Review By: Ailee Slater
In May 1974, Los Angeles police sent a storm of gunfire into a white stucco house in South Central LA, in what would become one of the most blistering shootouts in the history of the city. This violent firefight was intended to subdue a radical leftist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA were wanted for murder and bank robbery, but their most famous crime? The kidnapping and subsequent radicalization of 19-year-old American heiress Patty Hearst. In today’s terms, it’s kind of like Kendall Jenner being taken at gunpoint, ransomed for $38 million, then a few weeks later videotaped participating in an armed robbery alongside her kidnappers.
The story of Patty Hearst, the SLA and the shootout that left six people dead is sensational—but it’s only the entry point for Rachel Hanel’s new book Not the Camilla We Knew. In Hanel’s own words: “[after the firefight] people nationwide waited to hear whether Patty was among the dead. Who the others were was of little concern.”
Not the Camilla We Knew makes it our concern. Part biography and part narrative journalism, the book tells the story of the least likely member of the SLA: a pastor’s daughter from small-town Minnesota, who by 18 years old had lost three siblings. Camilla Hall was an artist, a poet and an activist; a woman who worked in the welfare sector supporting teen mothers; who was described as helpful and sensitive by the people around her; who wrote regularly to her parents. How did a sweet, compassionate girl from the rural Midwest become a gun-toting criminal? That is the central question of Not the Camilla We Knew.
Using a combination of historical records, family letters, new interviews and speculative narrative, Hanel deftly pieces together Camilla’s journey from St. Peter, Minnesota to the barricaded Los Angeles safehouse of the nation’s most notorious revolutionary group. The writing is immersive, energetic and wonderfully personal; utilizing a structure that’s chronological but takes all the important detours, to paint a frank yet tender picture of a young woman who—previously relegated to the role of side character—is here empowered to take the lead.
Historical though it may be, Hanel’s book feels remarkably relevant to our current moment. From rising inflation, to the recent Roe decision, to the unending fight for Black lives, young adults in 2023 America are keenly tuned into questions of economic and social justice. Threats of insurrection and misinformation impact political systems around the globe, and extremist groups continue to grow. In this context, it’s striking to step into the world of Camilla Hall and her 70s contemporaries; to witness their turbulent fight against racism, farm worker mistreatment and medical experiments on inmates; and to ultimately see how good intentions can turn to fanaticism and good people can become radicalized.
While political history buffs and those with an interest in social activism will no doubt find much to chew on in Not the Camilla We Knew, the book is a strong pick for readers of any age who simply love a good story. Hanel’s book has everything: espionage, assassination, queer romance, cyanide-laced bullets, a single toothbrush shared between an entire household of people , and of course, an heiress-turned-bank-robber. But amongst all the twists and turns in this gripping narrative, Not the Camilla We Knew is at its heart a story that challenges us to look beyond the surface; to deeply understand what makes a person tick, what makes a person change, and why any of us make the choices we do.