A Visit from the Deprogrammer

In the West, anxieties over “brainwashing” expressed themselves directly in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and obliquely in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Even Czeslaw Milosz gets into the act: his 1953 book The Captive Mind, which was hugely influential on Western Cold War thought, borrows from Ignacy Witkiewicz’s dypstopian novel Insatiabilty in using mind control as one of its basic metaphors. By the time George Romero unearthed the zombie legend in Night of the Living Dead (1968), brainwashing had become a familiar trope of thrillers and horror, with no need of undead corpses to supply it with metaphorical power. Brainwashing was a nightmare of communist indoctrination, not (like the zombie) an allegory of the perils of capitalist consumption.

The actual mechanics of brainwashing were unimportant, and varied from narrative to narrative, much like the mechanics of time travel in the sort of low-rent science fiction that would eventually inform the brainwashing narrative. Throw in the numerous “exposés” of top secret Soviet parapsychological research (nearly always about some form of mind control), and the Soviet Union becomes ground zero for a wide variety of mind control fears. 

But the brainwashing meme would follow a familiar epidemiological pattern, making a critical species jump in the 1970s.  The menace would no longer be communism (foreign or domestic), but the new religious movements (NRMs) that sprang up so frequently in the wake of Sixties counterculture.   Castigated as “cults” by their detractors, these movements had leaders or founders who were ascribed quasi-mystical, pseudoscientific powers. Innocent victims allegedly found themselves brainwashed, with the only hope of their rescue in the hands of a new profession: the deprogrammers.

The result is a controversy that continues to generate a great deal of literature, scholarly and otherwise.  On one side is the anti-cult movement, whose faith in brainwashing is used to dismiss the faith of new religious converts, and on the other,  the NRM scholarly community, whose approach to their object of study is more ethnographic and anthropological, and who have developed an alternative set of paradigms for explaining NRMs’ appeal.

In this new incarnation, brainwashing steps away from pure, unadulterated paranoia, for it has now been dragooned into the service of post-counterculture moral panic.  Cold War brainwashing fears were about subversion and treason, but they were in the service of something understandable (communism and its allegorical instantiations), but the “cult” narrative uses brainwashing to explain the inexplicable:  how could a seemingly ordinary person start believing in things that, from the outside, look like patent nonsense?  Communist brainwashing weakened the nation from without, while cult brainwashing transformed it from within.

Next: White Zombie