Patty Hearst in the news again, and so is brainwashing


At the risk of dating myself, I remember the case as if it was yesterday.

Alas, it wasn’t. This granddaughter of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped by the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974.

Those Marxist thugs abducted Patty, 19, who was living with a boyfriend at the time, and kept her in a wardrobe for a few weeks, indoctrinating her in their ‘philosophy’, a hodgepodge of Marx, Mao and Malcolm X.

The indoctrination was literary, oral and sexual, with Patty regularly raped by two of the Liberators. Rape eventually turned into consensual sex, and Patty went on to keep for many years a cherished memento given to her by one of the rapists.

In due course she became a willing participant not only in the sex but also in some of the Liberators’ less amorous activities, such as bank robberies.

During one of them Patty, who had adopted the nom de revolution Tania, was filmed pointing an M1 rifle at terrified bank employees sprawling on the floor.

“Keep your mother****ing heads down or I’ll blow your mother****ing heads off!” bellowed the newly converted heiress.

In another incident she gave covering fire to her comrades, and only her poor marksmanship saved the lives of several police officers.

Eventually the police caught up with the SLA. Patty got away at first but was caught soon thereafter.

As she was led to custody, Patty asked the throng of reporters to “send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there”, and she wasn’t talking about her siblings. Filling in a prison questionnaire, she listed her profession as ‘urban guerrilla’.

At her trial Patty was defended by the fashionable lawyer F. Lee Bailey. The phrase making the rounds in the legal profession at the time was: “God asks himself every morning ‘What can I do for F. Lee Bailey today?’”

In Patty’s case God didn’t do much for either of them. Bailey’s defence was based on brainwashing, which supposedly turned Patty into an unthinking automaton. It was during her trial that the term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ gained common currency.

Under Bailey’s expert guidance, Patty eventually repudiated her SLA allegiance, but it took her weeks to do so. Perhaps because of that delay, the brainwashing defence failed, and Patty was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In passing his verdict, the judge commented that “rebellious young people who, for whatever reason, become revolutionaries and voluntarily commit criminal acts will be punished.”

Patty ended up serving two years and then dropped from the public eye – until this week, when her pet shih tzu Rocket won the top prize in the ‘toy’ category at America’s leading dog show.

This is undoubtedly a better way of getting into the limelight than firing an assault rifle at policemen, knocking off banks and scaring bystanders out of their wits.

But Patty’s re-emergence makes one wonder again whether brainwashing really can override people’s free will so thoroughly. After all, following her indoctrination programme Patty roamed free – and armed.

She must have had endless opportunities to get away from her captors, yet chose not to do so. Patty clearly no longer regarded them as her abductors and rapists. They now were her friends, lovers and comrades-at-arms.

My natural impulse would be to dismiss the whole notion of brainwashing as another psychobabble con.

Free will is an ontological property of man, and it’s one of the key differences between us and animals.

To think that violence, sensory deprivation and a litany of cretinous slogans can turn a decent person into a murderous robot would be demeaning not only to the person but to mankind at large.

In fact, one could cite many examples of people exposed to much more cruel indoctrination who nevertheless managed to resist. Some American POWs in Vietcong ‘re-education’ camps spring to mind, many Germans who hated everything the Nazis preached, and many Soviets who retained their humanity in the face of non-stop inculcation backed up by death threats.

Yet one can also site many other examples, including those American POWs who did succumb to communist indoctrination, Soviet citizens who did swallow the part line sincerely, and Germans who greeted Hitler’s deranged speeches with millions of heartfelt ‘Heils!!!’.

One could also cite the psychotically charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, who in 1978 brainwashed 913 of his followers to commit ‘revolutionary suicide’ by cyanide.

Much as one detests the dehumanisation of humans, evidence does show that brainwashing works famously on some people. But what kind of people?

Having grown up in a society where brainwashing propaganda was screamed at the populace every minute of every day, I firmly believe that indoctrination works only on those who are emotionally and intellectually predisposed to accept it.

Not everyone can be a hero, and some people who detest the ‘re-education’ may pretend to go along to save themselves. But pretend they would, and once the threat disappeared such people would instantly recover their former selves.

Patty Hearst didn’t, which means her captors found her to be a receptive audience. Patty’s life at Berkeley University, which was then the hotbed of left-wing radicalism, must have made her receptive to left-wing propaganda.

As an heiress, she must have had strong feelings of guilt, and if she hadn’t to begin with, a year at Berkeley would have enlightened her to the Berkeley version of reality. Thus her SLA indoctrinators enunciated her own thoughts, if with an added radical twist. Their job was easy: a bit of coercion, a bit of propaganda, and Patty was all theirs.

“People move on,” she said the other day, accepting congratulations on her canine triumph. They certainly do, and I hope Patty, now 60, has moved in the right direction.

That, however, doesn’t make me doubt the justice of her prison sentence all those years ago. She should have served the full whack.





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