CAN THE LEOPARD CHANGE?

As a young psychiatrist I was periodically employed by the Superior court of California as a consultant. One case that I evaluated continues to stand out in my mind. It involved a group of middle class young adults who came from very conventional backgrounds. Following the siren call of the notorious Dr. Timothy O’Leary they dropped out and turned on with drugs. Drifting aimlessly they gravitated toward a wild eyed, extremely charismatic guru. His name was Charles Manson. To become his disciples he needed to bend their will. To enable this he formed a commune in an abandoned ranch on the desert. There he cut off all contact with the outside world. Large doses of psychedelic drugs enabled him to convince these hapless young fools that he was God. Obeying his commands, they committed a series of incredibly gruesome crimes. Amongst these was the butchering of a pregnant woman, Sharon Tate, while she was still alive. After ripping the fetus from her womb they bashed its brains against a wall.

Why would I share this story? In previous musings I’ve suggested that people have great resistance to changing their core beliefs. Yet, the Manson gang story illustrates that under certain circumstances an unbelievable reversal of values is possible. The background of the young people represented an epitome of conventionality. In a relatively short period of time they were able to discard their middle class values and transform into cold blooded killers. Through isolation, drugs, group pressure and the continual repetition of ideas from a persuasive leader they were able to adopt ideation and patterns of behavior totally alien to their former self.

Under certain circumstances various types of belief can be deliberately implanted in another person. This ability to alter the ideation of another person we now call brain washing. It first came to public attention during the show trials conducted by the Soviets during the thirties. Western observers were amazed that the political prisoners readily and willingly confessed to crimes that they obviously did not commit. Somehow the jailers had been successful in totally changing the opinions of their wards. Not only were they able to sway the ideation of their minions but were successful in convincing them to sincerely believe that their past actions were criminally wrong and deserving of punishment. If such techniques became widely available they would be a panacea for politicians, clergy, ad-men and psychotherapists. However, the gift would be fraught with menace. The Soviets who indoctrinated their political prisoners were firmly convinced they were doing acts of goodness for the greater society.

Banning the input of information from the outside world is absolutely vital in brain washing. In addition to this sensory isolation the victim is deluged with only one view. The rudiments of such techniques have been in use since ancient times. The children of Israel were warned not to have contact with unbelievers. They were to be a peculiar people. Dietary laws, circumcision and other rituals kept them isolated from the surrounding Canaanites. In the Christian era many religious orders were cloistered as a way to avoid temptations and maintain their rigid beliefs. To the present date, religions such as the Amish practice customs that isolate their children from learning about the outside world and assist in controlling their thinking. My personal religious training exemplified some of these practices. I was taught that movies, dancing, card playing and use of coffee and alcohol were sinful. Our Sabbath day was on Saturday and regular church attendance was obligatory. Strict dietary laws were practiced. Friendships were mostly with other believers. As a result of these beliefs I felt different. I was unable to attend school dances or football games. Even beyond adolescence I was cautioned that attending a worldly college might cause me to go astray. That caveat proved to be true.

In regard to change, Plato made this pregnant comment: “As the years go by, time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain therefore a while from setting yourself as judge of the highest matters”.

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