One of my verbs for 2018 was “read”. And I have read, a lot, but mostly only for pay, except for my brief foray into Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and that night in Colorado when I read almost an entire issue of the Missouri Review cover-to-cover. The other night, though, I finally finished Jeffrey Toobin’s book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. True, I had to renew it three times, and it’s eight days overdue from the library, but still … finished.
Midway through the book, this passage stopped me:
Patricia was alive only because of several improbable twists of fate. If, back in San Francisco, Cinque had not assigned Patricia to the same team as Bill and Emily . . . If Bill weren’t going stir-crazy in the Fifty-Fourth Street house and thus volunteered to run errands . . . If DeFreeze had accepted Mizmoon’s recommendation that Angela, rather than Patricia, join the Harrises on the errands in Inglewood . . . If Bill hadn’t been caught stealing the bandolier at Mel’s, causing the split with the other comrades . . . If the other comrades had met up at the drive-in, as planned, and persuaded Bill, Emily, and Patricia to rejoin them . . . If the comrades had all stuck together, as they had done from hideout to hideout, month after month, then Bill, Emily, and Patricia would also have been inside the house on Fifty-Fourth Street. And they would all be dead.
The passage introduces many of the characters in Hearst’s story, members (the “comrades”) of the Symbionese Liberation Army who kidnapped her in February 1974. Donald DeFreeeze, aka Marshall Cinque, was the group’s leader, and Bill and Emily Harris, Patricia “Mizmoon” Soltysik, and Angela Atwood were other SLA members. It captures the moment after an FBI raid finally caught up to the group. DeFreeze, Mizmoon, Atwood, and three other members were killed by flame and bullets in “the house on Fifty-Fourth Street” in Los Angeles, on May 16, 1975. Patricia and the Harrises were on the lam at the time, having been involved in a shootout at Mel’s sporting goods store. They watched the raid on television in a motel room.
But it was the first line that stopped me: “Patricia was alive only because of several improbable twists of fate.” If Toobin’s book has a fault, this is it: the belief that there is anything unique in this statement. We all can look back on our lives and see our present situation as nothing but the end result of a series of “improbable twists of fate.”
However, at the end of the book–after Hearst has gotten a slap on the wrist for her involvement in a bank robbery that resulted in a bystander’s death, had her sentence commuted by President Carter, and received a pardon from President Clinton–Toobin writes that the socialite-turned kidnapping victim-turned-revolutionary-turned criminal “led the life for which she was destined,” “notwithstanding a surreal detour in the 1970s.” By living out a life of relative wealth, privilege, and comfort after her ordeal and crimes, her story, “as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending.”
For some reason, the idea of “privilege” is triggering for some, but Hearst’s status as an heir to William Randolph Hearst–the 19th-century publishing magnate who created the Spanish-American War and was the model for Orson Wells’ Charles Foster Kane–clearly influenced her “familiar, even predictable ending.” So how about people with fewer means?
I’ll offer myself as an example. In the fall of 1985, I was a sophomore in college in Kansas City. The previous summer I had worked full-time in the coffee shop of a hospital, and I kept that job on a part-time basis into the first semester. But there were complications. I had moved off-campus and had no car, so getting back and forth was a challenge, as was school–so I quit the job.
That fall I had also enrolled in a French literature class, and in that class I met Laura. A few weeks later she set me up with one of her sorority sisters, with whom I shared another class. Both of them worked at an independent drugstore on the Plaza.
Around mid-October, I looked at my finances and realized that I needed to find a job by mid-November at the latest. One day the delivery driver at the drugstore was fired, and the second sorority sister–whom I was, by that time, dating–suggested I apply. So in early November I marched myself to the Plaza, met with the manager, and was hired to start working the same day.
Getting to and from the Plaza was a longer walk than the hospital, but it was a fun job, delivering prescriptions to mostly older folks in the Plaza’s postwar high-rises and the surrounding area’s stately homes. It more than sustained me through the following summer.
Now: “Improbable twists of fate”? Yes. Taking the right classes at the right time, meeting the right people at the right time … but there is more at work in this story. Being in college to start with is number one–an option that is still not available to all, even less so with today’s tuition rates. But also having been raised with the skills needed to present well in an interview and the gumption to go to that drugstore out of the blue played a role. And being a preppy white college kid certainly didn’t hurt.
In the longer view, where I am now–building a writing business while job hunting–is not where I thought I’d be at 52, but it’s not terrible, and I think it is leading to something, though exactly what is not clear now. Ellen’s job, supportive relatives, lots of friends–they help me in my quest. Maybe whatever this is leading to will be my “familiar, even predictable ending”–another member of the scribbling class, recording what I see around me, and within me, to share with others while surrounded by family.
It wouldn’t be a bad outcome, especially since I didn’t have to be kidnapped or rob banks on the way to getting there.