Barney Miller, Cults, Mind-Control, and Patty Hearst

In an episode of Barney Miller, "Abduction," parents hire a deprogrammer to save their 20-years-old child from a Hare Krishna type cult (led by a bearded guy in sandals who runs an extremely profitable organic health-food restaurant). The cops prevent the kidnapping, and the young woman and her parents end up at the 12th precinct. The cult leader eventually shows up. Towards the end of the episode, in which the young woman insists on her right to have a different life from her parents, the leader sends the young woman back to the restaurant (to finish her shift) and then comments to the parents, "You know, there's a high turnover at our place," i.e. the young woman will be back to her normal life in a few months, just wait it out.

This episode (filmed in 1977) is remarkably prescient. It prefigures a book called Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare by David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe, Jr. which was published in 1981. In this book, Bromley and Shupe examine the six great cults of the 1980s, including the Hare Kishnas, and then examine each cult's theology, membership, and so-called brainwashing techniques. They then examine anticultists and practice of deprogramming.

The most remarkable point they make is the "high turnover" mentioned in Barney Miller. This point dovetails with their overall point, which they make again and again and again: nothing is as monolithic as it seems. When Bromley and Shupe actually visited the various cults/communes, they discovered a great deal of variation among members (and ex-members); everyone had what could be called a personal theology. (Bromley and Shupe argue that Jonestown--where members of The People's Temple drank cyanide mixed with koolaid--was the result of Jones desperately consolidating a position he was about to lose rather than the result of mindless worship. Bromley and Shupe also argue that this cult was the strangest and, arguably, the only dangerous cult amongst the six they studied and not representative of other cults or religions.)

This appearance of monolithic agreement is emphasized by communal living. Frankly, I find the idea of communal living unappealing in the extreme. However, many people find it attractive. Communal living also tends to intensify the feelings and appearance of belonging, especially when a commune feels persecuted. Still, as anyone who has studied the Transcendentalists or other 19th century groups can tell you, few communes last with any degree of success. They certainly don't recruit with sustainable long-term results. There's just too much darn work involved.

Bromley and Shupe's most important point--a point that has now become commonplace--is that the brainwashing necessarily for monolithic "thought-control" just isn't that easy, if even possible. (Interestingly enough, although Bromley and Shupe detest the violence and mentally coercive techniques of deprogrammers, they also argue against the supposed "brainwashing" of deprogramming.) It is relatively easy for people to confabulate memories. It is not relatively easy, or even all that possible, to make people believe things they don't want to believe. In other words, even confabulation works because people want it to work. False memories, for instance, almost always bring with them a supposed full explanation of the past, self-justification, extreme individuation (my family doesn't understand me!), and the spotlight. (The truth is, people rarely forget real trauma.)

Even when deprogramming has seemed to work, Bromley and Shupe point out that the deprogrammee (who was never brainwashed to begin with) simply stacks already existent doubts and grievances against the gains of his or her former life "and chooses to play the game" (their emphasis). In other words, the deprogrammee has something personal to gain from being deprogrammed.

I think this goes a long way towards explaining Patty Hearst. I just finished a book about her trial. I was amazed at the willingness of so many people, including the writer, to confuse sympathy for her kidnapping (which I believe did happen) with a desire to let her off for the bank robber(ies). What is most remarkable, however, is Patty Hearst's own desperate desire to ingratiate or deprogram herself back into "normal" society.

Bromley and Shupe believe that this pressure is strongest in families that have the most to lose. They point out that anticultist organizations are often led by people with strong political, financial, and social ties. They desperately need to believe that their children are VICTIMS: neither they nor their children are to blame for the child's rejection of the aforementioned ties. It MUST be brainwashing; therefore, the children MUST be deprogrammed.

The Hearsts had this type of motivation. I consider the writer of the book about Patty Hearst, Shana Alexander, to be rather gullible, but her reporting is complete and honest. She records numerous interviews (with lawyers, psychologists, etc.) in which the interviewees argue that the Hearsts caused Patty more trauma by insisting on the trial than by going for a plea. But going for a plea would land a Hearst in jail. Of course, going for the trial did anyway, but the trial meant the family could go on refusing to admit that Patty actually WANTED to rob banks with the SLA.

Having said that, I don't believe that Patty Hearst was a villain or criminal in the classic sense of the word. I don't believe she would have gone out and robbed banks on her own or even felt compelled to if she'd belonged to a different socioeconomic class. The kidnapping was a catalytic factor. I think it was simply easier for her to live the life she had been introduced to than to think, "I should go home" OR (especially), "I should go do something else on my own." But that doesn't mean she wasn't a free agent, and I think the prosecutor was right to insist that she was.

The truth is: mind-control is something people do to themselves.

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