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


  1. Margaret Thaler Singer wrote the book "Cults In Our Midst". It's the first book I read when I began to face and try to understand my life in a cult, which I "joined" when I was 16. Here are the passages in that book that reference Patty Hearst. I put them in two comments because of the word limit.

    Introduction, XXiii: "Because of my familiarity with intense influence situations, in 1976 I was called to be a court-appointed examiner of Patty Hearst, who had been kidnapped and held prisoner by a radical terrorist cult and later was tried as a bank robber, after having been forced by the cult to participate in its activities. Ihave also counseled many survivors of Jonestown and the families of the Peoples Temple members who died there in 1978, as well as families of the Branch Davidians who died in Waco in 1993. I have been an expert witness in numerous cases in which former members sued their cults for damages. Thus "Cults in Our Midst" is based not only on my fifty years as a psychologist doing research and clinical work but also on my lengthy observations of the direct social and psychological impacts of cult techniques and thought-reform processes on large number of individuals."

    Page 56: “Not long after, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a ragtag revolutionary group, kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst and abused her psychologically and otherwise. The SLA used mind manipulations as well as gun-at-the-head methods to coerce Patty into compliance. They manipulated and controlled her behavior to the extent that she appeared with them in a bank robbery and feared returning to society, having been convinced by the SLA that the police and the FBI would shoot her.”

    continued below

  2. continued

    Page 61,62: “Brainwashing is not experienced as a fever or a pain might be; it is an invisible social adaption. When you are the subject of it, you are not aware of the intent of the influence processes that are going on, and especially, you are not aware of the changes taking place within you.
    “In his memoirs, Cardinal Mindszenty wrote, “Without knowing what had happened to me, I had become a different person.” And when asked about being brainwashed, Patty Hearst said, “The strangest part of all this, however, as the SLA delighted in informing me later, was that they themselves were surprised at how docile and trusting I had become... It was also true, I must admit, that the thought of escaping from them later simply never entered my mind. I had become convinced that there was no possibility of escape ... I suppose I could have walked out of the apartment and away from it all, but I didn't. It simply never occurred to me.”
    “A thought-reform program is not a one-shot event but a gradual process of breaking down and transformation. It can be likened to gaining weight, a few ounces, a half pound, a pound at a time. Before long, without even noticing the initial change—we are confronted with a new physique. So, too, with brainwashing. A twist here, a tweak there—and there it is: a new psychic attitude, a new mental outlook. These systematic manipulations of social and psychological influences under particular conditions are called programs because the means by which change is brought about is coordinated. And it is because the changes cause the learning and adoption of a certain set of attitudes, usually accompanied by a certain set of behaviors, that the effort and the result are called thought-reform.
    “Thus, thought-reform is a concerted effort to change a person's way of looking at the world, which will change his or her behavior. It is distinguished from other forms of social learning by the conditions under which it is conducted and the techniques of environmental and interpersonal manipulation that are meant to suppress certain behavior and to elicit and train other behavior. And it does not consist of only one program—there are many ways and methods to accomplish it.
    “The tactics of a thought-reform program are organized to:
    -- destabliize a person's sense of self
    -- get the person to drastically reinterpret his or her life's history and radically alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality and causality
    -- develop in the person a dependence on the organization, and thereby turn the person into a deployable agent of the organization."