This is Patty Hearst, granddaughter of wealthy print media mogul William Randolph Hearst, posing with an automatic weapon under the flag of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a left-wing urban militia that committed various high-profile crimes in the mid-1970s. Several members of the SLA kidnapped Hearst from her home in early 1974. Just a few months later, however, Hearst was seen aiding the group with an armed bank robbery in San Francisco. How does a person go from captive to collaborator?
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Hearst was captured and brought into police custody in 1975. When put on trial for her participation in the criminal activities of the SLA, Hearst's defense counsel F. Lee Bailey argued that Hearst had been "brainwashed" by the group and was thus not responsible for her actions. While it was clear that Hearst had been abused by the group, the jury did not accept Bailey's defense, and Hearst was found guilty of armed robbery and the use of firearms to commit a felony. President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979, and she is shown above at a press conference following her release. This case was one of many that put the question of brainwashing into the public consciousness. What is brainwashing? And does it really work?
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Before anyone had formally codified the stages of brainwashing, there was a general sense that it had to do with psychological abuse, such as the kind prisoners of war often endure when in enemy hands. In the photo above, taken during the Korean War (1950-1953), American and South Korean POWs are forced to march through the streets of Pyongyang. The soldier in the middle is dressed in a mock-Hitler moustache and swastika patches and forced to drag an American flag on the ground (which is considered an act of desecration). Next, see a group of American prisoners coming home.
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Taken Aug. 24, 1953, this photo shows a group of American POW's returning home to New York after their captivity in Korea. While under the control of North Korean and Chinese forces, American troops were often subjected to the techniques of "thought reform," which in Chinese had been called by the term "xi nao," which literally means to "wash the brain." The journalist Edward Hunter is credited with bringing the term to English in his writings on the tactic he claimed Chinese communists used against prisoners and dissidents. But how does this process work?
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Robert Jay Lifton is an American psychiatrist who specializes in the study of brainwashing, which he terms "thought reform." According to Lifton, this is a multi-step procedure that begins with the reformer assaulting the subject's identity through accusations, shaming and forcing a self-betrayal or renunciation of previous beliefs. After the subject reaches a psychological breaking point, the reformer offers a chance for redemption based on the exchange of old beliefs and identity for new. In the final stage, the subject emerges with a reformed mind.
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Above, American soldiers prepare coffins for the victims of the mass suicide at the People's Temple in Georgetown, Guyana, a.k.a. "Jonestown." In November of 1978, more than 900 people willingly consumed or were fed a drink containing a poisonous mixture of cyanide and several prescription drugs. Immediately, the word "brainwashing" again flooded the popular consciousness. Were the people at Jonestown led to their deaths through thought reform, or is that an oversimplification?
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One of the most common contexts in which we hear about brainwashing is in stories about fringe religious sects, but this is often a characterization imposed from the outside by people who don't know much about thought reform theory. Nevertheless, in some cases, totalist cults like the one run by Jim Jones (1931-1978), shown above with his family in 1976, have employed tactics of abuse and psychological manipulation at least partially consistent with thought reform.
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This is the aftermath of the mass suicide at Jonestown. Many have alleged that the leadership of the People's Temple used all kinds of harsh tactics to control members of the group and institute genuine thought reform. The relocation of the group from California to the Guyana compound may have been part of an effort at what Robert J. Lifton calls "milieu control," which means controlling one's environment to produce optimal conditions for thought reform. These conditions almost always include isolation from former friends, family, and anyone who doesn't share the desired beliefs.
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This is a scene from the BBC TV production of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a government thought reformer named O'Brien terrorizes the protagonist in order to cleanse him of disloyal inclinations. Orwell's novel describes explicitly not only the process of individual brainwashing, but an entire state and society built on brainwashing, in which the citizen's only identity is his or her relation to the state, and unconventional thinkers can be convicted of "thoughtcrime." Check out another fictional instance of brainwashing on the next page.
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Actors Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey appear in a scene from The Manchurian Candidate (1962), based on the thriller novel of the same name published in 1959. The Manchurian Candidate tells the story of an American veteran of the Korean War who is brainwashed by his Soviet captors to act as a "sleeper agent" assassin. The effectiveness of standard thought reform is controversial in its own right; whether psychological conditioning can actually produce this kind of subconscious dual agenda is even less plausible.
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This is the American murderer Charles Manson, circa 1970. Along with a group of acolytes known as the "Manson family," Manson planned and carried out a series of horrific murders in California in 1969. Manson was known as an eccentric but charismatic leader, and many members of his "family" remained loyal to his whims even after arrest. So how did this man convince his followers to commit these unspeakable acts?
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Leslie Van Houten, shown above, was one of Manson's followers. Maxwell Keith, Van Houten's attorney, argued that she, along with co-defendant Charles "Tex" Watson, were not culpable for their crimes since they had been brainwashed during their time with the Manson family. Van Houten's first trial ended in a hung jury; a second jury did not accept the brainwashing defense and convicted her of first degree murder. Next, see another instance where the "I was brainwashed" defense was not well received.
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In the political sphere, the term "brainwashing" is often used very loosely and casually. For example, when former Michigan Governor George Romney was running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, he expressed condemnation for the Vietnam War, though he had previously supported it. Romney explained this reversal by saying that he had originally been subjected to "brainwashing" by the military and diplomatic leaders he had encountered in Vietnam, but he had since then come to his senses.
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In response to Gov. Romney's allegation that he had been brainwashed, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy reportedly quipped that in Romney's case, he would have thought a "light rinse" would do the job. In terms of public opinion, many believe that Romney's claim to have been brainwashed had a severely negative impact on his campaign. Romney eventually lost the Republican Party nomination to Richard Nixon. Next, see people whose loved ones have claimed brainwashing as the means of explaining their crimes.
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On Dec. 22, 2001, Richard Reid attempted to ignite a mass of plastic explosive concealed in his shoes in the middle of a trans-Atlantic flight. Passengers thwarted the attempt, and Reid was arrested upon landing. Reid stood by his actions at court hearings and notoriously refused to show any lack of remorse, but Reid's father, who was unable to reconcile the facts of the case with his feeling that his son was a good person, stated in public that the younger Reid must have been "brainwashed," or he never would have tried to harm anyone. Reid is currently serving a life sentence in Florida.
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John Walker Lindh is a U.S. citizen who was raised in Maryland. This photo was taken after Lindh was captured as a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan and brought to Camp Rhino in Khandahar. Some people expected Lindh to offer a brainwashing defense to explain his involvement with the Taliban. He did not. While Lindh plead guilty to supplying services to the Taliban in a time of war, he maintained a strong condemnation of terrorism, saying at his allocution: "I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression."
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Lee Boyd Malvo, pictured above, was one of the two perpetrators of the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. When Malvo was brought to trial, he claimed in court that the other attacker, John Allen Muhammad, had brainwashed him to commit the murders. Though Muhammad, who was older than Malvo, had subjected the 17-year-old to severe indoctrination, this is yet another case in which the jury was not swayed by the brainwashing defense. Malvo was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
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Sergei Mavrodi waves as he departs the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow. Mavrodi was the founder of the MMM financial pyramid -- an organization that scammed literally millions of Russians in the 1990s with a Ponzi-style system of imaginary investments and unsustainable payouts. Part of MMM's success was predicated on the effectiveness of its TV advertising, which promised gratuitous financial rewards. Can pyramid schemes like this one really use thought reform tactics to pry money from hopeful investors?
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Ritamaria Lomas and Jane Smith, who are both accused of running pyramid schemes in Great Britain, arrive for a court hearing in Bristol in March 2010. Their alleged crimes fell under the jurisdiction of the Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008. Some pyramid schemes and other unsustainable financial programs really do seem to practice the same kinds of brainwashing methods as totalist cults and professional thought reformers. Check out the next panel to see how.
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Sergei Mavrodi wasn't the only criminal to run a successful pyramid scheme after the fall of the Soviet Union. These people attended a meeting for information about a pyramid scheme in Dresden in 1991. It can't go unnoticed that a pyramid scheme often makes its pitch in a way that resembles the brainwashing tactics of cults. For example, the perpetrators can make a mockery of the potential victim's current lack of success, suggesting to him or her that traditional ways of making money are hopeless. Eventually, the perpetrators of the scheme are able to offer the "investor" a totally new self: one who is successful, powerful and ahead of the curve, thanks to the power of the scam.
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This is the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, a.k.a. the Unification Church. Moon's church is a prime example of the difficulty caused when people attempt to label the teachings of a religious sect "brainwashing." The beliefs of the Unification Church are based partially on the Hebrew and Christian Bible, but they also include ideas that are foreign to mainstream Christianity, such as the Unification "Blessing Ceremony," which many non-members have described as "mass weddings." Check out one of these rituals on the next page.
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At these ceremonies, large groups of unattached adherents are paired into couples by church leaders and married all at once. At the same time, married and engaged couples renew their commitments to one another and to the ideals of the church. Here, in 1998, Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Hakja Han Moon, administer a mass marriage re-dedication ceremony and wedding at Madison Square Garden. See the participants in this ritual on the next page.
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The Madison Square Garden ceremony included more than 2,000 couples. While the tenets of the Unification Church might appear unusual to some outsiders, this has nothing to do with the methods used to bring new members into the religion. In 1984, the British sociologist Eileen Barker published The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?, in which she studied the group closely for a number of years. Eventually, she concluded that brainwashing did not play a role in forming the beliefs of Unification Church members, who are often called "Moonies," in reference to the church's leader, Sun Myung Moon.
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This was the Unification Church headquarters in Kent, England, in 1978. In many ways, this sect has stood the test of time, surviving for decades despite the criticism of its detractors. Moon has virulently defended against the charge of brainwashing, saying of some church members' skeptical parents: "They say I kidnapped and brainwashed you. Am I grabbing you from your families and torturing you? Did I force you with my fists?"
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Marshall Herff Applewhite was the founder and leader of the Heaven's Gate cult, which believed in the reunion of Earth-dwellers with a heavenly alien space ship -- the last of which was said to be riding in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet that passed near the Earth in 1997. In March of that year, Applewhite and nearly 40 members of the sect committed a mass suicide in order to allow their souls to meet the spacecraft for ascension. Many wondered: Were the devotees subjected to brainwashing tactics?
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The photos on display show how Heaven's Gate came to an end. Members of the Heaven's Gate cult could be thought of as victims of brainwashing tactics. Sociologist Janja Lalich argues that there is evidence that Heaven's Gate adherents were subjected to irregular sleep patterns, isolation from previous friends and family, disruption of personal identity (including gender identity), unusual diets, and other methods designed to make one susceptible to thought reform.
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American actor Jason Beghe performed in films such as G.I. Jane (1997), Thelma & Louise (1991), and George Romero's Monkey Shines (1988). For years, Beghe was a member of the Church of Scientology -- a religion based on the teachings of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Although Scientology has been ruled a legitimate religion by, for example, its tax-exempt status with the IRS, Beghe has claimed the goal of the faith he once held is to create a "brainwashed, robotic version of you." Many thousands of Scientologists would no doubt dispute this claim. Again -- brainwashing seems to be a term only applied from the outside, even when the accuser used to be on the inside.
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Could an everyday supermarket be a source of brainwashing? The grocery chain Coles came under fire in Australia after store representatives held a competition in which schoolchildren were instructed to chant the store's "Prices are down!" jingle. At least one critic publicly described the exercise as "manipulation" and "brainwashing." It's not uncommon to hear various advertising methods described as brainwashing or mind control, since it is their explicit goal to penetrate and influence the mind of the consumer. However, it would be a hard sell to argue that advertisements meet the criteria set out by Lifton and other experts.
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Dr. Timothy Leary is shown above with his wife Rosemary Woodruff in 1967. "Turn on, tune in, drop out" was the mantra of Leary's pro-psychedelic experimentation outlook, which caught popular attention in the late 1960s. Parents across the nation feared their children were being brainwashed by Leary and the other gurus of the permissive hippie culture. However, government documents that were declassified in the following decades revealed that the same drug (LSD) that Leary advocated as a way to expand consciousness was also being used more than a decade before by the CIA as part of the secret mind control project known as MKULTRA.
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After a raid by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, was consumed by fire. The Branch Davidians, a religious sect led by the self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, came to a violent confrontation with federal agents in 1993, who were answering accusations that Koresh was guilty of child abuse, statutory rape, possession of illegal weapons, and mental manipulation of his followers. Some critics still debate to what extent some of these allegations -- especially that of mind control -- were true.
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