parts of it.

Do you think that somehow you've ticked her off? How did you approach her?
I wrote her letters, I sent her emails, I called her. I don't want to speak for her, but I think I have a reputation as a thorough journalist and I think she recognized that a thorough and fair examination would not necessarily be something that she was looking forward to.

Were you concerned about going forward without her input?
The good news is she has a book, she has many interviews. I would've felt bad if I didn't have her perspective on these events. But I did. And so I felt like I could approach the subject fairly.

An interview that stands out in the documentary is Bill Harris, one of the former SLA members and one of Hearst's actual kidnappers. You interviewed him for your book, and he appears as a prominent source in the documentary. What was it like talking with him?
It was difficult talking to Bill Harris because I so disapprove of so much of what he did. I mean, he was a terrorist! What he did was horrific and you know, listening him talk about it is bizarre. He is a young revolutionary turned into a grumpy old man. I think Bill is still a radical, but I think he recognizes the futility and stupidity of a lot of what he did.

Did he express remorse at all?
I think he certainly doesn't express as much remorse as he should. But I think he is at least somewhat wiser about the stupidity of what he did.

Marcus FosterHarris and the other SLA members committed such surprisingly violent acts in the name of anti-fascist revolution – that shootout with cops in the middle of a Los Angeles neighborhood, and assassinating Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster. Could today's protest culture ever escalate to that level?
This was an example of the craziness of the Seventies. The violent counter-culture was a part of everyday life in America. The fact that jumped out at me and still amazes me is that there were 2,000 political bombings a year in the early Seventies. We have one or two a year now and we freak out about it, as well we should.

I think the changing role of the media makes it very difficult to imagine [that happening now]. In the Seventies, most people got their news from newspapers. There were three television networks. The media world was much less immediate and intense. You could have all these bombings, but they would be covered in the newspaper. Today, if there is a bombing, there's live coverage on television, on the Internet, and people are much more engaged with threats. The shootout in Los Angeles where the six SLA people died was the first time that there was a live broadcast of a breaking news event. That just shows how different the world was. And I think you couldn't have that kind of crime today. The news media would be all over it and the public would demand action in response.