‘Nxivm: How a Sex Cult Leader Seduced and Programmed His Followers,” reads the New York Times headline. “Former Nxivm members testified they were brainwashed into being branded and assigned to have sex with him.”
None of that is quite true.
Blame Richard Condon.
Contrary to the New York Times, there is no such thing as “brainwashing.” It is a concept without scientific basis that, so far as the scholars can tell, does not really exist in a way that is distinct from such quotidian concepts as persuasion, conformism, or bullying. During the Korean War, American intelligence operatives studied the possibility that American prisoners of war had been forcibly converted to the Communist cause by a combination of torture, coercive interrogation, and psychoactive drugs. As it turns out, the human brain does not really quite work that way — again, contrary to the New York Times, human beings cannot be “programmed” like a smart-home thermostat — but the idea had great dramatic potential.
That potential was comprehended and exploited by, among others, the satirical novelist Richard Condon, whose Manchurian Candidate was made into a very successful film starring Frank Sinatra and a very creepy Angela Lansbury. Like many of the greatest examples of the genre, The Manchurian Candidate is not always recognized as satire.
Brainwashing, as it is currently understood in the popular culture, is a literary and cinematic device that has made its way into the global imagination as though it were a real thing. It fills the same mythological role once played by demonic possession — a way of explaining how it is that someone apparently has become utterly unlike himself for no obvious reason.
In the same way, there is no such thing as a cult, either, as distinct from ordinary religious groups, authoritarian and highly conformist political factions (meaning all you peons on Twitter), or even diet and exercise fads that take on fanatical qualities. Many years ago, I was at Waco helping to cover the events for which Waco was famous before it was famous for a new kind of cult (the one focused on Chip and Joanna Gaines), and no one then or since has been able to explain to me why those Seventh-Day Adventists were a “cult” but these Seventh-Day Adventists are a Christian denomination. True, the Branch Davidians were a splinter from a splinter who venerated a charismatic teacher, but then so are the Methodists.
The Branch Davidians were the protagonists in what scholars Anson D. Shupe, J .C. Ventimiglia, and David G. Bromley call an “atrocity tale.” The Branch Davidians were kooks with odd beliefs, and they were people of low social status. (Scientology is bonkers, but you don’t see the feds raiding Tom Cruise’s house, do you?) But they could not be merely odd, because oddness does not justify hatred — they had to be evil. And so there were wild tales of sexual abuse and horrifying abuse of babies, none of which was ever proven and some of which was specifically denied by the FBI. Everybody agreed that there needed to be a military-level assault on the “cult,” but nobody quite knew why. “Confusion Abounds in the Capital On Rationale for Assault on Cult,” the New York Times reported at the time.
There is no such thing as brainwashing. There is no such thing as a cult. At least not as those terms are commonly used. But there are many imaginary things that have played a large and important role in our culture and politics. There is no such thing as a “recovered memory,” but people have been put in prison on “recovered memory” evidence. There is no such thing as “multiple-personality disorder,” but many people believe there is, thanks to the popular film based on the 1973 book Sybil, written by the psychiatrist Cornelia B. Wilbur and journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, much of which was fabricated. The term “multiple personality disorder” is no longer used, and there is no psychiatric consensus about whether the rebranded “disassociative identity disorder” exists. Some psychiatrists believe that it is therapeutically induced, and that some patients are especially susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. The problem with that theory is that hypnosis does not exist, either. There is no scientific evidence that a hypnotic state exists. To the extent that the word “hypnosis” refers to an actual phenomenon, it is simply role-playing.
Much of the cultural legacy of Sigmund Freud is pure mythology, based on pseudoscience and fraud. There were no Satanic sex-abuse cults infiltrating the nation’s daycares back in the Reagan era, but people went to prison over it, enabled in part by “recovered memories.” The typical emotional problem associated with trauma is not the suppression of memory or experience but the inability to cease thinking about the trauma and move on.
The intelligent reader will detect a theme in the fictions above: They are all devices for relieving the individual of responsibility for his actions. Uncle Joe isn’t a kook, he’s the victim of a cult. He was programmed. He was brainwashed. He was suffering from repressed trauma, and now that he has recovered his memories, he has a very sympathetic version of events.
Maybe he was possessed by Azazello.
We are surrounded by people who profess their love of science and we are surrounded by things that are mostly made up and deep-dipped in pseudoscience: chiropractic, homeopathy, yoga, aromatherapy, reiki, the terror of GMOs and vaccines, etc. In the Washington Post, you can read paeans to science as a guiding principle of politics and then turn the page to read your horoscope. You can choose your pronoun.
Of course, this influences our politics, too. There is some graffiti not far from my home in Texas that reads: “Fed = Jews.” But if it is not the Jews, it is the Koch brothers, the NRA, lobbyists, the “1 percent,” Mark Zuckerberg and other billionaires, Big Business . . . cults, brainwashing, nefarious strains of corn . . . Azazello.
We say we cherish our liberty and our individuality but, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott observed, many unhappy moderns experience individuality as a burden; in Escape from Freedom, the psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm describes the terror of modern capitalist man: “The individual was left alone and isolated. He was free.”
Some people thrive in a culture of freedom, opportunity, and individuality. (They are frequently denounced as “globalists,” which is how we spell “Azazello” in 2019.) On the other side of town, some people are terrified by it. That is the real divide in our politics right now, and it is what links the authoritarianism of Senator Warren to the authoritarianism of President Trump. The “individual manqué” of Oakeshott’s analysis will go to great lengths — and accept great lies, even if he has to tell them to himself — in order to be liberated from his liberty and to divest himself of the terrible burden of being responsible for his own soul and his own supper.