Not the Camilla You Think It Is…


I had a tough time selecting a book to read and review for this blog this time. I didn’t know anything about the League of Nations or Woodrow Wilson, nor did I really care to learn the ins and outs of the gubernatorial races in mid-twentieth century Louisianan politics enough to continue reading the two books I started on those topics, so I turned on the TV and looked for a distraction.

I like crime shows. I ran across an old series, Scandal Made Me Famous; one of the episodes covered Patty Hearst. I remember Walter Cronkite reporting her kidnapping by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) on the news when it happened. I was a young teenager and Patty was just nineteen when it happened, so it caught my eye and imagination. I remember wondering where was Symbion and who were the Symbionese? How big was their army? What were they fighting for? What did Patty do to them to deserve this? Remember, I was about thirteen, so cut me some slack.

Y’all probably aren’t as long in the tooth as I am, so here’s a couple of links to provide a little background on the Symbionese Liberation Army and why they would choose the Hearst Family and Its Fortune for a kidnapping and its associated ransom.

But I didn’t want to read about Patty. She’d been covered enough, on TV, in books, and in her own post-jail promotion, including acting stints for director John Waters. How about a book on the SLA? I found something even better; a book about one of the members of the SLA—not the leader, not Patty, but one of the women in the small group:  Camilla Christine Hall.

Camilla Hall was a rural Midwesterner, like me. A protestant, like me. Bespectacled, plain, and overweight, like me. A person you most likely would overlook in a crowd; how did she end up being gunned down outside of a domestic terrorist organization’s (not-so) safe house in 1974? Rachael Hanel tackled this question in her book, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The book is divided into 3 sections: Camilla Established, Camilla Transformed, and Camilla Revealed. I like the fact that the chapters within each section are short. Problem with that was, that the teaser paragraph at the end of one chapter would draw me in to starting the next chapter and, since the chapters were so short, I would end up continuing to read, thinking, “just to the end of this chapter, and then I’ll put the book down.” Sometimes that didn’t happen; I kept going, compelled by the interesting story being revealed.

Rachel shook every bush trying to get into Camilla’s head. Turning to Camilla’s immediate family first, Rachel discovered that Camilla’s mother, as well as all three of Camilla’s siblings, had already passed away. The author worked with an archivist at Gustavus Adolphus College to obtain information on Camilla (donated by one George Hall). George, a Lutheran pastor and former professor at the college was Camilla’s father. She was able to write to Camilla’s father, but he died not long after she started her research on Camilla. She read letters between Camilla (known as “Candy” to her friends and coworkers) and her parents and studied some of the poetry Camilla wrote and art she produced. She used newspapers and books to collect information on the SLA and its members. She contacted another relative of Camilla’s to interview. She visited the places that Camilla lived. She talked to an old friend of Camilla’s. The author interviewed another female member of the SLA to get a feel for her mindset, hoping that might shine some light of Camilla’s thoughts. She read a dissertation on Camilla’s psychology.

The author sets the stage by letting us know Camilla was one of four children born to Lutheran pastor, missionary, and theology professor George Hall and his wife Lorena. She was the only one of the children to live to adulthood.

After graduating college, Camilla worked as a county welfare case officer in Minnesota. She cared about people, particularly poor and marginalized folks. She worked on underground newspapers. She was never credited though; being a government employee, she was not allowed to take part in political activities because of the Hatch Act. She wanted to help, but learned quickly that the system was flawed, corrupt, and was not going to change. Feeling frustrated with her inability to make a difference or fix the welfare system (she worked in a couple of locations in Minnesota), she moved to California, made a few friends and lived off of her savings and selling her artwork (the author had the artwork and poetry analyzed by a specialist, hoping their input would reveal some of Camilla’s personality). Eventually, she began work as a seasonal worker in a park district. She was not afraid of hard, physical work. She and a few other women were classified as temporary workers at the park district and did not get to enjoy the benefits that the permanent male employees did on the same job. She tried to unionize so that the women could be on the same footing as the men that worked in the district. She was unsuccessful. Again, the System was unwilling to change to what she felt it should be.

Talking, peacefully protesting, and following society’s rules for trying to change the System were not working. Camilla was an idealist and became frustrated and disillusioned by what she saw in “the real world.” Camilla’s eyes were opened by the fraud committed by the recipients and the case workers while working in county welfare offices; she didn’t feel it was helping the people individually in the long run or society. She was disappointed in her unionizing failure. She was a delegate to support Eugene McCarthy—he bucked the System (so was she by doing this; she was violating the Hatch Act). Her frustration was building, but she was still the same friendly Candy to her family, friends, and coworkers. When McCarthy didn’t pan out, she considered the Peace and Freedom Party. She was on a committee to end the Vietnam war and boycotted grapes to support Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association.

Camilla kept in touch with her parents by writing to them frequently, but her later letters were different than those sent earlier. Her earlier letters were a listing of what she had been up to lately. Occasionally, she might mention that she was frustrated with the on-going Vietnam war or the plight of the poor, but her last letters to her parents showed her radical stance. Her parents destroyed those last letters; they didn’t want the government to get their hands on them.

Camilla’s on again, off again lover, Patricia/Mizmoon Soltysik, was already a member of the SLA (and lover of the head of the SLA (escaped convict, Donald DeFreeze)). Some believe Camilla joined and stayed with the SLA because of this romantic link. It may have been her introduction to the group, but the author is not convinced that is what kept her there.

Camilla joined the SLA after they had committed a murder (Marcus Foster, a local school superintendent). She was aware of this and still chose to join. The SLA wanted to overthrow the government because of its treatment of the poor and marginalized. In all, they committed a kidnapping, robbed banks, and killed two people (one before Camilla joined, and another during a bank robbery after Camilla was dead).

In the end, the author states that the reason Camilla did what she did (join the group, take part in its activities) cannot be explained simply. Read the book. Find out what Rachel Hanel posits as possible reasons from all her research for the choices Camilla made. Camilla could have walked away almost up to the last minute. But she didn’t.

I came away from this book with some sympathy for Camilla; she wanted to help people, particularly the poor and marginalized. At first, she tried through the System’s accepted methods—she worked as a social worker but saw the abuse and inflexibility on both sides there. She backed politicians that shared her beliefs, but they were defeated. She signed petitions, marched, and took part in boycotts. She tried to help unionize women workers in a male-dominated field; that went nowhere.

I think she was fed up; even though she might not have committed the acts herself, she aligned herself with a group that would take revolutionary and terroristic actions to accomplish what they felt needed to be done—the ends justified the means. “Do unto others” evolved into “get them before they get you.” Would she have shot Marcus Foster had she been in the SLA at that time and was instructed to by Cinque Mtume (Donald DeFreeze’s SLA name)? Well, she did buy a gun and train with it at a firing range. Would she have gone into Patty Hearst’s apartment and kidnapped her? Well, she was in another car as a lookout during the kidnapping. She looked at what she wanted to accomplish to make the world a better place for the underprivileged and must have convinced herself that it was worth it– that the murders, kidnapping, and robberies were worth the SLA’s final goal; to bring down the government and provide one that would serve the people she cared about, a goal that in the end was not achieved.




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