Sunday, December 18, 2016

"American Heiress" and Brainwashing

American Heiress is Jeffrey Toobin's thorough recounting of Patricia Hearst's kidnapping by and involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army - an "army" of six. Aside from the wealth and influence of her family and the powerful role that that played in her light sentencing and eventual Presidential pardons, the crux of her trial came down to whether or not she had been "brainwashed."

Did she wholeheartedly join the cause of the SLA, or was she coerced and just went along with them to keep from being killed? If the latter, as she claimed afterwards, then why did she not escape when given so many opportunities over the 19 months she was with them? She was left alone many many times. She had people that would take her in. She did not lack for money. She was not completely isolated from society. She had family that cared about her and were willing to help her.

It's hard not to conclude that she was enamored with their cause.  

After she was arrested she still held onto her revolutionary beliefs for a while, but her enthusiasm faded as the days away from the influence of the SLA grew, gradually replaced by the influence of former friends and family who were visiting her daily. With this came a change in how she viewed her past. Like the rest of humanity, she began to view her experience through the filter of her current mindset. 

Surely, she had been coerced. She had not had consensual sex with the man who had given her an obviously sentimental amulet necklace that was found in her purse when she was arrested, a year and 4 months after he had died. Sentimental? No, he had raped her - apparently, repeatedly.

Did she need to tell herself that story in order to preserve her sanity and to corroborate her claims of innocence? How could she, a "good girl" from a "good family," have committed such crimes in the name of the SLA? "Impossible," pronounced her new default narrative in protection of her ego.

Perhaps her situation echoes Stanley Milgram's conclusion. "Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."

Could it be, that we are all more vulnerable than we think? Given the right set of circumstances, can we be certain how we would react