Hanel hunts for Hall in new book

After nearly 23 years of extensive research and writing, Associate Professor of Creative Writing Rachael Hanel has a new book coming out titled “Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small Town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army.”

The book focuses on Camilla Hall, a former St. Peter resident who became part of the Symbionese Liberation Army during the 1960s and 1970s. While most protests were peaceful, the SLA were a radical and violent group. Hall’s life ended in 1974 after getting shot by the Los Angeles Police Department at the age of 29. 

Hanel’s intrigue to write the book came from a newspaper article she read in 1999 about a St. Paul woman who was a fugitive and who was involved with the SLA. 

“[The fugitive] had been underground for 24 years, so when she got arrested, it was a big news story. Alongside the story was a smaller one about the SLA with a picture of Camilla and I was like, ‘Oh, I never heard of her. I want to know more about her,’ Hanel said. “I just thought, ‘How does somebody from small town Minnesota end up in California and a part of a really radical group?’”

Hanel’s inspiration to write the book came from the mystery of Hall’s past.

“I love true crime and mysteries. I really wanted to try to answer that question of how she ended up in the situation that she ended up in. It just compelled me,” Hanel said.

“Not the Camilla We Knew” is not Hanel’s first book. “We’ll Be The Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter,” was published in 2013. Hanel said “Not the Camilla We Knew” was easier to write than her memoir due to her training in journalism.

“I feel like I was much more my wheelhouse because I was writing about somebody else and I felt like I was out there researching and reporting on somebody else, rather than focusing totally on myself,” Hanel said. 

The hardest challenge Hanel faced was searching for sources who knew Hall.

“There’s no one alive who knew Camilla well. Her family is dead and they moved around a lot, but I did manage to find some people who knew her for specific times in her life. It’s not like she had lifelong friends that I could turn to. Just in terms of piecing her life together was a challenge,” Hanel said. 

The SLA focused on raising awareness for inequality, race and gender during the Vietnam War era. With protests on women’s reproductive rights and the Black Lives Matter movement occuring the last few years, Hanel says today’s modern movements parallel those discussed in her new book. 

“I hope that this story of Camilla can almost be a cautionary tale, that no matter how frustrated somebody might get over what’s going on in the world, [ask themselves] ‘is violence really the answer?’” Hanel said.

Hanel hopes readers will ponder about Hall’s motives, but also caution about Hall’s actions. 

“Nobody wants to go into a protest movement thinking they’re going to die because of it and she really lost her life because she was a member of this protest group,” Hanel said. “I hope people can see the parallels to today and think about maybe how we can avoid something going so far.”

Hanel’s book is now available for preorder on Amazon and will be available wherever books are sold. The book’s release date is Dec. 13.

Header Photo: Associate Professor of Creative Writing Rachael Hanel spent the last 23 years working on “Not the Camilla We Knew,” a story that follows former St. Peter resident Camilla Hall and her involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Lilly Anderson/The Reporter)

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