The Symbionese Liberation Army came together as a small band of self-described revolutionaries who, in service to their political agenda, did outsized things to gain attention: bank robbery, murder and the 1974 kidnapping of publishing heiress Patty Hearst.
The SLA became front-page news, but the end of the line arrived only months after Hearst's abduction. Law enforcement cornered six members in a Los Angeles house, and all six died in the shootout and resulting fire — among them Camilla Hall.
On the surface, Hall's presence didn't make sense, Rachael Hanel writes in her new memoir/biography, "Not the Camilla We Knew." How did a young woman born in small-town Minnesota end up dying in a hail of bullets as a member of the SLA? The answer is complex, Hanel concludes, not surprisingly, as she sets about documenting Hall's transition to domestic terrorist.
From day one of her research — sparked by seeing Hall's photo in a 1999 edition of the Star Tribune — Hanel bumped into a problem that would continue to stymie her over the more than 20 years it would take to write the book. The bigger story of the SLA is well documented, but Camilla Hall's is more like a footnote.
Hanel wisely chooses to combine observations about her own life growing up in Minnesota with revelations about Hall, providing a basis for comparison, particularly about how grief may have affected Hall's choices. Hanel's father, a gravedigger in Waseca, died when she was young (chronicled in a 2013 memoir) and Hall's three siblings died of a genetic disease by the time she was a senior in high school. Hanel is sympathetic, but, as she notes, her own experiences with loss didn't make terrorism attractive, so why did it for Hall?
This kind of speculation, which Hanel turns to judiciously, is another compelling way she shapes Hall's story. That's not to say Hanel shoves aside facts. She is tenacious and more than a little lucky in uncovering information. Her first big break is gaining access to a brief family history Hall's father wrote. She also acquires many of Hall's letters. But, Hanel writes, something was missing. She wanted "to talk to someone who was alive during Camilla's time. … I'm chasing dead people all the time."
In perhaps her biggest break, she scores a prison interview with Sara Jane Olson — formerly SLA member Kathleen Soliah. What Olson says, and doesn't say, is fascinating reading, but the interview threatens to upstage Hall's story, something Hanel repeatedly tries to avoid.
She stays focused, however — so much so that sometimes "Not the Camilla We Knew" reads as if she were trying to rehabilitate Hall's image. Hanel refutes descriptions of Hall as being an outsider within the SLA, that she was "zaftig," too sensitive, and she acknowledges feeling guilty about how much she sympathizes with Hall. Yet Hanel doesn't excuse Hall's actions.
It's a fine line that Hanel walks. She knows her portrait of Camilla Hall "is going to be abstract, built on a loose grid. But it's still a portrait." It will require translation, and Hanel is careful to provide balance and nuance. After all, "where one person sees a terrorist, another sees a martyr."
Maren Longbella is a Star Tribune copy editor.
Not the Camilla We Knew
By: Rachael Hanel.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 240 pages, $17.95.
Event: In conversation with Richard Terrill. 7 p.m. Jan. 11, 2023, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.