The Patty Hearst trial has made the public acutely aware of brainwashing. Is it a valid defense for criminal conduct? How susceptible are normal people to its mind-bending effects? Few specialists have delved into the subject as deeply as British psychiatrist William Sargent, author of Battle for the Mind. Dr. Sargent spent five days last fall interviewing Patty in jail. As her trial drew to a close, he talked with Fred Hauptfuhrer of PEOPLE in London.
What is brainwashing?
I never have liked the expression. It came into popular use during the Korean war, but it’s a misnomer. You can’t wash people’s brains. What we’re talking about is a forced conversion.
Can you categorize some of the conversions in history?
It occurred in the case of Cardinal Mindszenty. Charles Manson converted those girls to murderers. And in Nazi Germany the most intelligent people started to hang on Hitler’s very words, to believe everything he said—and act accordingly.
What are the stages the victim goes through?
Read Pavlov. When pressure is put on the nervous system for too long and too continuously, two important changes always result: first, an increased state of suggestibility knocks out the brain “computer” and you accept suggestions quite uncritically. Second, the “paradoxical” and “ultraparadoxical” phases of brain activity occur as you switch into reverse behavior. You start to love your enemies and hate your friends. I’ve seen VCs [Victoria Cross heroes] crying out to surrender. One does the opposite to what is normal. The exhausted rabbit turns and runs straight into the mouth of the weasel.
How long do the effects last?
They can last a lifetime, or be very fleeting. The length depends on efficient follow-up. When Billy Graham came to this country offering his kind of conversion thousands joined him, but there was no follow-up. The Communists have the most efficient follow-up.
What is the usual process of return to normalcy?
A gradual or sudden realization that you have been thinking foolish ideas or doing foolish things. Highly unstable people can go through many conversions in a lifetime. The best example is the person who starts out on the analytic couch and ends up being converted by a Catholic priest.
What psychological types are most vulnerable?
The very weak, suggestible person is always the potential victim. But so are normal people, because they are vulnerable to new ideas and are prepared to switch ideas. People with very strong beliefs to hold onto are more difficult to change.
How much of what you have said applies to Patty Hearst?
I found Patty and all of her family very normal and strong-minded. They impressed me very much by the way they were standing up to terrible stress. Patty would have cracked much sooner if she had not been young and strong. If I’d gone through 50 days of what she did I’d have cracked sooner.
After interviewing her at considerable length, what conclusions did you draw?
I came away quite convinced that she had been forcibly converted into doing what she had done. I believe she was sexually tortured. She was very like those I saw in the last war who had been through a long and terrifying experience. It was the Dunkirk syndrome. Most of them got better within a year and were normal.
By the time I saw her last fall, Patty already realized how she had been misled and made to do things she would never have done before her kidnapping—she was still depressed, but her state of mind was improving.
Why did you not testify at her trial?
I felt it best that Americans testify, if possible. I would have done so if necessary, but I would have emphasized her forcible conversion rather than the “brainwashing.” I think there are a lot of Americans, and British, who know they could be converted but not “brainwashed.” [Lawyer F. Lee] Bailey uses the term because of the mystic quality it evokes.
Having been through these experiences, will Patty ever be normal again?
She seems to be standing up very well under the cross-examination and this new battery of pressures. Patty seemed so basically normal and such a well-balanced person that I think she will make a good recovery.