Her grandfather was a media titan who created the world's largest film business, and Patty Hearst's extraordinary tale could be straight out of a Hollywood movie.

The wealthy heiress was abducted in 1974 at gunpoint from her California home by a radical "urban guerilla" group, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

America was astounded when, just weeks later, she declared her allegiance to the SLA and was reborn as "Tania", pictured wearing revolutionary garb and wielding a submachine gun.

After helping the left-wing terrorists plant bombs under cars and carry out violent bank robberies, she was arrested and jailed – but only served 22 months in prison.

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The remarkable story, one of the best-known examples of Stockholm syndrome, has transfixed the American public for decades. But last year, a Fox biopic was axed after Hearst released a statement denouncing the continued coverage of her trauma.

"As hard as it was to do, I have grown well past the 19-year-old me and gone on to become a proud wife, mother, and grandmother," she wrote. "I have no interest in revisiting such a violent and hurtful time in my life. Aren't we living in a better world than this?"

She also lashed out at a six-part docuseries, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, but failed to prevent the release of the show.

The 65-year-old former golden girl reserved particular ire for the executive producer, Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer and CNN journalist who based the series on his 2016 book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

Hearst claimed the "unauthorised book" cited one of her kidnappers, Bill Harris, "as its main source" and "romanticised her rape and torture".

The series features interviews with people close to the story – including Harris, who helped abduct Hearst from her apartment; Steven Weed, the fiance who watched it happen; Hearst's lawyers; friends who hid the SLA fugitives; and LAPD and FBI officers.

Hearst said the project was "attempting to rewrite history and directly flies in the face of the present #MeToo movement", which listened to and gave a voice to the abused.

"I respect her experience and understand her reluctance to revisit the subject," Toobin told news.com.au. "But she also wrote a book about her experiences, and she talked about the subject a great deal in interviews. It was a major event in American history. She has no right to wall it off from continued scrutiny."

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Patty Hearst armed with a machine gun following her 1975 kidnapping by the SLA. Photo / AP
Patty Hearst armed with a machine gun following her 1975 kidnapping by the SLA. Photo / AP

He said the story was "a great window into a crazy time in the United States, the 1970s, when the country was almost coming apart at the seams'' as well as a "fascinating mystery".

THE KIDNAPPING

America in the early '70s was wild and violent. "There were 2000 political bombings a year," says Toobin.

It was just five years after the sickening Manson murders that the bizarre story of the "rich-girl-gone-bad" unfolded.

The SLA was an anti-establishment organisation led by Donald DeFreeze, a "hardened criminal" who "wanted nothing less than to incite a guerrilla war against the US government and destroy what they called the 'capitalist state'", according to the FBI.

Hearst was a privileged teenager who had grown up in San Francisco as one of five daughters of Randolph Hearst, a chairman on the Hearst Corp board, and Catherine, a governor at the University of California, according to a 2001 CNN profile. It was an "affluent and sheltered environment" she recalled in her 1982 autobiography, Every Secret Thing.

Her grandfather was an anti-communist publishing magnate who capitalised on the relationship between advertising, tabloids and motion pictures and inspired Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

Patty was a high-achieving art history student at Berkeley who was living with her fiance – and former high school maths teacher – when the SLA targeted her.

At 9am on February 2, 1974, she answered a knock on the door to armed gunmen who bundled her into a rubbish bin, tied it up and put her in a car boot. They kept the blindfolded young woman locked in a hot, cramped cupboard with her hands bound for around 10 days, with no access to a toilet and no contact with anyone except the SLA leader, she later recounted in court.

"They were threatening to kill me, I was terrified of them," she told TV interviewer Larry King in 2002.

The extremists demanded her family produce a ransom of millions of dollars in food donations for the Bay Area's poor community in exchange for her release. The Hearsts provided $2 million but baulked when asked for another $4 million, saying they could put it in reserve if Patty was freed.

Meanwhile, the guerillas began gradually letting their captive out of the cupboard, blindfolded, for political discussions. They gave her a torch and political tracts to learn.

After she had been confined in the closet for weeks, "DeFreeze told me that the war council had decided or was thinking about killing me or me staying with them", she testified.

That was when Hearst announced she wanted to stay and fight with the SLA and was christened with a new name, "Tania".

On April 3, the extremist organisation released a photo of their most glamorous gun-toting recruit, along with a tape.

Newspaper heiress Patricia (Patty) Hearst shown robbing a branch of Hibernia Bank, San Francisco. Photo / Getty Images
Newspaper heiress Patricia (Patty) Hearst shown robbing a branch of Hibernia Bank, San Francisco. Photo / Getty Images

"I have been given the choice of one, being released in a safe area, or two, joining the forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people," Hearst said in the recording. "I have chosen to stay and fight."

Her family was stunned and immediately suspected coercion. Less than two weeks after the release of the tape, Hearst was captured on camera taking part in a fatal robbery of a San Francisco bank, barking orders and wielding a gun in a $10,000 heist that left one person dead.

She later testified that she was scared and debilitated by lack of food, light and sleep. "I had been held by them, I knew how violent they were," she told Larry King in 2002. "Their bloodthirstiness and none of that surprises me. I was horrified, I'm still horrified.

"It really was their own little jihad that they had going."

Hearst said she had been brainwashed and raped by two members of the group, Willy Wolfe and DeFreeze. "Free sex was one of the principles of the cell," the group informed her, she said.

She said she later felt "guilt and self-loathing and despair and pain that was just overwhelming" and "stemmed from feeling so horrible that my mind could be controlled by anybody, that I was so fragile that this could happen to me."

THE CAPTURE

On May 16, Hearst sprayed a barrage of gunfire outside a Los Angeles sporting goods store to help free SLA member Bill Harris and his wife, Emily, after they were detained for shoplifting an ammunition belt.

The trio escaped in a getaway van, but the dumped vehicle led police to the SLA. The hide-out was surrounded and six members of the SLA died in the shootout, including DeFreeze.

Hearst and several others went on the run, but she was finally captured in San Francisco on September 18, 1975, and charged with bank robbery and other crimes. At the San Mateo jail, the gaunt-looking 21-year-old listed her occupation as "urban guerrilla". Her lawyer relayed a message to the public: "Tell everybody that I'm smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there."

Patty Hearst's mug shot taken by the San Mateo County Sheriff in September 1975 after her arrest on bank robbery and gun charges. Photo / Supplied
Patty Hearst's mug shot taken by the San Mateo County Sheriff in September 1975 after her arrest on bank robbery and gun charges. Photo / Supplied

At her trial, Hearst said she had been tortured, broken down and brainwashed in a case that captivated the world.

"'Brainwashing' is a journalistic, not medical, term," Toobin tells news.com.au. "I am very sceptical of the concept and even more so after writing the book."

He said the matter of her abuse was "an extremely sensitive area", adding: "I try to treat the subject with delicacy and tact, but I also try to evaluate it according to the best evidence I could find.

"This is the great struggle of journalism – first, getting people to talk to you, and then deciding whether to believe them. I don't think it's a formula. You go with your gut and look for corroboration."

Hearst was sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to seven years. She was released after 22 months when President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979.

President Bill Clinton later granted her a pardon. When Hearst applied for the pardon in 2000, the US lawyer in San Francisco was appalled, said Toobin.

"I strongly oppose the pardon application filed by Patricia Hearst," the US lawyer wrote. "The attitude of Hearst has always been that she is a person above the law and that, based on her wealth and social position, she is not accountable for her conduct despite the jury's verdict."

That lawyer was Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who became famous for his investigation into current president Donald Trump.

Hearst rebuilt her life, writing an autobiography, marrying her bodyguard and having two children. She authored a murder mystery set on her grandfather's estate and hosted a Travel Channel documentary on the Hearst Castle. An acting career flourished after the film version of her memoirs was released, with the heiress appearing in hit '90s movies including Serial Mom, Pecker and 2000's Cecil B. Demented, in which she plays the mother of a terrorist who helps kidnap a movie star.

In recent years, her beloved dogs have triumphed at the prestigious Westminster show in New York.

"People are amazed and fascinated by the story," says Toobin. "It's a great mystery.

"A rich woman is kidnapped by crazed outlaws. They claim – and she claims – that she has joined their revolutionary struggle. But did she really?"

It's an intriguing question mired in issues of politics, consent and violence. A question to which we may never have a clear answer.