Rachel Hannell was just a kid when the SLA was in the news. A small group of California rebels kidnapped the heir Patricia HearstThe murdered school principal Marcus Fosterrobbed a bank, then in 1974 most of them died in a fiery confrontation with the police.
In 1999, Hanel came across an old photo of a rebel in the Star Tribune story and was instantly captured.
Her name was Camilla Hall, and she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister in Minnesota. In the press photo, a young woman, with blonde hair and woody-looking looks, was wearing wire-rimmed glasses and had a broad, John Denver-like smile.
“It overturned any stereotype that I had of someone who might take a violent path,” Hanell said in a recent interview. “From that point onwards I was committed to learning more about her.”
Hall was late joining the SLA and was the lowest. In most news reports, it’s mentioned in passing, if at all.
This piqued Hanel’s interest even more, and Hall became the subject of Hanel’s master’s thesis first and then his doctoral thesis. She is now the subject of Hanel’s second book, a memoir/autobiographical mix called “Not the Camila we knew,” to be published by the University of Minnesota Press in December.
Hanell, who lives in Madison Lake, Minnesota, is the author of a memoir, “We will be the last to let you down”, He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Here she talks about Hall’s life and death and why it took more than 20 years to write this book.
s: What does Camilla Hall have to do with Minnesota?
a: She was born in Saint Peter and lived there for about 10 years. The family moved briefly to New Jersey and when they returned they settled in St. Paul for a year or two and then in Minneapolis. She went to the University of Minnesota and graduated there in 1967—she spent her first year at Gustavus Adolphus.
She then stayed in Duluth for 10 months, working for the St. Louis County Department of Welfare and then moved to Minneapolis and worked for the Hennepin County Department of Welfare. She left in the early 1970’s to go to California to become an artist.
s: What do you think about making it extreme?
a: It’s complicated, and there was no single reason for her to join the SLA. I think there are a lot of reasons. Perhaps, “here is a family” feeling. Her three siblings died [at an early age of a genetic condition]She was far from her parents. Perhaps she saw these people as siblings.
I really think she wanted the world to be a better place. I think she was unhappy and angry about the Vietnam War, and about inequality on so many levels. I’m sure she somewhat wanted to be near Mazmoun [her former lover, Patricia Soltysik, also a member of the SLA]. She just lost her job – it was kind of the perfect storm.
s: How long have you worked 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 memoirs at that time as well. But it’s been in my head for 23 years.
s: What made you go?
a: I kept peeling off the layers. I just finished with so much sympathy for her because there was so much loss in her life.
s: Do you feel that you have reached the heart of who she was?
a: I feel like, yes, I was able to gather enough information to paint a fairly complete picture of it. But I’ll say I didn’t get an answer for exactly why she’s doing this. She will be the only one who can tell us that.
s: Why structure the book as part of a memoir, and part of an autobiography?
a: This look has always fascinated me. Some of my favorite books have this structure, like “to the wild,” And the “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Where the narrator is a character and their role is to nurture the reader and the reader can follow what the writer discovers.
s: What do you hope the reader will come up with?
a: I hope the reader will see himself in the story. Sometimes I think when there are people like Camila – she committed crimes, she did, and there were choices that I made – but I think we want to put people like that at arm’s length. But maybe there’s a really fine line and we have more in common than we think.
s: She died in May 1974 when police surrounded and set fire to their Los Angeles hideout. What exactly happened?
a: There are conflicting reports between police and eyewitness accounts. The police will say she came out of the house shooting them. Of course, there were no body cameras at that time. Other people – there was an interrogator appointed by the family – witnesses say she came out to surrender. The house was burning, and there was a lot of smoke, and I guess the natural instinct would be, “I have to get out of there.”
s: Why did you dedicate the book to her?
a: One of the questions I’ve asked myself over and over again over the years is just wrestling with the question of do you want to write her story. I really wanted to sit down and think about it. What if you don’t want her story to be told? But eventually I started to look more closely at her parents. They sat with a number of people and talked about Camila. I really feel like the parents wanted to spread the story. I think they were willing to talk about it maybe to find out things.
In the end, it’s Camila’s story, I’m just the channel.
Laurie Herzel is the book editor at Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks.