Some writers look for personal connections to their subjects.
For author and associate professor Rachael Hanel, she was born five months after the police shootout that killed Camilla Hall, the subject of her latest book, “Not the Camilla We Knew.” Hanel’s book traces one woman’s path from small town American to the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army or SLA.
Most people remember the news stories involving the SLA because of the heavy media attention surrounding the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. Since the author wasn’t yet born when famed heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, Hanel said it was another Minnesota woman who caught her attention: Sara Jane Olson, whose SLA name was Kathleen Soliah. Olson had joined the SLA after the shootout that killed Hall.
Hanel started her search into Hall’s story the day Olson was arrested in St. Paul.
“…Patty was always the blinding sun, and all the other SLA members orbited in the shadows,” wrote Hanel. “How easy it was to forget there were others, or to never even know of them in the first place.”
When she worked as a reporter for the Mankato Free Press, Hanel first started digging into the story about Hall, who grew up in St. Peter as a pastor’s daughter. Her article ran with the headline “She Said She Wanted a Revolution.” Hanel said she noticed other media accounts after Hall’s death, focused on her time in the SLA rather than her life prior to joining the radical liberal group active in the 1970s.
Something about this simplification rankled Hanel.
So she kept researching the newspaper archives to find evidence of the woman’s life before she moved to California. After meeting with the archivist at Gustavus Adolphus University where Hall’s father was a professor of theology, Hanel began to trying to answer the riddle of how a mild-mannered Lutheran girl from Minnesota became a domestic terrorist.
“I was irritated that Hall’s whole life was boiled down to a paragraph with labels and headlines,” said Hanel. She knew there had to be more to Hall’s bizarre story under the surface. She just had to find it.
Since there were dozens of books written about Hearst and the SLA, Hanel knew she needed to keep the focus squarely on Hall. Another sticking point was the fact that most of the Hall family members had died, so she would have to rely on written materials for clues and evidence but not live interviews.
Over time, the journalist made several visits to locations important to Hall’s story. She gained access to Hall’s letters, poetry and artwork. She was able to dissect seven letters Hall had written to her parents. Finally, she was able to discover that Hall’s conversion to violent, radical domestic terrorists was not that surprising after all.
“There’s no one explanation for why Camilla did what she did,” Hanel writes. “It’s a complicated story formed by grief, loss, adventure, independence, love and a wish to leave the world a better place than she found it — in short, what almost all of us experience and desire.”
Hanel said that one of her favorite aspects of writing this book grew out of her attempt as a writer to see the world through Camilla’s eyes using a technique called creative nonfiction. “This is a work of nonfiction,” she said, “though some elements of it are speculative.”
Finding a connection
In the book’s introduction, Hanel tries to explain why Hall’s story has had such a hold on her for more than two decades. She writes that she felt an instant sympathy for her at first.
“Perhaps because of the way she was killed in 1974...perhaps because she was only 20 when she died...or perhaps because we shared a rural southern Minnesota identity,” Hanel writes.
Today, Hanel is an associate professor of creative nonfiction and journalism at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Raised in Waseca, Hanel now lives in Madison Lake. Her book, “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, published by the University of Minnesota Press, was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.