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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Brainwashing in Suburbia

For those who have been reading my April poems with concern, here is the story behind them.

'You're not going to let him come, are you?' asked Andrew.

My youngest (aka The Prodigal Son) wanted to know if he could stay with us on his return to this country after nine years away. (He did get back briefly five years ago, but that time we saw very little of him.) Andrew was hostile and some of my closest women friends wary, because they'd witnessed me shedding many tears on his account over the years. My friend Helen noted that it was like a domestic violence pattern: his loving remorse, my ready forgiveness, the joyful reconciliation, and then he'd bash me up all over again – not physically but verbally and emotionally, by email. We actually got to a point of not communicating at all for a few months – my decision, in an attempt to break the pattern.

The Prodigal himself was wary this time, and respectful, unsure of his welcome. That seemed different. I also thought it was my last opportunity to repair the relationship, because he might never come back to Australia again after this visit. He said he didn't intend to.

'It's only for a couple of weeks,' I said to Andrew, 'and we can always ask him to leave if he becomes obnoxious.' I had no idea just how much trauma the Prodigal would put us through.

Nor did I realise it would turn out to be for much longer than a couple of weeks. He was going to go from us to visit his Uncle Jim, one of those old family friends who has the status of honorary uncle. But that wasn't convenient; Jim had a house full of visiting family already for the Christmas holidays, including grandchildren. The departure kept getting deferred and he ended up staying with us five weeks. He might have stayed longer still, but we had friends from overseas coming in January and needed our guest room. He went to stay with an old pal in another State and we breathed sighs of relief.

By that time, though, my son and I had had a breakthrough. I understood him to be coming from love and wanting me to be happy. We got to that point right at the end of the visit; before that things were often difficult. The Prodigal would stand at the door of my office, refusing to let me work, demanding that I answer his loud, insistent questions. Andrew would get indignant on my behalf and try to intervene, but he's a small man and he's 79; the Prodigal is large and strong and would simply refuse to move. To keep the peace I would say, 'It's OK,' and send Andrew away. The Prodigal was drinking heavily, and sometimes we'd sit up till 4 am while he went over and over all his childhood issues with me, and my many sins and failings as a mother. I asked if we could do it alcohol-free, but he had plausible, rational-sounding arguments against that. He's always very rational on the face of it, and I was never able to find convincing counter-arguments.

When he arrived, he said he had lots of work to do on his laptop. Oh good, we thought, he'll understand perfectly that we are writers and spend a lot of time on our computers; he won't expect to be entertained all the time. It transpired that he did want us – me in particular – to give attention to him at the expense of everything else, whenever he required.

He also took it upon himself to persuade me I'm not a poet and had been living a lie all my life. He would yell it at me: 'You're not a poet!' Well, not more than anyone else, he said, not as something that made me special. And anyway, poetry didn't have to be treated like I did, as a craft to be worked on. Many of his own emails were poems, he said. He was hurt that I hadn't recognised one he'd recently sent me as being a poem. I had another look and saw what he meant. I refrained from telling him it was a pretty bad poem! But then he wrote one as a xmas present for a friend of mine, and that was damn good.

It happened to be a busy and stressful time for Andrew and me, leading up to xmas. And we had been having some problems with each other before that. My son's presence didn't help. We tried to keep our more personal discussions to the privacy of the bedroom. Sometimes we snapped at each other instead of at the Prodigal. He was inconsiderate in various ways, notably by talking loudly on his cell phone to people on the other side of the world at 2 am our time, outdoors for better reception – right outside our bedroom window, and in earshot of the neighbours as well. He did stop after we asked him a few times, though he never really saw the point of not disturbing the neighbours.

On the other hand, he was generous and helpful in many ways: buying us food, fixing practical things around the house, taking over the driving when we went places, giving us sensible advice on practical matters such as budgeting. He could see far more clearly than us how to solve some problems. He thought we were insane for not dealing with stuff in our environment that wasn't working.

He had a point. About some things, we had become either overwhelmed or resigned. We needed waking up. Some of the things he fixed up for us really did make an ongoing difference to our day-to-day lives and we're still grateful. He also set himself to help us improve our ailing marriage, and some of his advice was insightful and good.

Often, though, he was offended because we didn't think to ask for his help, and because we didn’t always know what to ask for that he might be able to help with. Finally he made it clear that I was supposed to know he could help with absolutely everything.

But he didn't always, even so. He would dangle things in front of us like bait, or trot them out as reproaches. 'You've no idea how many things I could have helped you with if only you'd asked!' or, 'If you play your cards right, I'll get you new computers and a new car, even a new house.' No, he didn't really use the phrase, 'If you play your cards right,' nothing quite so blatant, but that was implied in various things he did say. (In truth, he didn't have the money to get us any of those things at this time.)

There were all these 'ifs' we never quite measured up to. In one instance, when he actually refused help he'd previously promised, I got so mad I figured out a way to do it myself. For the first moment or two he was proud of me, but then he went crook at me because I'd just gone ahead and done it without telling him first. I was secretive and deceitful, he said. He believes in full disclosure of everything to everyone!

It was a great relief and astonishment when, after all that, we managed to part lovingly – with, I thought, the problems and misunderstandings finally resolved.

Then came emails informing me he could sense something wrong, something I was hiding from him. Telling him I was fine cut no ice; he KNEW something was up. Well, I said, a friend had been seriously ill, I myself had been a bit off colour for a day or so, the car needed some work … maybe he was picking up one or more of these? He told me I was lying to him.

But then I had the nicest phone call, cheerful and friendly. He was coming up our way again, very briefly, before going back overseas. Could he spend a few more days with us? 'Of course,' I said. After all, we had had our big breakthrough and surely we could sort out any minor things easily once we were face to face. Also he had stopped drinking; his New Year resolution was that 2008 would be a year of non-drinking.

When he arrived the second time, he was upset to find we had not yet put into practice all the good advice he'd given us during his first visit. His disappointment was understandable, but there was no allowance for the other things we were trying to catch up with after a five-week interruption. Andrew lost patience and was sometimes cross and rude to him – under extreme provocation, I might add. The Prodigal was rude and aggressive to him too.

Meanwhile he was still convinced that I was sad. He continued to interrogate me about that, and about my childhood. He said he wanted to hear all my early family stories while he still could. But really he was only interested in what bad stuff I could dredge up. He developed a theory: my father was an arsehole whose love I tried to win by becoming a poet when that wasn't really my thing. Not the way I saw it – but that was of course because I was lying to myself!

Sober, he was in some ways easier to deal with – at first. He wasn't so belligerent, didn't throw things at me, didn't yell quite so much. But this visit, too, dragged on with constantly deferred departure dates. With time he got more and more aggressive. He would stand in doorways, barring me from leaving a room, determined to talk to me as long as he wanted. He would flick water on me, or bash hard on my computer keys, to get me to pay attention to him and nothing else. When I objected, he was quick to point out that none of this actually hurt me. He would restrain my arms, and then when I tried to fend him off would stand still and claim that it was I who was fighting him. Often he would provoke me to rage, so I would indeed be furiously trying to fight him off and break free.

Still I kept thinking that I must be open to what he said. He persuaded me I would be mad not to at least consider it. And in the end I decided just to go along with him until we could get rid of him, so as to keep the peace. I was getting worried about Andrew at that point. He had had a heart attack only a few months previously and was supposed to avoid stress.

My son decided that Andrew was crazy and my enemy, and finally managed to convince me of that too. That sounds incredible, but it was actually a brainwashing. A friend who got a close-up view of what was going on had earlier sent me an article called Brainwashing Techniques (reproduced below) and it was all there. But at that stage I still thought it was meant benevolently. It probably was, at a conscious level.

I must say, by then Andrew was playing right into his hands. He was totally fed up and frustrated, and was desperately trying to protect both me and our relationship. All along, the Prodigal had competed with Andrew for my affections, and in the end Andrew competed right back. The Prodigal started being aggressive to Andrew and Andrew stopped even trying to be polite to him. The Prodigal convinced me Andrew was lying to me when he appeared to be stressed or needy, claiming that when I wasn't around he was perfectly fine. And he observed all the cracks in our relationship and kept asking me leading questions designed to widen them.

I decided to leave Andrew. By then I was persuaded that we had nothing left in common. The Prodigal was delighted, and apologised for not having the resources to move me into a new home immediately. By this time he had been with us another six weeks, it was mid-April, and my Second Stepson (Andrew's youngest) was due to come for a visit. We had announced our separation to the family, but we said to Second Stepson, 'Come anyway; we'd love to see you.' We weren't quarrelling or anything. I still felt affectionate towards Andrew and was concerned about how he would cope with our separation. 'What do you care?' asked the Prodigal. I was troubled by such lack of compassion. The fact was, I did care.

So he went again, still with no immediate plans to leave Australia … and less than 24 hours later I looked around at our warm home and the man sitting beside me, and thought, 'What am I doing? I don't want to leave all this!' Andrew had initially told me I must be free to live my own life, but later he said he didn't want me to go. So he was of course very pleased by my sudden change of mind! We phoned the Second Stepson and told him the glad news straight away, so that he wouldn't be dreading coming to us.

He arrived full of blame for the Prodigal. I think it was only a figure of speech when he said, 'Where is he now? I want to hunt him down and kill him!' He'd concluded that the Prodigal was the cause of our decision to separate; just too coincidental, he thought, that it all happened during his visit. No no, I assured him, the Prodigal was only a catalyst, we'd been having problems already, the Prodigal was trying to help…. Second Stepson simmered down and we had a nice time with him. But now, more and more un-brainwashed, I fear his conclusion was correct, if not his notion of how to act on it.

I emailed the Prodigal and said I had decided not to leave Andrew. He pronounced me a liar and said he now knew for sure I had always been one, even since before he was born. He declared me to be addicted to Andrew and told me I have forgotten what real love is because it has been so long out of my life. Furthermore, he is the only one who knows the truth, the whistle-blower who is not believed. He has seen what a fa├žade Andrew and I put up when other people are around. In fact we're insane. But then he said I am not insane, only a very good liar who even convinces herself.

He spoke of the contrast between the 'happy, alive mother' he left and how I will be in future, looking at my 'sad old self in photographs.' I think the evidence is against him!

'Happy, alive mother' the day he left.

Andrew at the same time.

Both of us about a week later.

(Our friends remark that we are looking better every day.)

He further informed me that he has decided against coming back and taking me away from here by force – for which I am thankful! Not that I'd have gone quietly. One thing that has come out of this is that no-one's going to be telling me what to do any more! I've finally learned to set boundaries. At 68 years of age, it was about time.

Ironically, he's done us good. We are now much happier together, deeply appreciative of each other and what we've got. Even the cats seem happier now!

My relationship with my youngest is over. I am emotionally numb about it so far – only greatly relieved that we never have to go through that again – but my body has been expressing the trauma through various aches and pains and minor ills.

My other sons and their wives are very understanding. Whilst still loving the Prodigal, remembering who he used to be once and having some idea of the pressures which changed him, they also know what he can be like.

'Mum, you're a legend and never doubt it,' said the Firstborn. That did bring me to tears.

Brainwashing Techniques

1. Assault on identity
2. Guilt
3. Self-betrayal
4. Breaking point
5. Leniency
6. Compulsion to confess
7. Channeling of guilt
8. Releasing of guilt
9. Progress and harmony
10. Final confession and rebirth

• Assault on identity: You are not who you think you are.
This is a systematic attack on a target's sense of self (also called his identity or ego) and his core belief system. The agent denies everything that makes the target who he is: "You are not a soldier." "You are not a man." "You are not defending freedom." The target is under constant attack for days, weeks or months, to the point that he becomes exhausted, confused and disoriented. In this state, his beliefs seem less solid.
• Guilt: You are bad.
While the identity crisis is setting in, the agent is simultaneously creating an overwhelming sense of guilt in the target. He repeatedly and mercilessly attacks the subject for any "sin" the target has committed, large or small. He may criticize the target for everything from the "evilness" of his beliefs to the way he eats too slowly. The target begins to feel a general sense of shame, that everything he does is wrong.
• Self-betrayal: Agree with me that you are bad.
Once the subject is disoriented and drowning in guilt, the agent forces him (either with the threat of physical harm or of continuance of the mental attack) to denounce his family, friends and peers who share the same "wrong" belief system that he holds. This betrayal of his own beliefs and of people he feels a sense of loyalty to increases the shame and loss of identity the target is already experiencing.
• Breaking point: Who am I, where am I and what am I supposed to do?
With his identity in crisis, experiencing deep shame and having betrayed what he has always believed in, the target may undergo what in the lay community is referred to as a "nervous breakdown." In psychology, "nervous breakdown" is really just a collection of severe symptoms that can indicate any number of psychological disturbances. It may involve uncontrollable sobbing, deep depression and general disorientation. The target may have lost his grip on reality and have the feeling of being completely lost and alone.

When the target reaches his breaking point, his sense of self is pretty much up for grabs -- he has no clear understanding of who he is or what is happening to him. At this point, the agent sets up the temptation to convert to another belief system that will save the target from his misery.
• Leniency: I can help you.
With the target in a state of crisis, the agent offers some small kindness or reprieve from the abuse. He may offer the target a drink of water, or take a moment to ask the target what he misses about home. In a state of breakdown resulting from an endless psychological attack, the small kindness seems huge, and the target may experience a sense of relief and gratitude completely out of proportion to the offering, as if the agent has saved his life.
• Compulsion to confession: You can help yourself.
For the first time in the brainwashing process, the target is faced with the contrast between the guilt and pain of identity assault and the sudden relief of leniency. The target may feel a desire to reciprocate the kindness offered to him, and at this point, the agent may present the possibility of confession as a means to relieving guilt and pain.
• Channeling of guilt: This is why you're in pain.
After weeks or months of assault, confusion, breakdown and moments of leniency, the target's guilt has lost all meaning -- he's not sure what he has done wrong, he just knows he is wrong. This creates something of a blank slate that lets the agent fill in the blanks: He can attach that guilt, that sense of "wrongness," to whatever he wants. The agent attaches the target's guilt to the belief system the agent is trying to replace. The target comes to believe it is his belief system that is the cause of his shame. The contrast between old and new has been established: The old belief system is associated with psychological (and usually physical) agony; and the new belief system is associated with the possibility of escaping that agony.
• Releasing of guilt: It's not me; it's my beliefs.
The embattled target is relieved to learn there is an external cause of his wrongness, that it is not he himself that is inescapably bad -- this means he can escape his wrongness by escaping the wrong belief system. All he has to do is denounce the people and institutions associated with that belief system, and he won't be in pain anymore. The target has the power to release himself from wrongness by confessing to acts associated with his old belief system.

With his full confessions, the target has completed his psychological rejection of his former identity. It is now up to the agent to offer the target a new one.


  1. I am so glad you were strong enough to resist this.

    You have been very balanced in your retelling of this: although my sympathies are for the most part with you, I also feel very sad for your son. He must be a very insecure person who must have gone through some terrible times to reach this state.

    I am amazed that he contemplated taking you away by force. I hope that someday he will understand that he cannot (and should not wish to) control you or your life and I hope he will understand how hard he has been on you.

    You are remarkably understanding (as are your other children) and I admire you for the chances you have given him, for the emotional honesty with which you write, and for the strength of character to resist such strong persuasion (and be able to analyze it afterwards).

    Enjoy your freedom now. Not that I think you won't!

  2. Thanks, Jenny. I thought long and hard whether to post this at all, but I'm glad I did. It's also on MySpace, where already one friend has found the brainwashing document helpful in making sense of something in her life, and another suggested I Google Joanna Ashmun and read her site on NPD. Having done so, I think it very possible my son is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

    If so, it may well be genetic - at least in his case - as the symptoms were there from infancy. And it has developed more the older he gets, which apparently is not unusual.

    NPD people can be very lovable too, and he certainly was when younger, though a good deal less so nowadays. But can still turn on the charm when he wants to, and some people who met him when he was here think he's 'gorgeous' and 'wonderful'. They're a minority; most found him arrogant, insecure and rude.

    The NPD site was very illuminating and I'm almost certain he must be that. Which in a way is helpful - as an energy healer, it gives me something to work with. From a distance!!!

    Unbelievable - after saying all those things to me, in an email with the subject line 'Done', he now asks why I have been ignoring him since he left here! Apparently that is typical NPD too. No understanding that people might not want to put up with abuse forever.

    I'm not even engaging in that discussion with him. I'm sad for him too, but I'm certainly not willing to go through all that again!

    And - clearly - I am still processing the whole thing.

  3. I have never heard of NPD, but having looked it up just now, it certainly seems plausible. It must be nice to have found a potential answer. Not that this necessarily helps, but I imagine it's comforting.

    I'm glad there's a silver lining to all this - at least the poetry has been flowing!

    Good luck!