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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

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Olson's notoriety contrasts starkly with her upbringing in a middle-class North Dakota family. Talking about her Norwegian roots, Olson once described her grandparents' farm in Fargo as a place where "the milk came into the house in pails from the barn."

But in 1971, Olson headed for the San Francisco Bay area, and everything changed. She enrolled in a women's studies class at UC Berkeley and befriended Atwood, who would later join the SLA. Berkeley was rife with revolutionary groups, and Olson found the SLA's call for social justice to her liking. That, say her friends in St. Paul, led to her downfall.

As Olson's interest in the SLA increased, so did the group's clashes with the law: After their L.A. hideout came under police attack (Olson was not there at the time), they fired on the officers, who responded with tear-gas grenades. Flames poured from the bungalow. Atwood and the others remained inside. They died in the inferno.

It was a wrenching moment for those watching the drama play out on television — and even more so for Olson and others who lost friends in the assault. "That became Sara's private business," says Fred. "The LAPD massacre of the SLA was a bellwether event — the first televised SWAT team — " "Team murder," Emily interrupts.

Two weeks later, on June 2, 1974, Olson, or Soliah as she was known, stood on a grassy patch in Berkeley's Ho Chi Minh Park and spoke at a memorial rally for Atwood and the other SLA members killed in the siege. "Angela was a truly revolutionary woman," she said, climbing onto a platform. From a nearby building, the FBI filmed the gathering. "Among the first white women to fight so righteously for their beliefs and to die for what they believed in." For an aspiring actress like Olson, it was the performance of a lifetime. She wore enormous sunglasses and a red turtleneck; her hair flowed freely down her back. Standing with her hands clasped in front of her, she led the crowd in cheering for the SLA.

"Keep fighting!" she shouted. "I'm with you!"

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