Rachael Hanel was just a baby when the Symbionese Liberation Army was first in the news. The tiny group of California rebels kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, murdered school superintendent Marcus Foster, robbed a bank and then, in 1974, most of them died in a fiery confrontation with police.
In 1999, Hanel came across an old photo of one of the revolutionaries in a Star Tribune story and was instantly captivated.
Her name was Camilla Hall, and she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister in Minnesota. In the newspaper photo she appeared young, blond-haired and amiable-looking, She wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a wide John Denver-like smile.
"It just upended any stereotypes I had of someone who would take a violent path," Hanel said in a recent interview. "From that point forward I was committed to learning more about her."
Hall was late to join the SLA and was the one with the lowest profile. In most news accounts she is mentioned only in passing, if at all.
That piqued Hanel's interest all the more, and Hall became the subject first of Hanel's master's thesis and then her doctoral thesis. And now she is the subject of Hanel's second book, a combination biography/memoir called "Not the Camilla We Knew," which will be published in December by the University of Minnesota Press.
Hanel, who lives in Madison Lake, Minn., is the author of a memoir, "We'll Be The Last Ones to Let You Down," and teaches in the creative writing program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
She talks here about Hall's life and death and why this book took more than 20 years to write.
Q: What is Camilla Hall's relationship to Minnesota?
A: She was born in St. Peter and lived there about 10 years. The family had a brief move out to New Jersey and when they came back they settled in St. Paul for a year or two and then Minneapolis. She went to the University of Minnesota and graduated there in 1967 — she had spent her freshman year at Gustavus Adolphus.
And then she was in Duluth for about 10 months, where she worked for the welfare department of St. Louis County and then moved to Minneapolis and worked for the Hennepin County welfare department. She left in early 1970 to go to California to become an artist.
Q: What do you think radicalized her?
A: She's complex, and there was no one reason why she would have joined the SLA. I think it's a lot of reasons. Possibly, it felt like "here's a family." Her three siblings had all died [at an early age of a genetic condition], she was far away from her parents. Perhaps she saw these people as sibling-like.
I truly believe she did want the world to be a better place. I think she was unhappy and angry with the Vietnam War, and with inequality on so many levels. I'm sure to a degree she wanted to be near Mizmoon [her former lover, Patricia Soltysik, also a member of the SLA]. She had just lost her job — it was kind of a perfect storm.
Q: How long did you work on this book?
A: It's been 23 years. I'm here to make every other writer feel better about their projects! Of course, in those 23 years I was doing other things as well, and I wrote the memoir in that time, too. But it's been in my head for 23 years.
Q: What kept you going?
A: I kept unpeeling layers. I just ended up with a lot of empathy for her because there was a lot of loss in her life.
Q: Do you feel you got to the heart of who she was?
A: I feel, yes, I was able to gather enough information to paint a fairly complete portrait of her. But I would say I never got the answer of exactly why she did this. She would be the only one who could ever tell us that.
Q: Why did you structure the book as part memoir, part biography?
A: That format has always really fascinated me. Some of my favorite books have that structure, like "Into the Wild," and "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," where the narrator is a character and their role is to shepherd the reader and the reader can follow along as the writer discovers.
Q: What do you hope the reader will come away with?
A: I would hope the reader could see themselves in the story. Sometimes I think that when there are people like Camilla — she committed crimes, she did, and there were choices she made — but I think we want to put people like that at arm's length. But maybe there's a really thin line and we have more in common than we think.
Q: She died in May 1974 when the police surrounded their hideout in Los Angeles and set it on fire. What happened, exactly?
A: There's conflicting reports between police accounts and eyewitness accounts. The police will say she came out of the house shooting a gun at them. Of course, there were no body cameras back then. Other people — there was an investigator hired by the family — eyewitnesses say she came out to surrender. The house was on fire, there was a lot of smoke in there, I'd think natural instinct would be, "I gotta get out of there."
Q: Why did you dedicate the book to her?
A: One question that I asked myself repeatedly over the years is just wrestling with the question of does she want her story written. I really did want to sit down and think about that. What if she doesn't want her story told? But ultimately I came down to looking more closely at her parents. They sat down with a number of people and talked about Camilla. I really feel like the parents wanted the story out there. I think they were willing to talk about it maybe to figure things out.
In the end, it's Camilla's story, I'm just the conduit.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks.