She was a soccer mom, Sarah Jane Olson was, and a doctor’s wife, living in an ivy-covered house in the suburbs with their three young daughters in the center of America. Did you know her?
She was an Olson in Minnesota, among thousands and thousands of other Olsons, which was like being a Jones among Joneses, meaning she was nearly invisible.
On the surface, she was one of us. She was the kind of person who brought casseroles to community suppers, and her neighbors liked her.
She had even made something of a reputation for herself as a stage actress under this most common of Minnesota names.
Maybe that was why she knew how to make entrances. Why she knew how to work that spotlight. Or ignore it. Or how to murmur in the shadows. She knew how to make the hero look good, without stealing his applause. Or, when appropriate, she could be the star. She could be dramatic, even, if necessary, dying perfectly in a pool of fake blood. And, when the time was right, she knew how to make her exit, posture perfect, back arched, ready for whatever came next, a good review, a new role, making her husband’s favorite dish, perhaps even Stroganoff with bowtie noodles, or claiming her place among America’s Most Wanted Criminals.
For she was not born an Olson, or even a Scandinavian. She had become an Olson by design, a premeditated choice so she would blend in, blur, merge, her protective coloration among the normal people, the ordinary people, the everyday folk who lived their very real lives all over America, quietly loving a spouse, fixing up a house, watering a garden, driving kids to this lesson or that lesson, picking an errant strand of hair out of the eye of a little girl.
What she used to be was something else entirely. For 23 years Sarah Jane Olson lived her life on the lam. Before she was Sarah Jane Olson, she was Kathleen Ann Soliah, brazen member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), those notorious 70s “anti-government” radicals with a seven-headed snake as their symbol. The SLA — involved in one of the most sensational news stories of the 1970s — abducted 19-year-old Patti Hearst and demanded $6 million worth of food be distributed to the needy by Hearst’s parents, before the heiress flipped in a bizarre twist and became Tania, Girl Bank-robber, later claiming she was brainwashed..
Apparently the FBI had been seeking Kathleen Ann Soliah since 1976, when she was indicted on murder-conspiracy and explosive charges for allegedly placing pipe bombs under two LAPD cop cars — although the devices didn’t go off — in retaliation, some say, for the 1974 shootout between 500 police and the Berkeley-based Symbionese Liberation Army that killed six SLA members. Reportedly, Soliah did not participate in the shoot-out or the kidnapping.
Her “underground” identity fooled most but apparently not all of her friends and neighbors, and when the feds recently turned up the heat, someone gave her up. In March of this year, a federal warrant for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution was issued. In May, the FBI announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to her arrest or capture. Her arrest came after an anonymous tip from someone who had seen her on “America’s Most Wanted.”
And so the Minnesota housewife/actress, wearing an orange jumpsuit and waving goodbye to her family, has been held without bail after being arrested one day last week at 8:30 AM in her white mini-van, charged with trying to kill cops as a fugitive member of the SLA. Meanwhile, Governor Jesse Ventura, that media hot-dog, is reportedly drooling to sign the papers that will pluck Soliah from what was described as “her four-bedroom, ivy-covered upscale Tudor home in a tony St. Paul neighborhood” to face extradition to California and possible life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
Olson/Soliah’s story has as many divergent, conflicting viewpoints as the Blind Man and the Elephant. How could someone live with her for 18 years and be completely unaware of her past? “I know nothing about that,” her husband Gerald Peterson told the LA Times, “I’ll tell you the truth, I’m totally shocked.”
But according to her mother, he knew all along that she was wanted, and when the couple “got serious,” Soliah told him about her past, and he “understood.”
Ten years ago, the FBI told Soliah’s parents they weren’t interested in her any more, said her sister.
Born 52 years ago in Fargo, N.D., Kathleen Ann Soliah still wears her red hair long and straight. Aside from that, nothing about her is predictable. Once she even taught English and drama in Zimbabwe while her husband practiced medicine there for several years. After a brief sojourn in Baltimore, they settled during the 80s in Minnesota, when Soliah became locally known for her acting. At Minneapolis’ Theatre in the Round, she performed to rave reviews, playing the queen of the witches in “Macbeth,” “King Lear’s” scheming daughter, and, most recently, an opponent of apartheid in “A Fair Country.” Memorably, she was praised for her “vibrant” performance in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” But will it?
I invited a cross-section of folks to share their thoughts on what should be done about Sarah Jane Olson, whose next hearing is slated for July 15. It’s a thorny issue. How to “punish” someone who for 23 years lived peaceably as a wife and mom and pillar of her community? There’s even a rumor she was active in the anti-gun movement. Should she be let off? Should they throw the book at her? Is a decent life enough payment? Are there such things as youthful mistakes? Should we consider her a terrorist? A revolutionary? Or merely an over-zealous activist?
Not everyone is raging to condemn her. “I cannot judge her, or even attempt to balance her karma. Ultimately the universe will decide her fate,” says “Lenny Das,” an emergency room technician in Philadelphia.
At the least, because of the time elapsed, her case seems to evoke ambivalence. “It depends on the exact nature of her crime. Did she in fact put pipe bombs under cars? Attempted murder, if people were targets and not cars. She should stand trial for whatever was the case, but leniency should probably be a consideration. On the other hand it might be fun to roast her. Just kidding,” says “Fred Burby,” a Baton Rouge counselor.
Further clarification of the details in the case is required. “What did she know and when did she know it? What did she help plan and NOT get charged with? What would she have done if she had not led a ‘clean’ life? And did her pipe bombs kill anyone, hurt anyone? I don’t know. At the very least, she has many questions to answer. And she should be made to stay put until she answers them,” says “Joe Citizen,” a motorcycle journalist in Calabasas.
No one standard seems to apply. “Really complicated issue,” says “Meg,” a British-born psychotherapist from Mount Airy, PA. “The same thing happened with [Katherine Ann Power] one of the Weathermen picked up a few years ago after 25 years out and about as a model citizen. She’s still in jail. I think my response is totally non-objective because political action even when it is non-productive/harmful seems to me to be more reasonable than some jerk murdering his wife and getting away with it for years. I have no problem in that kind of example saying lock him up. Her — I have a problem. ‘Crimes’ of political conscience (as in Ireland or South Africa) have a cause even though the act is illegal. The Panthers were responding from similar belief systems and so were the Weathermen. Of course you-know-who from W. Philly currently residing in France[Ira Einhorn] should take responsibility for his actions!!! Like I said – no logic! I do feel she has paid for whatever crimes she is accused of by being a model citizen and that jail would be of no value to her or society. If they have to try her — sentence her to community service!”
From “Mandy, ” a mother and Philadelphia lawyer’s wife, whose young adulthood parallelled Soliah’s, up to a point: “This is a tough one. Having attended my first SDS meeting at age 17, I often wonder why I never took the steps she took. And I don’t have an answer. I think about it every time another fugitive comes in, and I have never been able to figure out why they went from civil disobedience to violence, and, conversely, why I did not. Sometimes I think it came down to class issues. The middle class white kids were violent. The lower middle class kids steered clear of it. Then there is the color line — which only appears to be part of this discussion in that we might not be having it if she was a
“This is a hard thing for me to judge. In some ways, the cases of these ‘refound revolutionaries’ enrage me.” “Mandy” continues. “Here they were, a bunch of middle-class white kids, attempting to ‘change the world’ through violence. But when things got ugly for them personally, they bolted into the past and became their mothers. Without an apparent ripple. On the other hand, what better place to lose a woman than in a suburb? Who’s gonna believe that the actress onstage in a Neil Simon comedy is a bomb thrower? It is a perfect cover. It becomes a problem for me because I feel the women are believing their new lives as much as they believed their old life and the disconnect bothers me no end. I want my revolutionaries to believe — in themselves, in the revolution, in the need to change things.
“Punishment? 20 years in suburbia would do it for me. A public apology to those they left behind, those they killed, dreams they shattered, is not really enough. But I hate the thought of the feds taking a pound of flesh. They were too much of the equation to have the power to judge the participant So there you have it,” adds “Mandy.”
It’s only when inevitable comparisons arise with war criminals that clarity emerges on the necessity for “justice.” “Many Germans and East Europeans who made a youthful mistake and helped the Nazis during WW II, even in small capacities ….then later moved to the United States and led exemplary lives for the next 50 years are still hunted down, persecuted and deported. If this woman had had a role in kidnapping a Jew or burning a synogogue, the media would be screaming for her head ! Instead she only assisted the non-white underclass in abducting a rich Anglo-Protestant girl…..such are the double standards of justice and socio-hypocrisy under which we live today,” says the history-minded “John D. Lampe.”
Mind-numbing legalities abound, from a Fresno attorney calling himself “Ishmael:” “Very similar to a case where cop-killing woman (was that one from the Weather Underground?) was eventually captured. The families of the victims have a right to see punishment. Even after many years. It is a crying shame that some Pol Pot members are getting off the hook. Pillar? Youthful indiscretion? Give me a break. Wrongs aren’t made right by the passage of time. The guards in the Nazi death camps could make the same arguments. She didn’t do her time in prison, she did it in the real world and had the chance to do what other killers did not. Society has the right to make an example for others who embark on ‘revolutionary’ rampages.
“Incidentally,” says “Ishmael,” “I believe her compatriot Donald DeFreeze (Cinque)… got his end in a shoot-out in 1974. It would be wrong if she escaped justice because she is a middle-aged white woman who unlike so many criminals, is not part of an educated underclass. It would diminish the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. A system of justice must treat her like all others who are naughty in the eyes of the law.”
“American law generally treats property crimes as inferior cousins of crimes against the person. ‘Retreat,’ give up, etc. goes the law, because defense of property with deadly force is not appropriate. Better to preserve life and limb and lose some property. But if you think about it, most property is the residue of hours of labor for its owner. Not all, but most. And those hours represent hours of life. Time. Property represents a fraction of life. For big ticket items, and big heists, why not treat it like a murder? Besides, are the lives and limbs of these thieves really so sacrosanct?” “Ishmael” says.
And from “Ed,” a San Francisco printer, comes this cryptic comment: “Two other ‘great’ thespians: Ronald Wilson Reagan, and John Wilkes Booth. ‘Nuf said.”
As for me, I can’t quite understand how a person can go from wanting to change society by violent means if necessary, to being coopted by suburbia. Although that was what The Bennington Study suggested a generation ago, that as student radicals entered adulthood, they frequently became the same bland boring middle class they had so often railed against. Years ago, I interviewed Swarthmore revolutionary Jane Alpert, who said she got involved in radical politics through a man who, blatantly enough, gave her her first orgasm — that became his hold over her– and that, actually, most of the radicals she knew had unresolved anger toward their fathers and took it out on “society” and “authority.” Simplistic, but it makes sense, doesn’t it.
As for Sarah Jane Olson, one can make the case that the deeper she got involved in family life, suburban comfort, and acting — playing roles within roles within roles — the further estranged she became from the original struggle of her own drama, until her former interest in overthrowing the existing political status quo or reforming the prevailing economic order no longer concerned her. She had learned her lines too well. As Sartre wrote in his brilliant play, “Kean”, “I was fool enough to take you for a [person]. It isn’t your fault you are only an actor.”
Or was it that she only wanted to feed the hungry and somehow it got out of control? Nevertheless, now it all seems so… insincere.