02 April 2009

William Sargant and the idea of brainwashing

At my last seminar an Iraqi lady commented that the way we had been treated sounded like what happened in an authoritarian regime, only where she came from they would shoot you for expressing any criticism of the system, not merely suppress you.

Later she asked, ‘What were they threatened by?’ I think the answer is that any respect for individuality per se is a threat to the total power that socialists seek over all minds as well as all physical bodies.

When I first met Mary Adams[1] after being thrown out by Somerville, she was carried away with enthusiasm for a wonderful book by William Sargant entitled Battle for the Mind[2],on the strength of which he was becoming a celebrity and a Great Name.

At the time I did not see the point. The book contained some examples of tribal initiation rituals in which people were made to lose consciousness, and of the techniques of brainwashing and Chinese thought reform. I could make parallels between the brainwashing techniques and the ways I had been treated at school and at Somerville, but this did not seem to me very interesting.

When I started publishing my own books and they did nothing at all for my status or reputation, I thought that I did not see what William Sargant’s book had had that mine had lacked: its content of ideas seemed very small. But there seemed to be an idea that by knocking out people’s minds you could create a tabula rasa which could be programmed like the mind of a newborn baby.

I gradually came to realise that it supported the very important piece of modern ideology that there is nothing in the individual that society cannot wipe out, whereas my books always suggested the possibility of ways in which the individual might become less dependent on the physical and less vulnerable to social influences.

Only recently I came to realise that William Sargant was (from my point of view) a horrifying monster of iniquity. He was a psychiatrist(!) which implies that he was immoral enough to have become a medical doctor first, and he used atrocious ‘therapeutic’ techniques on his victims, drugging them to sleep for weeks and subjecting them to ECT at the same time. This killed some and left others permanently lacking memories for parts of their past lives.

Sargant’s fame was relatively short-lived and other psychiatrists did not espouse his overtly physicalist methods en masse; I think that he was a bit too crudely obvious in applying his methods; but he was expressing a universal underlying motivation to subject individuality to the power of the socially authorised by means of the physical.

One of Sargant’s ideas was that if brainwashing had been around at the time of Christ, it would have been possible to cure Christ of his beliefs, whatever they were, and make him go back to being a carpenter.

[1] A former Head of Television Talks at the BBC.

[2] Battle for the Mind: The Mechanics of Indoctrination, Brainwashing & Thought Control by William Sargant, Pan Books, 1957