It is my opinion that victims of sexual abuse are also victims of brainwashing. We need to explore this topic because recovery may occur better and faster by utilizing recovery methods involved in brainwashing. This opportunity also allows us to explore the possibility that the negative personality attributes involved in sexual abuse victims are the result of brainwashing and are not a part of the person’s core personality complex. Throughout the article I will be using the pronoun “she” because my experiences have largely been with women. I do, however, fully acknowledge that there is a quiet population of males that experiences just as much abuse as women do. Thus this article applies to victims that are both male and female.
The first step to brainwashing, as reported by Robert Lifton who has studied American POW’s in great detail, is an “assault on identity.” This step first involves physical abuse and then follows up with contradiction of everything the victim says. Victims of abuse often report that their abuse is accompanied by by contradiction. She ordered the wrong food. She cleaned the dishes wrong. She said just the wrong thing when the abuser came home. These assaults on identity clearly lead to abuse victim characteristics like social isolation, poor self-image, and an altered belief in stereotypical gender roles.
Next we have the “establishment of guilt” wherein the victim believes that they deserve the abuse. I would prefer to call this the “establishment of shame” however as guilt indicates that one has done something bad while shame is the feeling that one actually is bad. Abusers may use extreme language such as, “You dress like a whore.” The no-means-yes mentality also contributes to the abuser’s establishment of guilt within the victim. The abuser remains absent of guilt as he justifies his actions through the victim’s deeds, dress, words, who she associates with, and how she was raised. The victim now feels ashamed for being who she is and begins to realize in her own mind that she must transform in order to be safe.
The third stage of brainwashing techniques is “self-betrayal.” Robert Lifton identifies this stage as the point where American POW’s were expected to denounce friends and colleagues, then family, followed by their standards and country. Many abuse victims are not only encouraged not to see their family, but are specifically given line by line details about how the family and friends are actually bad for the victim. Since victims of abuse tend to socially isolate due to depression the abuser will capitalize on that isolation by saying things like, “If your friends really cared they would call more wouldn’t they?” or “Why doesn’t your mom come around anymore?” These are subtle and passive-aggressive attempts at denouncing friends and family. The victim then starts believing her abuser and begins the process of negative self-talk against the very people who care about her most.
At some point after the “self-betrayal” stage the breaking point will be reached. During the breaking point the victim loses all sense of hope that she will ever break free from her prison. She feels that she is permanently trapped and thus succumbs to her most primal and painful fear — the fear of absolute annihilation. Every woman I have ever known who has been abused in some way or another has reached this stage. For some, long after the events have passed, this feeling remains and creeps in to their everyday lives just at the moment when change into something positive is not only possible, but incredibly realistic. The problem is that once this stage is reached the victim has succumbed so deeply to emotion mind that they simply cannot rationalize their way out of it. If you see someone in this stage it is incredibly important to show love and support, but remain firm that there is a positive, realistic, and likely way out of the problem.
Once the breaking point has been reached the victim sees a change in her abuser. He loves her. He’s concerned for her. He wants her to get better. He starts taking her to dinner, attending to her needs, starts being the man she fell in love with. The feelings of self-annihilation begin to dwindle as she realizes that fully embracing her abuser keeps those feelings in check.
This naturally leads the victim to the “compulsion to confess.” She sees all these changes in her abuser after she succumbed to darkness and so she evaluates all of the ways in which she has “sinned” and confesses them to her abuser in order to remove the “evil” that is inside her and creates all this torment that she feels. Again I’ve seen this happen so many times with so many different women. The hurtful thing is that it seems the greater the amount of religion the victim has the greater the “evil” and “sin” that exists within her. Thus her own religion, which should be a sanctuary for her in these times of need, actually shackles her to her own shame. This is not necessarily the fault of the religion, but is definitely an observation I’ve noted in many abuse victims.
Once the confession is complete the victim begins to “channel guilt” by beginning to feel shame over who they are as people as opposed to guilt over past actions. I have heard women say, “I was such a bad person when I was younger,” or “You don’t know just how bad I was back then,” and “I’m likely going to Hell when I die because of how bad I was.” This is many many women who say these same things to me. These statements don’t accurately reflect a mind involved in self-evaluation. They reflect feelings of shame over perceived personality defects. It’s important to note that I am placing emphasis on the word “perceived.” This level of shame that abused women feel does not accurately reflect truth. Often times good men love them for everything they are — flaws included! Yet this is a strong reflection of my original thesis that victims of abuse are comorbidly victims of brainwashing.
We see this, furthermore, in Robert Lifton’s stage entitled “re-education: logical dishonoring.” The victims go beyond the feelings of guilt and into a realm of false understanding where their very lives are a series of shameful acts. The thought is that each of us defines ourself with a thesis — a core set of values that defines who we are as individuals. Abusers present their victims with an antithesis — a set of values that runs contrary to the core set of values. While Robert Lifton doesn’t mention this this is a clear and present use of the Hegelian dialectic. The Hegelian dialectic manipulates people through the presentation of thesis and antithesis in order to create dissonance within the audience mind. Once the dissonance is created then a “synthesis” is presented which is different from both the thesis and antithesis. Thus a good Christian woman who was a loving a carefree soul was presented with a dark and sinful nature by her abuser who called her “slut” or “whore” and wore down her thesis. Eventually she is presented with the synthesis of being an always damaged woman who was never strong enough to stand up for herself and now just makes decisions based on fear. Again I find it important to emphasize that the “synthesized” victim is not her true self. That is the product of the brainwashed self.
Now the victim is beginning to reach the stage of “peace and harmony.” She gains recognition and acceptance by her abuser in the new synthesized state. Because earlier treatment was so bad the new treatment is motivation enough to keep going. Clearly the abuse doesn’t stop. However our victim has now accepted a new reality that remains apathetic to the abuse whereas her core and True personality never would have.
The final three stages of brainwashing all tie in together for our abuse victims. There is a “final confession” where the new personality in the abuse victim goes on record with her new personal discoveries about herself. Often this is done ceremoniously. The ceremonies I have largely seen are name changes to reflect the new personality. This particular ceremony has been incredibly common from my perspective. In addition to the new name there is often a new look to go with it. She dresses a new way. She cuts her hair. She redefines her look to match her new personality. A “rebirth” occurs and she now feels whole once more. Lastly, in some cases of abuse, “release” occurs. I would suggest that this release happens when she has broken up with or separated from her abuser. People remark on the new her, but she is changed, scarred, and now a product of the brainwashing involved in abuse. Even to remark on the old personality brings about near violent reaction as that person is considered “dead.” And at least in one case the strength of core personality was so strong that it wanted to “claw its way out” of the synthesized personality.
Now that we’ve established the ways in which abuse is brainwashing it is time to discuss how to break free of the brainwashing. According to Dr. Michelle Toomey we, as loving family and friends, can do little to help until the victim reaches what is described as the “awakening.” The awakening is like the feeling one gets after having worked on a jigsaw puzzle for two decades and then realizing in one moment just how all the pieces fit together. At this point feelings of fear are likely to come flooding back. This is what I believe happened with the woman I know who wanted to “crawl out.” At this point one must surrender to vulnerability and truly just open up to your support system — whether friends, family, social group, or support group. The idea is to break the isolation that was instilled in the victim during the first stages of brainwashing. The victim is going to doubt herself and want to retreat further into isolation, but this is the brainwashing doing its work. It is not who you are! Next the victim needs to educate herself on all the types of abuse. Abuse comes in many forms and some of the most insidious is the emotional abuse endured during narcissistic abuse. Knowledge allows the victim to look at all that guilt and shame the brainwashing built in them and reprocess them into new forms. The last step is learning to accept painful thoughts and anxieties. They exist. You’ve been through Hell in an almost literal sense. Feeling like murder, fear, suicide, violence, etc. are okay. Accept that these thoughts are yours, are painful, and let them slide past you.
Partners of victims, please love her and show her everyday how the real her makes you feel inside. She’s beating herself up far more than you know and she feels like her “facade” could slip any time. Let her know that it isn’t a facade. Let her know that what she considers a facade is only the doubt instilled by the brainwashing. And if the real her doesn’t fit in with who you are. Love her still. Accept and be happy that she is free. After all love shouldn’t be about what you get out of your relationship. It should be about what your partner gets out of it.