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The Nation: Is Brainwashing an Excuse?

4 minute read

“I am obviously alive and well. As far as being brainwashed, the idea is ridiculous to the point of being beyond belief. ”

—Patty Hearst on tape, April 1974

This week the prosecution will ask the jury to take Patty at her recorded word, but the defense will argue that her denial of brainwashing was itself a product of a powerful and pervasive mindbending. Expert witnesses for both sides will wrestle with a concept of coerced behavior that evokes memories of zombie-like American P.O.W.s and the Communist show trials in which psychologically conditioned defendants zealously confessed to crimes they could not possibly have committed.


> Harry L. Kozol, 69, a psychiatrist who is director of a treatment center in Bridgewater, Mass., for sexually dangerous people. He is a pioneer in forensic psychiatry, which explores the mental motivations in crime.

> Joel Fort, 46, a highly controversial San Francisco physician and criminologist who has served as an expert witness in more than 300 criminal trials, including those of Charles Manson, Timothy Leary and Lenny Bruce.


> Dr. Louis J. West, 51, chairman of U.C.L.A.’s Department of Psychiatry, who has analyzed the methods of brain washing and studied their effects on American P.O.W.s.

> Dr. Martin Orne, 48, University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist, expert in hypnosis and special states of consciousness.

> Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, 49, research psychiatrist at Yale and prolific author (Revolutionary Immortality). He interviewed hundreds of U.S. P.O.W.s after the Korean War and dozens of survivors of China’s postrevolutionary indoctrination wave of hsi nao (literally, brainwashing).

Kozol angered Patty during a prison interview by suggesting that she engineered her own abduction. When called to testify, he will probably try to cast doubt on her assertion that she was an unwilling convert to the S.L.A. cause. By contrast, Lifton believes young people are by far the most vulnerable to brainwashing. The profile that he has drawn of the most susceptible bears a striking resemblance to Patty: “Enormous aspiration toward social change and human brotherhood, which might be connected, under pressure, with various forms of individual guilt over the way one has lived one’s life.”

Other specialists queried by TIME are sharply divided. According to Brian Jenkins, a California expert on the behavior of hostages, Patty’s conduct conforms perfectly to that of brainwashed and terrorized victims. As he has written, “The hostage is helpless, frightened, humiliated, virtually an infant. Under these circumstances, the hostage unconsciously begins to assimilate—and even imitate—the attitudes of his captors.” But why did Patty not try to escape when she had the chance? “The answer is indoctrination,” maintains Boston Attorney Lawrence O’Donnell, who has represented brain washed P.O.W.s. “Once a person is sufficiently indoctrinated, there comes a time when the dog can be let off the leash—not too far—and then you pull him back again.”

Until now, brainwashing has never held up as a successful plea in a federal court, though U.S. military tribunals have acquitted prisoners of war who claimed that they had been brainwashing victims. Richard Sprague, the Philadelphia prosecutor who won four first-degree murder convictions in the killing of United Mine Workers’ union leader Jock Yablonski, warns: “It would really attack the fundamentals of criminal law, which holds an individual responsible for his actions. If this happens, you are going to be turning the criminal courtroom into a psychiatrist’s couch.” Georgetown University Law Professor Samuel Dash, the majority counsel for the Senate Watergate hearings, believes brainwashing falls “somewhere in-between” the two traditional legal defenses for felonies—inability to determine right from wrong and extreme duress—and does not quite qualify for acquittal under either of them.

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