The Mankato writer turned his fascination with the Minnesota revolutionary into a book

Rachael Hanel was just a baby when the Symbionese Liberation Army made headlines. The small group of Californian rebels kidnapped the heiress Patricia Heartschool principal murdered Marcus Fosterrobbed a bank and then, in 1974, most of them died in a violent confrontation with the police.

In 1999, Hanel came across an old photo of one of the revolutionaries in a Star Tribune story and was immediately captivated.

Her name was Camilla Hall and she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister from Minnesota. In the photo from the newspaper, she appeared young, blond and amiable in appearance. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a broad John Denver smile.

“It upended all the stereotypes I had about someone who would take a violent path,” Hanel said in a recent interview. “From that moment on, I was committed to finding out more about her.”

Hall was late to join ALS and was the one with the lowest profile. In most news reports, she is only mentioned in passing, if at all.

This piqued Hanel’s interest all the more, and Hall became the subject of first Hanel’s master’s thesis and then his doctoral thesis. And now she’s the subject of Hanel’s second book, a biography/memoir combination titled “Not the Camilla we knew” which will be published in December by University of Minnesota Press.

Hanel, who lives in Madison Lake, Minnesota, 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.

Here she talks about Hall’s life and death and why this book took over 20 years to write.

Q: What is Camilla Hall’s relationship with Minnesota?

A: She was born in Saint-Pierre and lived there for about 10 years. The family moved to New Jersey briefly, and when they returned, they settled in St. Paul for a year or two, then in 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 St. Louis County Social Department, and then moved to Minneapolis and worked for the Hennepin County Social Department. She left in the early 1970s to go to California to become an artist.

Q: What do you think radicalized her?

A: She’s complex, and there was no reason why she would have joined ALS. I think that’s a lot of reasons. Maybe, it was like “here’s a family”. His three siblings were all dead [at an early age of a genetic condition], she was far from her parents. Perhaps she considered these people as brothers and sisters.

I truly believe she wanted the world to be a better place. I think she was upset and angry about the Vietnam War and the inequality on so many levels. I’m sure she wanted to be around Mizmoon to some degree [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 have you worked on this book?

A: It’s been 23 years. I’m here to make all the other writers feel better about their projects! Of course, during those 23 years, I also did other things, and I also wrote the memoirs at that time. But it’s been in my head for 23 years.

Q: What made you move forward?

A: I kept peeling off the layers. I found myself with a lot of empathy for her because there were a lot of losses in her life.

Q: Do you feel like you touched the heart of who she was?

A: I have the impression, yes, of having been able to gather enough information to make a rather complete portrait of it. But I would say that I never had the exact answer as to why she did that. She would be the only one who could tell us.

Q: Why did you structure the book as part memoir, part biography?

A: This format has always fascinated me. Some of my favorite books have this structure, like “In nature,” and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, where the narrator is a character and his role is to guide the reader and the reader can follow along as the writer discovers him.

Q: What do you hope the reader will take away from it?

A: I hope the reader can see themselves in the story. Sometimes I think 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 it remotely. But maybe the line is really thin and we have more in common than we think.

Q: She died in May 1974 when police surrounded their hideout in Los Angeles and set it on fire. What exactly happened?

A: There are conflicting reports between police accounts and eyewitness accounts. The police will say that she came out of the house shooting at them. Of course, there were no body cameras back then. Other people – there was an investigator hired by the family – eyewitnesses say that she went out to surrender. The house was on fire, there was a lot of smoke in there, I thought the natural instinct would be, “I have to get out of here.”

Q: Why did you dedicate the book to him?

A: One question I’ve asked myself many times over the years is whether she wants her story written. I really wanted to sit down and think about it. What if she doesn’t want her story told? But eventually I came to take a closer look at his 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 ready to talk about it maybe to understand things.

In the end, it’s Camilla’s story, I’m just the relay.

Laurie Hertzel is the editor of books at the Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks.