Today, I’ve asked Lara Lee, fantasy author to write something for us.
In brainstorming ideas for one of my novels, I decided to research the question: Can a person be immune to brainwashing? We have all seen on television or in movies or even old books the trope of someone being brainwashed to do horrendous crimes against their will. It is overused, so I often stay away from it. My villain just seemed the kind of person to try and brainwash my hero, but I was curious how this worked in reality. Other books have their protagonist resist by the strength of their will. Was that how it is done?
I was absolutely shocked by the research I came across. Strong-willed people were not immune to brainwashing, daydreamers were. Often, those resistant to brainwashing were people no one would expect, average looking people with little to brag about. Why is this?
First, we have to deal with what brainwashing is. Many people over the recent years have argued that true brainwashing doesn’t exist. Just like hypnosis, a person cannot be forced to do something against their foundation beliefs. The term and identification of the phenomenon of brainwashing came from around the time of the Korean War. Prisoners of war were “brainwashed” and then released to their home countries as spies for the Koreans. The same phenomenon was also seen in cults in the US and other organizations. These people did change. They did act in a way that they previously thought was wrong. Something happened to them that changed them.
Brainwashing, like the movies, doesn’t happen. People’s thoughts are not wiped clean and then planted with new thoughts, but what does happen is that a person is put in such restrictive environment that denies all basic needs until the point that the person either is on the brink of a nervous breakdown or experiences one. Then the captor offers “kindness” such as water or food and slowly breaks down the victim’s foundational beliefs to those that the captor wants. They are convinced and persuaded under pressure to adopt new ideas. Sometimes these new thoughts stick for a lifetime. Sometimes they only last until a healthy lifestyle is restored. It again depends on the person.
As I read this description, I realized that sometimes life events bring people to the point of breaking, even without a captor. We have all heard of people who suffered emotional breakdowns just from trauma in ordinary living. Deaths, illness, financial struggles, relationship problems produce extraordinary strain. Life can be hard, and at times people break. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD are common. Some people endure a lot in life and stay strong. Some people crumble relatively quickly. So I continued my research wondering how one would fight this mental breakdown. It stopped being about brainwashing and more about mental health. How do we endure high stress without falling apart?
The secret is dissociation.
It turns out, that people who can disassociate from the circumstance that they are in do well. This practice is often taught to soldiers in the military to help in case they are captured and tortured. Dissociation is the process of mentally removing yourself from reality and separating your emotions from your circumstances. If not done intentionally, it can be a psychological disorder, but, when done intentionally, it provides a brief relief from the pain of reality.
To me, this sounds like escapism literature, my favorite being fantasy. We all either have said or heard someone say that they read or go to the movies to “get away” from life. This act of “getting away” is to remove yourself from reality for a time into a fake world. Escapism is often about ignoring the pain of reality to have a little fun, or just to “veg” for a while. Sounds a little like disassociation right?
Not all entertainment is escapism. Some highlight the painful realities of life, but the popularity of the superhero movies, Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games show that escapism is alive and well. I personally remember in some of the darkest times of my life escaping into books to bring relief to my emotions. I read nearly the entire Dresden file series that had been written up to at that point when a loved one was dying. I was often asked how I survived some of what I went through without shutting down, getting a divorce, or turning to substance abuse. I do have a Christian faith that I depend on, but I think I was also provided a way of emotion disassociation through fantasy fiction that helped me bare the emotions. God is not against fantasy; he told parables himself.
From the beginning of human history, we have had folklore, myths, legends, and fairy tales. These are the precursor to our modern fantasy fiction. The ancient world knew they needed an escape from the harsh realities of life. The human mind can only handle so much before breaking and caving in. Some seek relief in substance abuse or unhealthy relationships. Fantasy is a place in which you can be the hero and in control for 300 pages. Perhaps you will never endure the type of stress used in brainwashing, but I think we all can benefit from a bit of fantasy.
Thank you, Lara!