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Cults In Our Midst: Patty Hearst And The Brainwashing Of America


Exactly forty years ago Patricia Hearst stunned the nation when she turned up as a bank robber, a mere two months after she was kidnapped by the violent cult that called itself “The Symbionese Liberation Army.” Her astonishing transformation was documented by bank cameras on April 15, 1974.

There she was — granddaughter of William Randolph “Citizen Kane” Hearst — wielding a sawed-off assault rifle and terrorizing people in a bank. She had recently announced in a taped SLA communique that she had voluntarily joined the SLA in its fight against the “fascist” United States. She took the nom de guerre “Tania,” in honor of a Che Guevara comrade. Before all that, she was just living the life of a 19-year-old college student, looking forward to getting married.

We ought to take this moment to reflect on how little Americans really understand about the processes and techniques of brainwashing, also known as coercive persuasion or manipulative thought reform, and how they may relate to us today.

Criminal or Victim of Brainwashing?

While I followed the case in real time, I naturally wondered how much Patty Hearst had really changed her attitude and lifestyle. I was in awe of the Hearst legacy, having just watched Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a required “lab” assignment for my Cinema class at the University of Southern California.

Possibly, I supposed, after Hearst lived the insulated life of a rich girl, and then as a student at UC Berkeley, the SLA may have awakened her to some hard facts about income inequality, racism, and so forth. Maybe she felt guilty and wanted to make reparations by being a part of a revolution? Rebellious youth? It didn’t really add up, but I mulled this over as a young and diehard liberal is wont to do.

And then I watched in awe footage of a horrendous firefight after the SLA was tracked down at a house in south central Los Angeles, just a couple of miles from where I lived at USC. It was one of the biggest shootouts in police history, with about 9000 rounds exchanged by LAPD and the frenzied, armed-to-the-teeth SLA members inside the house, which by the end was engulfed in flames. Miraculously, no police or bystanders were hurt in the crossfire, though all six suspects inside died.

It turned out Patty Hearst wasn’t there. But, in spite of it all, she stuck with the SLA remnant, communicating her determination to continue fighting, and lived as a fugitive for 16 more months until her arrest in September 1975. After arrest, she publicly acted with defiance, calling out support to all of her “brothers and sisters” in the “revolution” and listed her occupation as “urban guerrilla.”

Hearst describes in her book how her attorney, the renowned F. Lee Bailey, sloppily handled a defense based on brainwashing.   The jury didn’t buy it, and neither did many Americans. Hearst was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison, a sentence soon reduced to seven years. According a California poll, 75 percent believed the sentence was “about right” or “too lenient.” I personally had some mixed feelings, but the brainwashing defense resonated with me. In any case, her sentence was commuted to two years by President Carter in 1978. And President Bill Clinton pardoned Hearst just before he left office in 2001.

The Fundamental Transformation of Patty Hearst

So that’s what it looked like to an impressionable, politically unseasoned contemporary. But what was going on in the background?

Hearst’s 1983 book Every Secret Thing describes the kidnapping and the aftermath in meticulous, ghastly detail. Hearst also granted a fascinating interview with Larry King in 2002.

For several weeks, she was blindfolded, confined to a smelly closet, tormented, periodically raped, and subjected to a coarse Maoist style program of indoctrination and re-education. Her life depended on anticipating and meeting the demands of her captors. The leader Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze and the others propagandized and interrogated her constantly, explaining that “Amerikkka” was a racist and evil society, repeatedly calling her a privileged “bourgeoise bitch” and her father a “pig” of the “corporate fascist state.” But then her captors would let up a bit, offering food or tea—then continue more intensely with cruelty and degradation.

This cycle—isolation, threats, and humiliation, punctuated by a little peace (reward) for compliance—broke down Hearst’s sense of self. As she later told Larry King, “Most of the time I was with them, my mind was going through doing exactly what I was supposed to do… I had no freewill.”

The SLA members stimulated in her an overwhelming sense of dependency, which induced her finally to accept their version of reality, and put her past life out of her mind. Hearst eventually became such a reliable convert that she not only robbed banks with them, but did not consider escaping later, when she had many opportunities to do so.

Many view the Patty Hearst case as a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome because of similarities between her bonds with the SLA and those of hostages who, just the year before in Stockholm, had sympathized with the bank robbers who held them, even defending their captors after they were released. Battered person syndrome is another explanation. A victim of domestic violence may stay in a relationship and take blame for the abuse, and then enter into a cycle of “learned helplessness” in which escape is not considered an option.

Hearst told Larry King: “The thought of escaping from them later simply never entered my mind. I had become convinced that there was no possibility of escape…  It simply never occurred to me.”

Nor did she realize during the process that she was being so decisively manipulated. King asked her: “A brain-washed person doesn’t know from time element when they’re being brainwashed, do they?” Hearst responded: “No. No they don’t. … I was so far gone I had no clue how bad it was.”

After her arrest, Hearst spent time with two psychiatrists widely known for their expertise on cults:  Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer and Dr. Robert Jay Lifton.  After just a couple of weeks of separation from the SLA, Hearst became free of what Lifton referred to as the accumulated “gunk” of thought reform, and recovered her self concept. She told King: “I had no freewill until I was separated from them for about two weeks. And then it suddenly began to dawn that they just weren’t there anymore. I could actually think my own thoughts.”

The Transformation of America?

You’d think the American public would be interested in learning a thing or two about how coercive persuasion works. In fact, you don’t need to be locked in a closet with a gun to your head to be vulnerable to coercive persuasion. Being isolated, dependent, and indoctrinated will suffice.

So is it possible something even bigger is in the making? Other nations in history have seen overnight “transformations” in character. Why not us? In fact, can we be transformed en masse so that we all conform to more “beneficial” ways of living our lives, ways that are in accordance with those who dub themselves “choice architects?”

Behavior modification has in fact gone mainstream, even though its tactics often seem a well-kept secret. Last year, the White House launched a “behavioral insights team” assigned with the task of “improving policies” through insights into human behavior. These insights into our behavior, please note, are not for us to understand for our own benefit, but for the government to use for us, as it sees fit.

We take as a given that political persuasion is part of public life. But likewise we take as a given that deliberate government manipulation of the populace using the techniques of unwitting or coercive persuasion represents a grave threat to our freedoms. If we wish to reduce our susceptibility to coercive influence, we must begin by understanding its processes and techniques.

Key Features of Coercive Persuasion

In her 1995 book Cults in our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer (d. 2003) explores in detail the methods and processes of coercive persuasion. These methods are used not just by cult leaders, but by anyone who manipulates the behavior of others in order to promote a hidden agenda, often involving the consolidation of power. (By the way, some very telling experiments that reveal the vulnerability of our minds to manipulation and social influence include those of Stanley Milgram, now labelled controversial, and Solomon Asch.)

According to Singer, the tactics of a thought reform program are organized to do three things: destabilize a person’s sense of self; get the person to alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality; and develop dependency in the person, turning him into a deployable agent for the controller or the agenda.

Singer also lists six conditions that create an atmosphere conducive to coercive persuasion:

  • Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person and their thoughts
  • Control time and physical environment
  • Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
  • Suppress old behavior and attitudes
  • Instill new behavior and attitudes
  • Put forth a closed system of logic.

The atmosphere of coercion is reinforced by peer-modeled behavior. Basically, this means that in a room full of people who whisper, you will likely whisper too. Or if you are exposed to a slogan often enough, you will repeat it, even if you don’t understand what it means.

Another feature of coercive persuasion, according to Robert Jay Lifton, is to promote a climate in which the agenda is seen as an elitist movement for those who are enlightened. Those who oppose the agenda are labeled as lesser beings.

The universal human fear and pain of social isolation stands at the core of these methods. Consider that the SLA members did not just physically separate Patty Hearst from her friends and family. They made a point of mentally and emotionally separating her as well, by repeatedly labelling them as “bourgeoise” and “fascist.” In her mind, the only human bond possible was with her captors.

Political Correctness is Coercive Persuasion (or “PC=CP”)

The frightening realization is that these techniques work on mass audiences as well.

We can see hints in the phenomenon we call “political correctness,” because it directs people to censor their speech and their behavior in order to line up behind politically correct agendas. In a sense, political correctness, though more subtle, is analogous to the dark closet in which Patty Hearst was isolated, blindfolded, and incessantly propagandized. It serves to silence us and create the conditions in which the arbiters of correctness can tear down the old world view and rebuild it in their image. We’re told being one of them is to be morally superior, on the right side of history. Those who oppose it are labeled, repeatedly and loudly: bigot, racist, homophobe.

A sophisticated model of coercive persuasion is illustrated in Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge:  Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. It explains how to use peer pressure and information access in order to influence others into adopting an agenda. Nudge serves simultaneously as a playbook for manipulators and an indoctrination manual for not-so-savvy recruits to the book’s power-centralizing agendas. Cass Sunstein also outlined a model for “collective belief formation” –describing how implausible opinions can be manufactured through a system of social/reputational punishments and rewards – in a 1999 Stanford Law Review article about Availability Cascades. His co-author Timur Kuran, wrote a whole book about how “preference falsification” works.

When we’re in a vulnerable state of isolation and subject to degradation, the brain’s defenses kick in, even if we sense we’re being manipulated. Self-doubts, rejection, and degradation cultivate the yearning for even the illusion of human acceptance. So when Larry King asked Patty Hearst if any of the SLA members were “likable,” she responded that being “treated well” usually means you “weren’t killed.” Translation for everyday life in a PC world:  Being treated well usually means you’re not being socially shunned.

When a captive of political correctness feels that there is no way out, quite often the only way to make it stop is to bond with the captors and try to fit in.

“The Psychotechnology of Thought Reform is Not Going to Go Away”

The seismic and manufactured  public opinion “shift” on same sex marriage in the past several of years is a glaring example of how coercive persuasion works. As people become increasingly fearful of expressing a heretofore innocuous understanding of marriage as a man-woman institution, they silence themselves and thereby fuel the opposing agenda. The threat of isolation – labeling, shunning, and firings – is a powerful motivator because human survival is tied to it. For Exhibit A, see this article on one Eich, Brendan, of Mozilla.

If we step back and take this all in, there should be no question that coercive persuasion can happen on a mass scale in America. Those pushing the agenda first cultivate a climate that creates social punishment for dissent and social rewards for compliance. Label anyone who disagrees as a bigot or a “hater,” a non-person. Reward those who agree with public accolades. Before you know it, even well-known old conservative pundits who fear becoming irrelevant sign on to it, and thus contribute to the juggernaut.

In Cults in our Midst, Singer warned that cult techniques “should be studied and revealed so that citizens can be taught countermeasures in order to avoid being exploited by such groups.” She also cautioned: “The psychotechnology of thought reform is not going to go away… Education, information and vigilance are constantly needed if we are to keep us, and our minds, free.”

Are we doing that? Hardly. In fact, it seems we may be using education and information to help keep our minds closed. Consider Common Core curriculum, which actually enforces conformity in education. (Maybe it should be dubbed “Common Cult?”) Speech codes on college campuses squash independent thought.

As for information, the media in general has its agenda, as does Hollywood and academia. You’re not going to get objective information about the processes and techniques of brainwashing from them. Marketing in general has become ever more sophisticated, with ever more subtle forms of exploitative seduction.

Academia has even suppressed the whole idea of brainwashing as politically incorrect. Singer was appointed by the American Psychological Association to head up a task force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). But a funny thing happened on the way to approval.  In 1987 the  APA unexpectedly rejected the very DIMPAC report  they requested. They urged it not be made public and criticized use of the term “brainwashing” as “not a recognized theoretical concept.”

And what about vigilance? Well, without education and information, vigilance can’t root itself. Unfortunately, that means if you ask for information about brainwashing, chances are you’ll be told to kindly remove your tinfoil hat.

The Key to Freedom: Education and Information by Individuals

So the road ahead will be rough. But the forces controlling centralized education and information still do not control our one-on-one personal relationships and conversations. This is where our power lies, in what dissidents of the Soviet era called the “hidden sphere.” And that is the key to building a culture of awareness and rebuilding civil society.

The irony of remaining silent about our beliefs when we are being abused is that we actually dig our own hole deeper. Every dissenter feels alone, perhaps even in a roomful of dissenters. Every fence sitter resigns himself to signing on with the perceived “majority.” And those who identify with the PC agenda become ever more hardened and intolerant of dissent. An interesting aside is that partnering with one person can have a huge effect in breaking down social conformity, as the Asch experiment noted: “When unanimity is punctured, the group’s power is greatly reduced.”

While in jail, Patty Hearst requested books by Doris Lessing, a Marxist leaning feminist icon, who ended up later becoming a champion of personal freedom.

Lessing said it this way:

“We can stand in a room full of dear friends, knowing that nine-tenths of them, if the pack demands it, will become our enemies… But there is always the minority who do not, and it seems to me that our future, the future of everybody, depends on this minority. And that we should be thinking of ways to educate our children to strengthen this minority and not, as we mostly do now, to revere the pack… But if governments, if cultures, don’t encourage their production, then individuals and groups can and should.”

How do we begin to do this? Perhaps the answer is very simple. Maybe it’s really all about reaching out and building happy personal relationships without expecting anything in return. Maybe it’s about letting others in your personal sphere — work, school, or neighborhood — know what you believe, especially those who like you and trust you. We each have the power to make more friends and reach out beyond our insulated circles to build real communities based on real trust (not fake communities built on self-censorship). We could get to know our neighbors, share some good laughs, and openly exchange ideas.

By doing these things each individual breaches the walls of isolation built by power brokers, and cultivates a cascade of trust, goodwill, and civility for all.

Stella Morabito can be followed on Twitter here.  She blogs at