Experts: Smart’s brainwashing likely began at knifepoint, reinforced continually

AP, Mar. 17, 2003
CATHERINE S. BLAKE, Associated Press

As authorities piece together Elizabeth Smart’s whereabouts during the last nine months, it’s become clear that her captors gave her several opportunities to escape.

Mental health experts say her unwillingness to leave, and to deny her identity when police found her, is consistent with someone who has been brainwashed.

But questions remain: What was going on inside her head that kept her from trying to flee? And what does it take to recover from that kind of experience?

Experts say it’s difficult to speculate what lies ahead for the teenager because it’s not publicly known what happened to her during her nine-month ordeal.

But Steven Alan Hassan, a cult expert and mental health professional, said that Brian David Mitchell, the fanatic accused of abducting her, likely started religious indoctrination from the first violent moment.

“Waking up a 14-year-old and carrying her off by knifepoint is very disorienting and traumatic,” he said. “The adaptive response is to conform and do whatever she was told to do.”

Hassan believes once Mitchell had Elizabeth he immediately began to drive home his belief system, laid out in a dense 27-page manifesto in which he declared himself a messenger of God. “He likely began saying in a very fanatical way that he was a prophet, and that she was meant to be his wife,” he said. “He knew the right words to say because he was a Mormon who was excommunicated and she was Mormon.”

This connection between them, a shared knowledge of religious doctrine and reference points, allowed the hold over her to become that much stronger. “Someone who already believes in God and the revelation as a respected religious experience is more … vulnerable,” he said.

The new identity was formed through a complete transformation, Hassan said.

In addition to a new name — she was allegedly called “Augustine” — she wore completely different garb and lived an itinerant lifestyle. In the entire nine months, she may have spoken to no one but Mitchell and Barzee.

“Essentially this new psuedo identity of his wife began suppressing the old identity of Elizabeth Smart,” he said. “Brainwashing is a three step process: unfreezing the current identity, changing it and refreezing a new cult identity.”

Submerged in her new identity, Elizabeth wouldn’t have thought to ask for help, said Carrie Andreson, 21, who spent a year and a half with a religious cult that starved her, made her stand outside in the dark for hours and beat her. Andreson, from Massachusetts, has been a patient of Hassan’s.

“I wouldn’t have thought of leaving because even thoughts are exposed and you’ll be punished for the thoughts. And you don’t want to disappoint God.”

The girl’s conversion from a suburban, upper-middle class teenager to a veiled follower of a religious fanatic was likely aided by the existence of Wanda Barzee, who established a pattern for the young woman, Hassan said. She provided Elizabeth with a submissive role model who was many years older, but knew what Mitchell expected of women.

In Mitchell’s religious treatise, he said having multiple wives was God’s true intention for his followers.

Police have not said how Elizabeth may have been abused.

While she is now safe with her family, her psychological state is unclear. Her parents say she’s happy and relieved to be home.

Many mental health professionals recommend therapy, but Eitan Daniel Schwarz, a psychiatrist at the Northwestern University Fineberg School of Medicine, said some people can file a stressful experience into a mental compartment and not dwell on it.

“It isn’t necessarily the case that she will suffer grave consequences,” he said. “Sometimes compartments serve a good purpose. A lot of holocaust survivors refuse to talk, and those who talk don’t necessarily do a whole lot better.”

But Hassan worries that when things calm down, when she’s no longer basking in the feel of her own clothes and the taste of home-cooked food, she may long for the person known as “Augustine.”

“There is a nine-month-old formed identity that is indoctrinated with this man’s belief,” Hassan said. “I think ‘Augustine’ will miss him and she may feel some anxiety and panic over that.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 18, 2003.
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