‘Girl of the Golden West’ is one of Joan Didion’s best essays (and for her, that’s saying a lot). Ostensibly, it tells the story of the abduction of Patricia Hearst in 1974, but it ends up being really about California, and the different essences of that state, its history and its tendencies. As Didion states, the Patty Hearst situation was an example of “one California busy being born, and another busy dying”. But for Didion, even that is too simplistic. Because there are more Californias than just two. It is a state built by hearty pioneers who had traveled vast distances (as Louis Ck said in that great rant on Conan: “You were a whole different group of people by the time you got to your destination.”) Of course the Hearst story had many gripping elements, not to mention the aftermath, and Patty Hearst’s vaguely unsatisfying autobiography (which Didion discusses)- it feels like Hearst is leaving something out. All she says is that at one point, during her captivity, she “went to the other side”. The process of how that happens is not Didion’s topic, but the fact of its absence in Hearst’s tale is what rivets Didion.
And that, for me, is the real hook of the essay. It is the narrative behind the narrative. Robert Jay Lifton, in his groundbreaking and influential book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China, studied the use of brainwashing in Communist China, and laid out the different elements of mind control, the various techniques that need to be in place for a “snapping” to occur. (Didion references him in the essay. He was actually called in to be one of the psychiatric experts in the Hearst trial. If he is not on your radar, he will be now, and you will be shocked at how often he is mentioned. A true pioneer.) Patty Hearst said at one point she went “to the other side”. As frustrating as that may be to try to understand, she is just echoing what POWs and people who have escaped from cults have all reported. The mind is a strong thing, and the mind is a fragile thing. There will always be gaps in our understanding, but Robert Jay Lifton’s work, although published in 1961, is still essential. Didion, while fascinated by that one comment of Hearst’s, doesn’t dwell on it too much. She is far too interested in California itself, and what the entire story has to say about California (the final paragraph of the essay is downright chilling).
Since I was a kid, I was interested in brainwashing. Is that a strange thing for a child to be interested in? I was always drawn to stories of cults, and personality-changes, and people who “snapped” under pressure. This pre-dated my interest in Communism (although, humorously enough, my parents had a bright-red copy of the Communist Manifesto – they were not Communists – they were Irish Catholic, but they loved to read – and when I was a baby my dad would hide it in different places on his filled bookshelves, and I would scramble along, holding myself up, looking for it, and then pull it out. We still laugh about this, especially considering my interest in Communist and totalitarian societies.) I was too young to really remember the Patty Hearst story, but I do remember that when I had my first job at 15, 16, as a page in the local library, I came across her autobiography. I must have heard something about her abduction. For whatever reason, I was drawn to it. I read it. It was horrifying. I found it unsatisfying in the same ways that Didion did, and equally as fascinating. (Maybe it was fascinating because it was unsatisfying. There are huge gaps in it. My curiosity poured into those gaps: “But what happened??“) I think there was an empathetic thing going on with me, where all I could do was try to picture myself in her situation and how I would have survived. I couldn’t stop staring at the pictures: Patty and Steve Weed, her parents giving a press conference on the front steps, the pictures of those horrible lunatics who abducted her (as Didion so concisely and brutally boils them down: one “black escaped convict and five children of the white middle class”). The whole story seemed utterly terrifying to me, and utterly incomprehensible. I wanted to get closer to it. I wanted to understand. How do you go from the smiling blonde girl with her fiance to the revolutionary in the beret with the gun? How does that transformation take place? I hadn’t read Robert Jay Lifton yet, of course, but the questions that obsessed him obviously obsessed me as well. (There are those who usually swoop into such conversations with kneejerk quick responses. While this is annoying, I find it understandable: we all think we could withstand such pressure, we all don’t want to believe that our brains are capable of snapping or being influenced. But I am not interested in engaging with those people, who, like clockwork, show up any time I write about psychopaths, or evil, or cults, or brainwashing. They aren’t interested in questioning or thinking deeply, and therefore it is difficult to engage with them at all.) And because Patty Hearst is NOT Robert Jay Lifton, she is vague where we want her to be specific, she leaves out what we want to hear. But couldn’t that be an accurate representation of what it actually felt like to her? Whatever the answer, I was totally riveted by her book.
Didion, of course, is looking for the themes underneath. She doesn’t do straight reporting. It’s not her thing. This is a California story, more than an American one, and in the essay (which is superb) she lays out why.
Here is an excerpt.
After Henry, ‘Girl of the Golden West’, by Joan Didion
Patricia Campbell Hearst’s great-grandfather had arrived in California by foot in 1850, unschooled, unmarried, thirty years old with few graces and no prospects, a Missouri farmer’s son who would spend his thirties scratching around El Dorado and Nevada and Sacramento counties looking for a stake. In 1859 he found one, and at his death in 1891 George Hearst could leave the schoolteacher he had married in 1862 a fortune taken from the ground, the continuing proceeds from the most productive mines of the period, the Ophir in Nevada, the Homestake in South Dakota, the Ontario in Utah, the Anaconda in Montana, the San Luis in Mexico. The widow, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a tiny, strong-minded woman then only forty-eight years old, took this apparently artesian income and financed her only child in the publishing empire he wanted, underwrote a surprising amount of the campus where her great-granddaughter would be enrolled at the time she was kidnapped, and built for herself, on sixty-seven thousand acres on the McCloud River in Siskiyou County, the original Wyntoon, a quarried-lava castle of which its architect, Bernard Maybeck, said simply: “Here you can reach all that is within you.”
The extent to which certain places dominate the California imagination is apprehended, even by Californians, only dimly. Deriving not only from the landscape but from the claiming of it, from the romance of emigration, the radical abandonment of established attachments, this imagination remains obdurately symbolic, tending to locate lessons in what the rest of the country perceives only as scenery. Yosemite, for example, remains what Kevin Starr has called “one of the primary California symbols, a fixed factor of identity for all those who sought a primarily Californian aesthetic.” Both the community of and the coastline at Carmel have a symbolic meaning lost to the contemporary visitor, a lingering allusion to art as freedom, freedom as craft, the “bohemian” pantheism of the early twentieth century. The Golden Gate Bridge, referring as it does to both the infinite and technology, suggests, to the Californian, a quite complex representation of land’s end, and also of its beginning.
Patricia Campbell Hearst told us in Every Secret Thing that the place the Hearsts called Wyntoon was “a mystical land”, “fantastic, otherworldly,” “even more than San Simeon”, which was in turn “so emotionally moving that it is still beyond my powers of description”. That first Maybeck castle on the McCloud River was seen by most Californians only in photographs, and yet, before it burned in 1933, to be replaced by a compound of rather more playful Julia Morgan chalets (“Cinderella House”, “Angel House”, “Brown Bear House”), Phoebe Hearst’s gothic Wyntoon and her son’s baroque San Simeon seemed between them to embody certain opposing impulses in the local consciousness: northern and southern, wilderness sanctified and wilderness banished, the aggrandizement of nature and the aggrandizement of self. Wyntoon had mists, and allusions to the infinite, great trunks of trees left to rot where they fell, a wild river, barbaric fireplaces. San Simeon, swimming in sunlight and the here and now, had two swimming pools, and a zoo.
It was a family in which the romantic impulse would seem to have dimmed. Patricia Campbell Hearst told us that she “grew up in an atmosphere of clear blue skies, bright sunshine, rambling open spaces, long green lawns, large comfortable houses, country clubs with swimming pools and tennis courts and riding horses”. At the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Menlo Park she told a nun to “go to hell”, and thought herself “quite courageous, although very stupid”. At Santa Catalina in Monterey she and Patricia Tobin, whose family founded one of the banks the SLA would later rob, skipped Benediction, and received “a load of demerits”. Her father taught her to shoot, duck hunting. Her mother did not allow her to wear jeans into San Francisco. These were inheritors who tended to keep their names out of the paper, to exhibit not much interest in the world at large (“Who the hell is this guy again?” Randolph Hearst asked Steven Weed when the latter suggested trying to approach the SLA through Regis Debray, and then, when told, said, “We need a goddamn South American revolutionary mixed up in this thing like a hole in the head”), and to regard most forms of distinction with the reflexive distrust of the country club.
Yet if the Hearsts were no longer a particularly arresting California family, they remained embedded in the symbolic content of the place, and for a Hearst to be kidnapped from Berkeley, the very citadel of Phoebe Hearst’s aspiration, was California as opera. “My thoughts at this time were focused on the single issue of survival,” the heiress to Wyntoon and San Simeon told us about the fifty-seven days she spent in the closet. “Concerns over love and marriage, family life, friends, human relationships, my whole previous life, had really become, in SLA terms, bourgeois luxuries.”
This abrupt sloughing of the past has, to the California ear, a distant echo, and the echo is of emigrant diaries. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can,” one of the surviving children of the Donner Party concluded her account of that crossing. “Don’t worry about it,” the author of Every Secret Thing reported having told herself in the closet after her first sexual encounter with a member of the SLA. “Don’t examine your feelings. Never examine your feelings – they’re no help at all.” At the time Patricia Campbell Hearst was on trial in San Francisco, a number of psychiatrists were brought in to try to plumb what seemed to some an unsoundable depth in the narrative, that moment at which the victim binds over her fate to her captors. “She experienced what I call the death anxiety and the breaking point,” Robert Jay Lifton, who was one of those psychiatrists, said. “Her external points of reference for maintenance of her personality had disappeared,” Louis Jolyon West, another of the psychiatrists, said. Those were two ways of looking at it, and an other was that Patricia Campbell Hearst had cut her losses and headed west, as her great-grandfather had before her.