by | Dec 4, 2016 | KJ Howe | 4 comments

by KJ Howe

I equate kidnapping to purgatory.  When you’re a captive, you’re alive, but you’re not really living. You have no freedom to do as you wish, you can’t work towards your life goals or have any real life at all–you are at the mercy of others for absolutely everything.

So you need to find a way to endure the hardships of captivity, to combat the uncertainty and boredom, to get through the days, weeks, and potentially years until you are finally freed.  That takes great patience, strength of character, and determination.

This week’s theme involves truth vs. fiction.  Many literary experts expound that truth can be stranger than fiction, and to make fiction believable, one has to offer a logical reason for events.  As the following two actual kidnapping cases demonstrate, sometimes there is no logic, no easy explanation for actual human behaviour.

John Paul Getty III

Getty Oil is an American-based company with operations across the world.  J. Paul Getty III grew up in Rome in the 1960’s, a rebellious young man who was expelled from his private school.  His life changed instantly on July 10, 1973 when he was kidnapped.

Beware the boy who cried wolf.  JPG III had often joked that he should kidnap himself for financial reasons, so when the 17 million dollar ransom demand came in, many relatives scoffed at it, thinking it had all been staged.  The kidnappers sent another demand, but the Italian postal service went on strike and delayed its arrival.  After several weeks, the family asked the patriarch, J. Paul for the ransom, but he refused, worried that paying it could endanger his other grandchildren, make them targets.

Frustrated, the kidnappers send a lock of JPG III’s hair and his severed ear, demanding a ransom of 3 million dollars along with a note that threatened to send the rebellious young man back to his family piece by piece.  J. Paul finally agreed to pay–but only agreed to send 2 million dollars, the amount that was tax deductible.  And he would only loan the money, expecting repayment with interest.

JPG III was finally released the week before Christmas.  Of the dozen kidnappers who were hiding him, only two were ever convicted.  JPG III had reconstructive surgery on his missing ear.  But the experience scarred the young man forever.  In the early 1980’s, he was disabled as a result of a drug overdose, and he remained in poor health until he died in 2011.

He came from a wealthy family, became a target as a result.  But when he was taken, no one believed it, and then no one wanted to part with the money.  Only in extreme circumstances did he finally come home, but by then his life had been forever altered.  Could a fiction writer get away with a story like this or would it be too incredulous?

Patty Hearst

The granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate, Patty was kidnapped from the apartment she shared with her fiancee when she was nineteen in February 1974.  Her kidnappers belonged to the Symbionese Liberation Army.  The term symbionese refers to symbiosis, living together in interdependence and harmony–ironic, given the circumstances.  The SLA wanted to trade Patty for the freedom of certain jailed SLA members.  When this failed, they demanded that the Hearst family donate hundreds of millions of dollars of food to the needy in California.

Patty’s family immediately donated 6 million dollars to groups that fed the poor in the Bay area.  But the SLA refused to release Patty because they felt the food was of inferior quality.  Fast forward to April 1974, when the SLA release a tape featuring Patty denouncing her former western values and capitalism.  She had now joined this militant group, and took on the name of “Tania” after the name of Che Guevara’s comrade Tamara Bunke.

Later that month, Patty was caught on security footage participating in an SLA bank robbery in Los Angeles.  The heiress toted an M-1 carbine while shouting orders at bank customers who were now her captives. After a shootout and a police siege leading to the death of many SLA members, Patty was arrested in the fall of 1975 along with several comrades.  She served twenty one months of a seven year sentence.  President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence, and in 2001, she received a full pardon from President Bill Clinton.

This case is a prime example of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop trust, affection, and empathy for their kidnappers.  But would this story be believable to you as a reader?  Could you imagine that an heiress with the world at her fingertips would turn on this gilded world to become a revolutionary in a few short months?

Hollywood even made a movie about Patty’s experience.

There are countless true stories of kidnappings that really stretch our imagination.  But in fiction, are we hemmed in by tighter standards?  Only the reader can be the judge.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    Wow, KJ, what terrific and horrifying examples, and insight into the tragedy and practicalities of kidnapping. Eagerly looking forward to the publication of your novel!

  2. John Sheldon

    I knew about Patty Hearst, but not about Getty. Thanks for the info!

  3. Karna Bodman

    Oh, K.J, your blog certainly brought back memories — I was a TV news anchor in San Francisco in the 70's and had to report all of the crazy details about the Patty Hearst kidnapping – including the recording the "Symbionese Army" sent us about how she was joining them! Wow — what a (literally) crazy situation that was. Thanks for posting.

  4. Chris Goff

    I remember both of those cases. Getty was kidnapped the year I graduated from high school, and Hearst the year after. As John Sheldon said, I remembered the details of the Hearst kidnapping, but your recounting of the Getty kidnapping reminded me of things I'd forgotten. Great post!