Kidnapped Teen-ager Smart Possibly Held by Mind Control

The Columbus Dispatch/March 23, 2003
By Mark Ellis


This is your brain.

This is your brain -- washed.

Some people wonder why Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teen-ager kidnapped and held for nine months, made little effort to escape. Her family contends she was brainwashed.

Experts on brainwashing -- a technique also known as mind control or thought reform -- say it can happen to anyone.

"If we are to blame Elizabeth Smart for what happened to her, then we are indicting the entire human race,'' mental-health counselor Paul Martin said.

Research shows that, despite the belief that "We're strong-willed individuals,'' people adapt to their environment, bend to peer pressure and conform to authority, cult-intervention expert Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.] said.

Martin and Hassan, experts in cults and intervention techniques, both said they are cult survivors. Cult intervention is an education experience, conducted by a consultant and family or friends, designed to separate a person from the clutches of a cult.

Martin spent more than seven years in a religious cult, emerging to become a mental-health counselor and a founder of the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center in Albany, near Athens.

Wellspring, a residential treatment facility, helps victims recover from "cultic abuse, religious abuse and mind control.''

Hassan was a developing leader in the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon after being recruited as a 19-year-old college student in 1974, he said. A family intervention ended his work for the Moon organization after more than two years. Today he studies cult influences through his Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Smart, now 15, was subjected to physical abuse, isolation and the religious rants of Brian Mitchell, authorities said.

Mitchell and Wanda Barzee have been charged with aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault in the case.

In his writings, Mitchell, an excommunicated Mormon, makes a case for polygamy, a practice banned by the Mormon Church in 1890. Mitchell says he is a prophet, and he and Barzee claim to have received revelations from God.

Smart's captor "had the power of life and death,'' Martin said.

"Think how important it was to her when he showed mercy. This guy can give out cookies, too.

"There was some sort of bonding. That's only human nature.''

Victims of mind control lose willpower, identify with their controller and distrust the outside world.

"For every Elizabeth Smart out there, I can tell you there are probably 100,000 a year that don't go reported,'' Martin said. "There are 100,000 teen-agers that join groups like that, maybe not as bizarre but equally destructive.

"These are serial killers of the soul. It's a national tragedy.''

Mind control can take place in groups as small as two, and the symptoms are not uncommon with domestic violence.

"All a cult requires is a leader and at least one follower,'' said Rick Ross, who runs a nonprofit group that studies mind control and cult activity.

The New Jersey-based Ross Institute has developed an archive on the subjects and runs several Web sites. Ross also does intervention work, lectures at colleges and testifies as an expert witness.

"Based on his 27-page manifesto and his behavior, it's clear that Brian Mitchell saw himself as a leader and was attempting to gather a cult following.

"He was largely a failure. He had only one dedicated follower (Barzee),'' Ross said. "I think it could be said he simply did not have the charisma and skill to do either.''

Whoever held Smart has an instinct for mind control, he said.

"He understood the importance of isolation. He controlled her within a kind of bubble, like a world within a world.

"Basically, he totally monopolized Elizabeth's conversation, her interaction with others, cutting her off from her family, friends, community and church.

"We don't admit how we rely on others for what's going on in our lives,'' he said.

Elizabeth's refusal to make a break for freedom, even in the presence of law-enforcement officers, speaks to an "unreasonable fear instilled in her mind.''

Scoffing at the girl's weakness "is a form of denial,'' Ross said.

A knifepoint abduction at night "made her very vulnerable,'' and "very prominent people'' and professionals have been roped into cults, including the Branch Davidians, wiped out in Waco, Texas, in 1993; and Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult, responsible for the 1995 sarin-gas attack in a Tokyo subway.

"I'm sure in the beginning she was feisty. I suspect she was slapped and beaten,'' Hassan said. "Fear and pain are extremely disorienting.''

Someone under mind control, he said, "sees no viable alternative to being in the group.''

Keeping someone free of mind control starts with "preventive education,'' Hassan said. And he urged family members and friends of people entangled in cults to stay in contact.

"Look them up and say, 'I'm your brother. I'm your sister. I love you. I miss you.'

"The bottom line is people want to be free and people want to know the truth. They want real love. They don't want to live their lives as a controlled entity.''


Expert view

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton -- author, psychiatrist and professor at the City University of New York -- testified during the Patricia Hearst bank-robbery trial as an expert on ''coercive persuasion.'' This is his ''model of thought reform'':

  • Environment control: Communication with those outside the group is limited.
  • Mystical manipulation: Prophetic words help the target person become convinced of the higher purpose and special calling of the group.
  • Demand for purity: A goal of the group is to bring about change on a global, social or personal level: ''Perfection is possible if the person stays with the group.''
  • Cult of confession: The group encourages self-disclosure to members, including admitting sins and imperfections.
  • Sacred science: The group says its perspective is absolutely true and explains everything.
  • Loaded language: Loaded terms and cliches prejudice thinking.
  • Doctrine over person: The group's doctrine overrules individual experience.
  • Dispensing of existence: Salvation is presented as possible only within the group.

Warning signs

Cult expert Rick Ross has developed these warning signs of a potentially unsafe leader and group:

  • The leader has no tolerance for questions, offers no meaningful financial disclosure, maintains there is no legitimate reason to leave, and insists that he and the group are always right.
  • The group promotes unreasonable fear of the outside world.
  • The leader and the group are portrayed as the only means to find truth.
  • Followers fear they can never measure up to standards.
  • Former members have similar experiences of abuse.
  • Research documents abuse.

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