Brainwashing: Not just in wartime

Redlands Daily Facts, Mar. 20, 2003
By RAY SIDDONS, For the Daily Facts

Although the concept of “brainwashing” is usually associated with prisoners of war, there are examples in our everyday world, Kidnappings, cults, and domestic violence raise issues about victims and their ability to fight off or recover from brainwashing.

Brainwashing occurs when a person is overwhelmed physically and psychologically while under the control of the aggressor. The victim loses individual responsibility and decision making ability as the aggressor uses subtle or direct force to gain more and more dominance. This can occur quickly when the trauma is severe or surprising, like a kidnapping. The violence occurs and the victim’s whole world is turned upside down. Or, brainwashing can take a longer period of time, as in domestic violence, when a wife, over a period of years, gradually comes under the hypnotic power of an abusive husband.

As with any victimization, the person loses her healthy support system and the reality checks that keep us normal. The victim is so emotionally vulnerable that a deviant can force a new reality. Once in place, the deviant reality is accepted with virtually no dissonance. That is why victims must be deprogrammed out of the reach of the deviant before resuming normal functioning. This healing can take weeks, months or years regardless of whether the victim is kidnapped, in a cult, or a prisoner of war.

The psychological principle that explains a victim’s compliance is termed “identification with the aggressor.” This means that victims lose so much of their individual identity that they adopt the ways of their captor. This explains how victims seem to support, empathize with, and have difficulty escaping from their captors. Outsiders have questioned this process because it is so hard to grasp the concept of losing one’s identity to the point of being enslaved by another.

Please, never second guess a victim who feels she is only able to survive based on getting along with the aggressor. Even a strong, resilient individual can lose it when a captor has tools of violence and control. If you have never been threatened with a weapon, been beat up, or been forced to endure extended time with psychological warfare, you have no right to question a victim or assume that you would have done better.

Victims primarily fear consequences; anything they do may be disagreeable and could worsen the situation. Victims are broken down physically by 1) threats of more violence, and 2) creating physical changes or hardships such as imprisonment or controlling the victim’s every move. Victims are broken psychologically by 1) destroying the victim’s sense of well-being and safety, and 2) the aggressor forcing a dogma and new way leaving the victim no chance to dispute it.

Victims also go downhill because of an issue of complicity. They feel some degree of guilt of being at fault for what went wrong. Our culture has promulgated a distorted view that we have more control than we do and that accidents and bad fortune can be rooted in our own inadequacies. Or, that we deserve what we get. Victims often backtrack from feeling bad to that undeserving distortion that they caused the problem. This self-doubt makes it easier for the aggressor to dominate.

Sometimes victims don’t know any better. An abused wife may have been set-up early in life by a father being violent to her mother, a sibling, or herself. A victim may have been sheltered in a loving environment growing up and is, therefore, totally shocked when the trauma occurs. This is not to imply that there is anything wrong with a sheltered upbringing; we need genuinely nice people. However, we need to provide proper resources if someone like this is damaged.

Most can fully recover from brainwashing once they are out of the crisis that precipitated it. Life is different, and there may be some residual feelings that intrude once in a while. Every day life must become healthy again, or we have let the perpetrators win.

Ray Siddons is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Redlands.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 21, 2003.
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