by Irina Hentea

Back in 1974 the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst stirred the American population when she took part in the actions of the revolutionary group Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the group that kidnapped her in order to make use of her grand heritage, she being the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

SLA was a self-entitled vanguard army that committed acts of violence, backed up by a new left ideology. The group became known after kidnapping Patty and after making a ransom request that peaked at 400 million dollars which would support a food program for the disadvantaged. As the request was not accordingly granted in the view of SLA, even if food had been distributed in four counties, the group did not release Patty.

What caught the attention of media as well as social psychologists was what followed these events and it is mainly to do with Patty turning over to the other side in support of the terrorist group beliefs. In several audio messages sent to the media Patty was denouncing her family and past life as well as assuming that she had willingly switched sides when given the choice to do so or be set free. She took the name of Tania and took part in bank robberies.


Tania’s (Patty) most famous photograph after the kidnapping is with her holding a rifle, standing in front of the seven-headed cobra, the ensign of SLA 


In psychology this behavior is known as the Stockholm syndrome in which hostages empathize with the aggressor as they come to perceive lack of abuse as kindness. In some cases the bonding can be so powerful, that the victims even defend their captors.

Recently, Patty Hearst’s reaction has also been explained as a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which refers to a coping mechanism that kicks in when our perceptions are not the same with our experience, especially in extremely stressful situations. Patty’s psychological evaluation classified her as a “classic case” of brainwashing for a person that has undergone such physical and mental abuse.

Although rationalized by psychologists, Patty’s reaction remains controversial in the eyes of those who claim that even her kidnapping was orchestrated. Above all other assertions, the “curiousness” of the case lies firstly with the conversion that a terrorist group could inflict on a normal if not privileged person.

A number of documentaries and films have been made and inspired from Patty’s case. I would recommend the most recent ones:  the sci-fi series Continuum and the drama/thriller The East.



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