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SOLIAH: The Sara Jane Olson Story; By Sharon Darby Hendry; Cable Publishing: 372 pp., $18.95 paper

July 14, 2002|GREG GOLDIN | Greg Goldin is a writer who contributes to numerous publications, including LA Weekly and Los Angeles magazine.

When Sara Jane Olson pleaded guilty last October for her role in the 1975 attempted pipe bombings of two LAPD patrol cars, the coda on the Symbionese Liberation Army finally seemed to have been written. The gang that had assassinated Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland's public schools, and kidnapped Patricia Hearst was at last confirmed as homemade, middle-class American terrorists. But when Olson promptly renounced her plea, then reaffirmed her plea, then tried to formally withdraw her plea, the refugee from the 1970s was seen to embody, in her exasperating seesawing, the very tensions that arise whenever anyone asks, "Who were the radicals of the 1960s?" Was the early 1970s spasm of recklessness and violence the inevitable outcome of New Left politics? Are the SLA members of what David Horowitz calls the Destructive Generation, who refuse to accept responsibility for their violent misdeeds, or are they miscreants whose deadly debauchery has no genuine connection to the loftier hopes and aspirations of the 1960s? Either way, the authoritarian impulses of the SLA--like those of the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party--shadow any interpretation of the 1960s.

Kathleen Soliah (she later changed her name to Sara Jane Olson) herself might have remained cosseted in obscurity, comfortably removed from this debate, had she, like other SLA members, been put on trial back in the 1970s. But Soliah, who had helped harbor the fugitive gang, disappeared on the fall day in 1975 when the FBI captured Bill and Emily Harris, along with their infamous victim, Patricia Hearst. The Harrises were convicted of kidnapping and served eight years. Hearst was given seven years for her role in the Hibernia Bank robbery, the term commuted by President Jimmy Carter, the crime pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Had Soliah not fled and had she not reinvented herself as Olson, a suburban St. Paul, Minn., housewife, she might have stood trial two decades ago for her involvement with the SLA and moved on. Yet she ran, only to step back into the public spotlight amid recent '60s revisionism, and Sara Jane Olson--at best a difficult, inscrutable figure--quickly became a convenient pivot upon which the dispute might turn again and again. Her guilt or innocence suggested a verdict on an entire generation. Her conviction only hardened the combatants.

Sharon Darby Hendry dispenses with much of this historical fuss in "Soliah." Instead she casts her subject as a true-crime story, with the central mystery--what motivated Olson to join such a violent group and how was she able to live all those years cut off from her past, her family and, ultimately, herself--left for others to parse. Hendry takes the pulse of the SLA thus: "Many of them had acted in college and they still needed the applause, approval, and to create their own stage, their own environment. They wanted the power to be who they wanted to be in ultimate freedom--to create their roles, their rules, their lives, their own drama, their own press reports. They thrived on this power."

Hendry makes it sound as if the SLA was a rock 'n' roll band, a familiar and lazy analogy that dodges the deeper truth about these politicos-turned-hooligans. Theirs was a stunted idealism born after its moment--the popular revolt of the 1960s--was gone. Behind the gibberish of "Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys Upon the Life of the People" was a program that was part Bolshevik, part PTA. Capitalism was out, but so was mistreatment of the elderly and children. The trouble was, no one was listening. It was as if, in the SLA, the antiwar slogan "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" had come to life. They believed in the "growing spirit of the people" when Richard Nixon was fashioning reelection out of working-class neighborhoods, north and south.

Vexed, politically checkmated, they grasped one thing perhaps more perfectly than any of their more potent political progenitors. The SLA nabbed Patty Hearst at the dawn of the telegenic age, and the group was wildly successful at latching onto this new mainspring of society. The SLA managed to project its image so widely that the tiny sect actually believed it could change the world.

In the crucible of this self-righteous delusion, all faith in the democratic process was smashed as naive and retrograde, and all political opponents became depersonalized objects of hate, worthy even of the death sentence. As Emily Harris is alleged to have said of Myrna Opsahl, a bystander killed by the SLA during its 1975 robbery of the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, near Sacramento, "She was a bourgeois pig anyway." This horrid, threadbare political excuse was transparent when it was uttered, but Soliah stood by her comrades.

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