The Books: After Henry, ‘Girl of the Golden West’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another essay from After Henry, by Joan Didion.

‘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.

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27 Responses to The Books: After Henry, ‘Girl of the Golden West’, by Joan Didion

  1. DBW says:

    Little baby, red, was a “RED.” Shocking.

    • sheila says:

      hahahahaha Isn’t that so hysterical, considering my fascination with Communism? “where is that book … I will need to know what these morons are saying someday …”

  2. Desirae says:

    I love it when you write about brainwashing, just so you know.

    I wonder if the gaps in Patty Hearst’s story are because she doesn’t really understand it herself. She was one person one day, and then all of a sudden she was someone else. How would somebody reconcile that within themselves? I can’t begin to imagine. Not to mention that it’s basically a survival reflex. “Her external points of reference for maintenance of her personality had disappeared,” seems very apt to me. So she would have to adapt, right?

    I always wonder what the hell kidnappers are trying to accomplish. Has anyone ever gotten their ransom demand or whatever the hell they’re after? It’s such a nonsensical crime.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, and I think Patty Hearst states it pretty clearly: everything left my mind but survival. This is why the human race has survived, that our brains are able to do that. It is that she then became “one of them”, and so openly so, that seems so incomprehensible. I still think there are questions to be asked there – it fascinates me!

      Robert Jay Lifton states that one of the main elements that needs to be in place for proper and total brainwashing is “milieu control”. There are other elements that he lists out in his phenomenal book – but “milieu control” may very well be the most important. This is why the game REALLY changed when Jim Jones got his followers down to Guyana. Because he could totally control the milieu then. yes, they had been living in compounds and dorms up in the Bay Area, but they still were part of a larger world where, you know, newspapers existed, and other people on the sidewalk. out in the jungle, it was just Jim Jones, using the loudspeakers to whip up paranoia. Total Milieu Control. very very difficult to withstand such an onslaught.

      Patty Hearst experienced that completely – she was in a closet for 57 days, totally dependent on them for food – and submitting to rapes, which is obviously a form of terrorism and ego-assault. “You thought you were THIS – well, now you are THIS.” With no other reference points, hell, yeah, take up a gun and rob a bank, hell yes.

      The SLA was a particularly nasty group, with stupid vague left-wing demands, but they were basically criminals and murderers. They killed a school superintendent for being “fascist” (when he actually did more to help the underprivileged in his own neighborhood than they EVER did). They killed a customer in one of the banks they robbed. They kidnapped Patty Hearst. They demanded that Hearst’s dad organize this multi-million dollar food drive (which he freakin’ DID), and then criticized it when it was sloppily handled. And when you read their demands, and hear their “beefs” with these people – you realize that they were seriously demented and unintelligent people. But very dangerous too, of course. 5 of them died in a house fire while they were under siege (someone had tipped off the police that a dangerous group was staying next door). I’m sorry, but good riddance to total garbage. (I’m actually not sorry, but…. you know.)

      Just an insane story. Hearst’s book is certainly worth a look. I still remember how it gripped me!

  3. sheila says:

    And I don’t think that PTSD was understood at all during the time of her trial (and it’s barely understood now, although it’s more of an accepted “thing”). Her demeanor, the kind of flat affect, and unemotional voice, is classic PTSD but it was used against her. She had been traumatized, repeatedly. That leaves a mark. Yes, she had to pay for the crimes she participated in – and she did – but all of the “couldn’t you have gotten to a pay phone to call for help” kind of commentary (which we also saw in the recent abduction of Elizabeth Smart) completely ignores and misunderstands the effects of trauma, and Stockholm Syndrome, and – jesus – fear of death, how ’bout – Elizabeth Smart was a CHILD, a protected and pampered child, and was abducted, raped – and you ask why she didn’t call for help or get to a phone? It’s victimizing the victim all over again to call into question why they DIDN’T scream for help. Makes me crazy. Robert Jay Lifton would understand totally.

  4. sheila says:

    And this is why changing the language in rape laws to “forcible rape” is not just offensive but very very dangerous. Women sometimes have VERY good reasons for submitting (meaning life or death reasons), and to put the onus on women to have a rape be forcible enough to leave a mark is fucking barbaric.

  5. Desirae says:

    Excellent points Sheila – I wonder if Patty Hearst would even be charged if this had occured in 2012. Because we don’t have a very good understanding of PTSD but at least we know what it is.

  6. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, me too! Took the est training in 1976 to see if I would be caught up in “cult.” Turns out I wasn’t, but can see how it happens. I am still fascinated by this stuff. Rick Ross (not the singer) has been a deprogrammer and has a wonderful website where he tracks all of these “orgs.” Fascinating how many there are! His center is located in NJ. Don’t have the site name handy, but not hard to find. Think you might find it interesting.

    PS Don’t love Joan Didion as much as you seem to, but am getting there. Your stuff helps.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – I am very familiar with Rick Ross! That database of groups is an invaluable resource. Love to hear that you know of him too!

      You took est? would love to hear more. I did Landmark (you know, which once WAS est – although you’ll never get THEM to admit that) – and even with all my background, I had moments where I got sucked in and let myself be bullied, peer pressurized, all that.

      Yeah, Joan Didion is my favorite living writer, I’d say. My only complaint is that she never wrote an essay about Elvis.

  7. Elliott says:

    I hope this is not an unwelcome intrusion: this post and the conversation reminded me of The Decameron, Day 2, Story 7. The Sultan’s daughter is placed in situations where she cannot speak to her captors. It is tempting to condemn her surrender to their, and her, passions, but really, like Ms. Hearst in a closet, what are her choices?

    • sheila says:

      Elliott – not an unwelcome intrusion at all! I love thoughtful comments like yours. I hope that you feel this is a welcoming place!

      I hadn’t thought of The Decameron – and your comment has not only made me want to read it again (it’s been forever) but also made me think thru literature of other examples, but I’m coming up short. Certainly domestic abuse scenarios are very similar to the ones we are talking about here – a true abuser will operate “milieu control” and all the other things over his spouse – until his opinion of her will become her own. The fact that people are still baffled why such women stay is disheartening but hopefully that is changing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I agree: what exactly would you have this woman do? Her world is ENTIRELY controlled, and it is a life or death situation for her.

      • Elliott says:

        I’m coming up empty, too. The only examples I could think of, I thought of almost immediately; since then, nothing. They are both from the bible: Joseph, of the many colored coat, and the singers of Psalm 137, carried away in captivity and required to sing.

        The idea of captivity in literature, though, has got me thinking that a subject of “milieu control” in all literature is the reader. Your post this morning on Flann O’Brien reminded me of reading “The Third Policeman” and wondering just how in the world I could be enjoying it so much when it is so deviant, even by its own standards. My choice in my world, of course, would be to stop reading, to disengage. In the world of the narrative, though, the reader either does not exist, or is along for the ride; putting the book down for good is suicide. This critical approach makes sense of how I feel watching some movies: “Top Hat,” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for example, where I am prone to pace, fidget, and implore the TV to have him tell her who he is (the solution is so simple.) I am exasperated in my captivity, but unwilling to take my vital force out of that world.

        Of course, this is hopelessly silly compared to real-live abduction and surrender, but something gives power to even a silly story like “Top Hat,” and it’s not just the dancing.

  8. bybee says:

    Ever since I was old enough to know what ‘brainwashing’ is, I’ve been disturbed by the fact that my mother uses this word as a synonym for persuading, especially when she is talking about bringing up my brother and me. I can’t figure out if she thinks she’s being clever or she truly doesn’t know what brainwashing is. Of course, by now the word is a habit with her– a habit that sets my teeth on edge.

    It’s not too late for Didion to turn her attention to Elvis, if she had the inclination.

  9. Todd Restler says:

    Another fascinating case this reminded me of is that of Ulrike Meinhof. She was a German reporter, well educated, who willingly joined the RAF. The excellent movie The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) details the process. Riveting. And Meinhoff wrote a lot, detailing exactly what she was thinking and why. A story you will love Sheila if you aren’t yet familiar.

    • sheila says:

      I will definitely see it!

      • sheila says:

        Todd – sometimes I feel despair at all the movies I have missed, and how much time it would take to see them all, and will I live long enough to see everything … do you ever feel that way?

        • Todd Restler says:

          Constantly! It can be frustrating, especially since I consider myself a “movie guy”, but have never seen SO MANY “must see” classics. I struggle with what to see, and feel tremendous guild when I find myself watching stretches of “Unstoppable” for the 9th time on Starz when City of God and The 400 Blows sit in my DVR for over a year now. I go through streaks where I see nothing new for a month, then can watch 4 movies in a weekend. But I ALWAYS feel like I will never catch up.

          But you MUST see The Baeder Meinhoff complex based on this thread, it is really well done and right in your wheelhouse.

      • Todd Restler says:

        The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

  10. Dan says:

    I second the recommendation of The Baader Meinhof Complex. I felt it left out some context (maybe wasn’t possible in the frame of the film) but it certainly shows the allure of violence and self-righteousness. You can combine it with the also excellent Carlos miniseries for a day long double feature of 1970s revolutionary violence.

  11. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, I took the est training in 1976 which seems a very long time ago. Somehow, though, the training itself is still very clear. I will write you to about it at some point. I also found myself getting sucked in, but my experience was very positive. Felt empowerment, forgiveness, my clinical depression actually lifted for about a month! I never felt bullied but many people around me did. The one thing I took from it was that you really do make your own experience and you can make choices in your life. Not always easy, but ultimately very satisfying. Melissa

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – fascinating!! I got a lot of good stuff out of Landmark, too, and made some very good friends – but there were a couple of things they made me do – and in retrospect, I think: I can’t believe you let them bully you like that – that still makes me shake my head. Their whole hard-sell thing with inviting guests – I never participated – but boy the pressure was intense. But yes, I got a lot of great things out of it.

      There’s a kind of Est-like scene in Semi-Tough with Burt R eynolds that I just recently saw – with a Werner Earhard type played by Burt Convy. It’s clearly making fun of the whole thing – but it was amazing how similar a lot of it was to Landmark.

      Thanks for sharing!

  12. Mike T. says:

    Sheila, coming to your blog for the 1,000th time has comforted me about JD having passsed. Love ya.

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