Commentary Magazine


Anyone's Daughter, by Shana Alexander

Elephants & Mothers

Anyone’s Daughter.
by Shana Alexander.
Viking. 541 pp. $12.95.

As a journalist, Shana Alexander has never been able to separate her private self from the public events and figures she has covered. Clowns, baseball games, catastrophes, and celebrities, she says, have always been “mixed up with me.” No previous event, however, had ever evoked the kind of personal recognitions that the Patty Hearst affair was to do. While listening to her car radio on a California freeway early in March 1974, a few weeks after the kidnapping, Mrs. Alexander was suddenly smitten by the conviction that the story of the heiress’s disappearance was “my story,” because even from the outset it was apparent that some sort of mother-daughter struggle was involved. Patty was not only the “girl I had been,” she was Kathy, “my own daughter,” who also was estranged from her mother, and who two years later would run away from prep school while Mrs. Alexander was covering Patty Hearst’s trial for bank robbery.

One would think that, having connected Patty’s and Kathy’s rebellions, the conflation-prone author of Anyone’s Daughter would have gone looking for the similarities between Patty’s mother and herself, but the animus of the book makes it clear that this was one identification Mrs. Alexander had no interest in making. For if there is a villain in her recapitulation of the Hearst case, it is not Field Marshal Cinque, or F. Lee Bailey, or even the FBI, it is Catherine Campbell Hearst. Even Mrs. Hearst’s handsome appearance is held against her. The fact that she was once the belle of Atlanta merely leads to a vindictive comparison between her “hard-edged” good looks and Scarlett O’Hara’s; the “impossibly white-toothed smile” she flashes is likened to a Wrigley’s gum ad; in its vacuous perfection, her blonde “façade” is “the Platonic ideal of Lana Turner made flesh.” As for Mrs. Hearst’s character, no denunciation of it is too reckless for Mrs. Alexander to repeat. Thus an interview with William and Emily Harris in New Times magazine, in which the two surviving members of the Symbionese Liberation Army assert that in her revolutionary days Patty had described her mother as a “pill freak” and “family buffoon” who never cooked or did anything else for her husband and five daughters, is quoted at length. Yet Mrs. Alexander has made no effort to verify the charges, a failure which becomes all the more appalling in the light of the testimony of Patty’s ex-fiancé Stephen Weed that Patty had a capacity for sarcasm that was unrivaled in Weed’s experience, and of the generally recognized fact that the Harrises were dedicated to the propagation of political lies.

Part of Mrs. Alexander’s attitude toward Mrs. Hearst is simply cultural snobbery. The Hearsts lived in Hillsborough, California, a fashionable suburb largely inhabited by politically conservative Roman Catholics of Irish descent whose wealth is “old” only by West Coast standards. The mere recital of these details is sufficient to arouse Mrs. Alexander’s liberal self-righteousness. With sweeping contempt, she dismisses the residents of Hillsborough as vestigial peasants, “a vanished social ‘missing link’ between the bog and the bourse, surviving behind the high hibiscus hedges in darkest country-club country.” At the heart, however, of the author’s feelings about Patty Hearst’s mother lies her unresolved antagonism to her own “domineering, seemingly unloving, constantly guilt-evoking mother.” At times, Mrs. Alexander seems on the verge of recognizing this fact. When, for example, she learns that Patty was raised under the supervision of a governess who beat her with a hairbrush and told her that her parents had not wanted her, she exclaims that as a child she, too, had been “abandoned” by her mother to a cruel German governess who had never allowed her to play with other children in Central Park. Yet if the author is conscious of the direction of her thinking, she never understands where it finally takes her. Anyone’s Daughter is a book which settles two scores at once. Piling one filial rage upon another, Mrs. Alexander takes up the public vilification of Patty’s mother where Patty’s SLA tapes leave off, and she brings to her task a capacity for sarcasm undreamed of in Stephen Weed’s philosophy.

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Blinded by hatred, Mrs. Alexander is incapable of seeing any resemblances between herself and the woman she is attempting to destroy. Nevertheless they exist, and they are extremely important. When Mrs. Alexander learns during the trial that her own daughter has disappeared, she says, “I have no idea why Kathy has run away.” She also seems to have no idea why Kathy had developed into such an unhappy child in the course of living with her mother after her parents’ divorce; or why Kathy screamed when her mother came to see her after the police had found her and she had gone to live with her father and stepmother; or why Kathy said, “Don’t touch me, Mother,” after she stopped screaming and her mother reached out to her. At one point in the book, Mrs. Alexander wonders whether she “ever had the capacity to raise my mysterious daughter,” but the question does not lead to any sort of judgmental review of her conduct. While Anyone’s Daughter is breathtakingly hard on other people, it resolutely protects its author. Not even the story about the elephants enables Mrs. Alexander to connect her shortcomings as a mother to Mrs. Hearst’s.

One day during the trial, the author had lunch with Dr. Jolyon West, one of the psychiatrists retained by the Hearst defense, and they quickly discovered a mutual passion for elephants. Dr. West was interested in learning whether the sex hormones of male elephants are chemically similar to LSD. Mrs. Alexander, for her part, was proud of having been the literary midwife to and biographer of the first elephant ever born in the United States, a blessed event which she had described in detail in the pages of Life magazine. “It happened,” she chatters on, all unconscious of what she is revealing, “when Kathy was less than a year old, a time when my own interest in motherhood was at a personal and professional peak.” Even before her daughter’s first birthday, in short, Mrs. Alexander was once again pursuing her career. This interesting fact takes us directly back to the Hearst case.

At the time of the trial, Catherine, the eldest of the Hearsts’ five daughters, was thirty-five years old. A polio victim as a child, she had spent most of her adult life as a semi-reclusive invalid. After Catherine’s birth, the Hearsts had no children for ten years. Then came what was in effect a second family. Ginna was the first-born; four years later, Patty arrived; the very next year, Anne; and finally, after two more years had passed, Vicki. The intervals reveal—albeit not to the psychologically naive Mrs. Alexander—that the newborn Patty had the attention of her mother for a far shorter period of time before the distracting arrival of a younger sibling than either Ginna or Anne did, and that Vicki never had to contend with a younger rival. Like Mrs. Alexander’s daughter Kathy, Patty seems to have “lost” her mother at a very tender age, and in neither case was the loss a temporary phenomenon. What arrangements Mrs. Alexander made for the care of Kathy, after her interest in motherhood passed its quickly achieved “peak,” she does not say, but in Patty’s case we know that until she was nine she was governed by the governess with the hairbrush, that she was then passed on to the tender mercies of the nuns who ran the astonishing number of schools she attended, and that she rebelled against the discipline of all these surrogate authority figures with the same kind of ingenious disrespect for the truth which once built an empire of yellow newspapers. (I have to be excused from the exam, Patty told one of the nuns; my mother has cancer.)

Mrs. Alexander asks herself whether the tragedy of Patty’s conversion to urban terrorism and ultimate conviction for bank robbery could have happened to her daughter, and her answer is, yes. When she says that, however, her attention is totally fixed on the nightmarish image of a runaway teenager. She has forgotten the episode about the elephants, as well as all the other emotional deprivations which she must have inflicted upon her daughter. The same sort of flaw marks her discussion of the other young women in the SLA. Mrs. Alexander correctly points out that these suicidal psychopaths did not come from helter-skelter backgrounds, as the Manson women did. They were products of the middle or upper-middle class. Their parents, Mrs. Alexander argues, were “supportive.” Unfortunately, the author reaches this conclusion without the slightest knowledge of what the mother-daughter relationship had been like in the formative years of the SLA women’s lives.

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The Hearst case was a drama with many layers of meaning. It involved the sexual and political attraction between ghetto revolutionaries and disaffected suburbanites; it displayed the greed and stupidity of lawyers and the vanity and lack of common sense of psychiatrists; it reminded us—as if we needed reminding!—of the salaciousness of the American press and of the violence of American police. Nevertheless, Mrs. Alexander’s conception of the case as essentially a story about Patty and her mother—and, by extension, about other American daughters and their mothers—seems exactly right to me, and I lament the fact that she has botched the job of presenting it. For if the story had been properly told, it would not only have illuminated the past, but might have helped us to find our way in the years ahead, by initiating a much-needed national discussion about the proper care of young children. The women’s-liberation movement, to its eternal discredit, has simply finessed the issue, while child-care experts in the universities who assure us that there is no theoretical reason why day-care centers cannot adequately serve in loco parentis persistently refuse to address themselves to the problems of implementation. Meantime, the owners of private day-care centers continue to report serious managerial difficulties having to do with rapid turnovers in staff personnel and inadequate facilities for handling those children in the group who are mentally disturbed. As for the idea of creating vast numbers of lavishly financed public facilities, it seems to have died a-borning in an inflation-haunted era.

With every passing year, more and more working women are electing not to take prolonged leaves of absence from their jobs and remain at home in the early years of their children’s lives. The decision is understandable, in a sense, but is it not fraught with the risk of pathological fury? A more penetrating book than Anyone’s Daughter might have compelled us to debate this vitally important matter.

About the Author




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