Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Brainwashing Theory

As a defense witness, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton provided the most eloquent expression of personality transformations. In 1961, he had published a book called Thought Reform to discuss a pattern of behavior that he'd observed among prisoners of the Communist Chinese in the 1950s. Some Chinese had described to him a series of identity shifts related to their embrace and subsequent rejection of communism.

Such transformations are possible, Lifton said, because of the adaptive and malleable nature of the self. If the pressure is strong enough, people exposed to new environments and beliefs can actually change their entire perspective. In times of restlessness and transition, such as was evident in America during the 1960s and 1970s, many people were vulnerable to personal transformation, especially young people. The more fluid the social milieu, the more fluid the person. But when we feel that we're losing our mooring, we locate ground in anything that promises structure. In the process, we can actually merge incompatible elements of identity. The psychology of the survivor often involves symbolic forms of death and rebirth.

Lifton compared brainwashing to how the SLA zealots operated with Patty:

  1. Milieu control the control of communication by creating a totalitarian environment and "loading" language with ideological and emotional terms. Everything the person is exposed to is based on the zealot's truth.
  2. Mystical manipulation they use their mystique to provoke certain behaviors and emotions in a person but make it appear to arise spontaneously; they rely on making the impression that they're serving a higher purpose and their ideas are sacred. People who feel trapped by this resort to "the psychology of the pawn," by subordinating themselves to the ideology and adapting. It's less painful to flow with the tide than against it.
  3. Demand for purity By purging those ideas and behaviors that are inconsistent with the group ideology, they can become "pure." Shaming and guilt-producing tactics are used, and the cult leaders are the ultimate arbiters of what is good and bad. Denouncing "bad" thoughts and behavior is a relief to the captor.

It didn't seem such a stretch, but the jury was nevertheless confused.

In their post-trial edition, The Saturday Evening Post jumped on this bandwagon by running a lengthy editorial on the methods of brainwashing. In an informal survey of military men and missionaries, they found that even those prepared for it may still be brainwashed into accepting an enemy's ideology, even to the point of harming their country. The editors offered the typical steps involved:

  1. Confinement under inhuman conditions to lower resistance (such as being kept blindfolded in a closet for 57 days).
  2. The insistence on confession of past misdeeds (such as being raised in a privileged family).
  3. Manipulating confessions into the context of the ideology (Patty had it all while many people are starving). The confession becomes self-criticism.
  4. Telling the person that his former society had turned against him (Patty was told that her parents would not meet the ransom demands).
  5. "Undeserved" liberties are granted commensurate with the person's conversion, which makes the person grateful to his captors. (She denounced her family on tape.)
  6. The person's weakened physical state and feeling of shame and inferiority merge into a bond with the captor. (Patty joined the SLA in their criminal activities.)
  7. Captors prove their sincerity by using the same tactics on their fellow prisoners. (Patty took part in a bank robbery and helped two members elude arrest.)
  8. Even upon returning to society, the person will experience confusion and doubt. (She exhibited this behavior.)}

These procedures, the editorial went on to say, are not unlike those used in boot camp to get recruits to become part of a fighting team, for the honor of the country. In other words, it's used because it works, and DeFreeze knew how to do it.

In addition, Patty had some clear disadvantages. She had no training in these tactics, she was young and vulnerable, she'd been protected most of her life, and she lived among college students who articulated anti-establishment values. There's no reason to doubt that she had been under duress sufficiently traumatic and manipulative to produce the shocking behavior for which she was on trial.

To buttress this argument, Flo Conway and Jim Seigelman coauthored a book called Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change in which they analyzed Patty Hearst as an exemplar of their thesis.

Mind-altering experiences may threaten the brain's ability to process information, they wrote, which leads to altered thinking and stress disorders. Patty's personality was methodically destroyed to the point where she underwent a dramatic and traumatic personality change. Then as she watched her captors die in the safe-house fire, surrounded by an army of police, she believed that what they had said about society was true. She thought that the police were now out to kill her. She had no idea why she failed to contact her parents, except that she did not trust them. Yet in retrospect, the way she was thinking at the time made no sense to her.

In an interview three years after her kidnapping, Conway and Seigelman believe that Patty showed all the signs of a cult victim. She laughed and cried in odd places, and offered little detail about her ordeal in the closet, claiming only a vague memory. She had mood swings and a great deal of anxiety. To their mind, her avoidance of the subject indicated extreme trauma, which meant that she could not freely form real criminal intent.

While their thesis may be true, all of the examples they use also support the possibility that Patty was protecting herself and her new friends by acting confused. In fact, friends who knew her before the kidnapping viewed her as a chameleon who could shift her personality at will to suit her purposes. Emily Harris claimed that Patty had worn a piece of jewelry that Wolfe had given to her right up until her arrest, indicating that her involvement was emotional and not the result of brainwashing. If she identified with Wolfe early into her captivity and accepted his ideas, as many women do when in love, then her decision to join the SLA makes as much sense as the brainwashing theory.

Former President Jimmy Carter (AP)
Former President Jimmy Carter (AP)

At any rate, the jury didn't buy the defense and Patty served twenty-one months before President Carter commuted her sentence in 1979, giving her strict terms of parole. However, her conviction remained on record, so she continued to apply for a pardon with successive presidents, based on her claim about being brainwashed.

Hearst went on to become an actress in low-budget movies. She married her former bodyguard, Bernard Shaw, moved to Connecticut, wrote a couple of books, and had two daughters. Yet she did not have the full rights of most Americans.

For Patricia Hearst Shaw, life moved on and the events of the mid-1970s began to fade. Then one of the SLA fugitives was located.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'