Not the Camilla We Knew

One Woman’s Path from Small-town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army

2022
Author:

Rachael Hanel

The mystery of how an ordinary Minnesota girl came to be, briefly, one of the most wanted domestic terrorists in the United States

During this time of mounting unrest and violence, Camilla Hall’s story is of urgent interest for what it reveals about the forces of radicalization. But as Rachael Hanel ventures further into Camilla’s past, searching out the critical points where character and cause intersect, her book becomes an intriguing, disturbing, and deeply moving journey into the dark side of America’s promise.

Behind every act of domestic terrorism there is someone’s child, an average American whose life took a radical turn for reasons that often remain mysterious. Camilla Hall is a case in point: a pastor’s daughter from small-town Minnesota who eventually joined the ranks of radicals like Sara Jane Olson (aka Kathleen Soliah) in the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army before dying in a shootout with Los Angeles Police in May 1974. How could a “good girl” like Camilla become one of the most wanted domestic terrorists in the United States? Rachael Hanel tells her story here, revealing both the deep humanity and the extraordinary circumstances of Camilla Hall’s life.

Camilla’s childhood in a tight-knit religious family was marred by loss and grief as, one after another, her three siblings died. Her path from her Minnesota home to her final, radical SLA family featured years as an artist and activist—in welfare offices, political campaigns, union organizing, culminating in a love affair that would be her introduction to the SLA. Through in-depth research and extensive interviews, Hanel pieces together Camilla’s bewildering transformation from a “gentle, zaftig, arty, otherworldy” young woman (as one observer remarked), working for social change within the system, into a gun-wielding criminal involved in the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

During this time of mounting unrest and violence, Camilla Hall’s story is of urgent interest for what it reveals about the forces of radicalization. But as Hanel ventures ever further into Camilla’s past, searching out the critical points where character and cause might intersect, her book becomes an intriguing, disturbing, and ultimately deeply moving journey into the dark side of America’s promise.

Cover alt text: Group photo, with Camilla in black and white divided by slashes from colorized parents on left and Patricia Soltysik on right.

Rachael Hanel is associate professor of creative nonfiction and journalism at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, also from the University of Minnesota Press, was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. Her essays have been published in print and online in the anthology Love and Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life; Slag Glass City; Midwestern Gothic; WLA: War, Literature, and the Arts; The Bellingham Review; and New Delta Review.

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