Brainwashing agitates victims into submission
Palm Beach Post/March 14, 2003
By Michael Browning
Was Elizabeth Smart — the Utah teenager snatched from her bedroom last June, then remarkably rescued Wednesday — brainwashed into staying with her captors?
Her father, Ed Smart, said Thursday he knows “that she’s been through brainwashing,” though he has not asked his daughter for details about her nine-month ordeal.
The American view of mind control is more sensational than clinical. The public tends to remember how attorney F. Lee Bailey defended heiress Patty Hearst in the 1970s, claiming she was brainwashed into joining her kidnappers in their crime spree.
But where, exactly, did he get the idea?
“Brainwashing” is one of the few Chinese phrases to have made its way directly into English in translation, thanks to the Korean War. Chinese Taoist temples often displayed the two characters “Xi Xin,” pronounced “shee shin,” meaning “Wash Heart.” It was an adjuration to all those entering to purge their hearts of base thoughts [i.e. Chinese Thought Reform] and desires, and rise to a higher spiritual plane.
The Chinese communists adopted this phrase during political “struggle sessions,” in which an erring comrade would be urged by the group to straighten out, fly right, get back in tune with the common goal. The very word for “comrade” in Chinese is tongzhi, meaning “share goal.”
Only one slight change was made: Instead of washing the heart, one was urged to wash the brain, “Xi Nao,” purify one’s thoughts.
During the Korean War, captured American soldiers were subjected to prolonged interrogations and harangues by their captors, who often worked in relays and used the “good-cop, bad-cop” approach, alternating a brutal interrogator with a gentle one.
It was all part of “Xi Nao,” washing the brain. The Chinese and Koreans were making valiant attempts to convert the captives to the communist way of thought.
Soldiers sometimes caved in, sometimes did not. For some reason, sociologists later noted, the Turks proved the toughest to persuade, while Americans were a mixed lot. Some were converted, some actually defected and at least one was living in China as late as the 1980s.
British journalist Edward Hunter translated the term brainwashing in his 1953 book, Brain-Washing in Red China, which described communist techniques for controlling the minds of nonbelievers.
The word gained wide currency, given a powerful assist by the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, which revolved around the plot device of brainwashing. In the film, with the flip of a queen of diamonds card, a pre-programmed and seemingly normal person could be turned into an assassin. The device was revived in a later film, Telefon, starring Charles Bronson.
In 1968, when Michigan Gov. George Romney claimed that the Johnson administration had “brainwashed” him about Vietnam, Sen. Eugene McCarthy quipped that, in Romney’s case, “a light rinse would have done.” Romney, who was creating excitement in the Republican presidential nomination contest, quickly faded, clearing the way for Richard Nixon.
But it was the 1970s kidnapping of Hearst, 19-year-old heiress to the publishing fortune, that brought brainwashing into the courtroom. Hearst was held in a closet and tortured for several months by the Symbionese Liberation Army, which she then joined and aided in several armed robberies — changing her name to Tania.
Her attorney, Bailey, said she had been brainwashed. The defense didn’t succeed. Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The brainwashing defense has recently been tried again to explain the behavior of men arrested for their association with terrorists and terrorism. A friend of John “American Tailbone” Walker’s told People magazine that Al-Qaeda had brainwashed Walker. Slate magazine reported that Abd-Samad Moussaoui, the brother of Zacarias “20th Hijacker” Moussaoui, believes that, in Britain, his brother “became prey to an extremist brainwashing cult.”
The real soldiers who survived the Korean War and returned to the United States carried with them the stigma and guilt of having been captured and having survived the war and their interrogations. “Survivor’s guilt” is a common trait among prisoners of war.
So brainwashing became a pejorative, and the phrase “you’ve been brainwashed,” a term of reproach, as if the prisoner had become addlebrained, or a simpleton, during his captivity.
Sometimes the brainwashing sessions backfired ludicrously. There is the story of one British soldier who, during an interrogation session, was asked how much land his family owned.
The Englishman replied that he had only a window box in a flat back in London where he grew geraniums.
The translator didn’t understand what a window box was and asked the dimensions of the plot of ground. When the soldier showed him, with his hands, the interrogator brightened immediately.
“Ah, then you should be on our side! Obviously you are a small land owner and have been exploited terribly!” he said.