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Does "Mind Control" Exist?

The possibility of mind control involves the nature of will, freedom, and responsibility. Some of these concepts have been addressed by Lewin and his students, and their findings seem pertinent to our understanding of these issues. Lewin's research began in an effort to measure the force of will by pitting voluntary intentions against involuntary habits (see de Rivera, 1976). However, he came to realize, and was able to demonstrate, that involuntary habits were actually motivated by underlying intentions (which he represented as tension systems that operated as needs do). In a brilliant series of experiments, Schwarz ( 1976 ) was able to show that habit "relapses" (as when we find ourselves throwing a ball of waste paper where the wastebasket used to be) are motivated by intentions that trigger gestaltlike units of behavior that contain the unintentional action. Thus, persons may find themselves doing what they did not consciously will or want to do. Lewin and his students were quite sensitive as to whether persons were doing something because their own wills (intention systems) were involved or whether they were simply carrying out a project that someone else had willed. Thus, Rickers-Ovsiankina ( 1977 ) distinguished between participants who are task- or ego-oriented and those who are "all subjects" (merely doing what the experimenters asked them to do) and demonstrated the importance of involving persons-in decision making so that their own wills would be involved in implementing what the will of an authority felt was desirable.

The issue of whether the mind-control explanation is a narrative is raised by Sarbin's commentary, which suggests that the two explanatory models should be explicitly treated as narratives. This seems to be a useful articulation that is completely compatible with the conceptual-encounter methodology. He also points out that the "mind-control" narrative is analogous to turning over control of our bodies to physicians or our behavioral control to a hypnotist. However, as Sarbin points out, all of the retractors grant Aesculapian authority to their therapists. The mind-control narrative implies something else that I am not sure Sarbin would be willing to grant. It implies that the person loses the freedom to author his or her own narrative.

Ann and Cath are not only saying that they turned decision-making power over to their therapists as when, for example, persons relinquish control over their schedule and clothing when they enter a hospital. They are saying that they lost their capacity to make their own decisions, that they lost the ability to leave the hospital. At least two factors appear to be involved in the loss of this decision-making capacity (their ability to assert their will against the reality defined by another's will (see de Rivera, 1976 , pp. 508-517). First, the ability to assert one's will depends on one's level of confidence. When confidence has been undermined the ability to make decisions is diminished and this is particularly true when depression is present. Second, once persons are involved in an activity that is suggested by an authority, they lose some of their ability to resist the experimenter's will and so they continue the activity. This is easily demonstrated in laboratory experiments ranging from Frank ( 1944 ) cracker-eating studies to Milgram ( 1963 ) shock-administration studies. Clearly, resistance against another's will is extremely difficult if resistance is not begun at an early stage in the compliance process. This is particularly true when the person's perception is limited by tension. As Karsten ( 1976 ) observed, the free movement of the participant, especially the possibility of leaving the field on the basis of a "decision" become more limited as the strength of the tension field increases.

Do some therapists engage in "mind control"? Although Reviere grants that the cases offer examples of poor judgment and unethical behavior, she objects that this is not comparable to the information control and social isolation involved in mind control. However, when therapists, such as Ann's and Cath's, advise their clients to cease contact with families who are not engaged in any current abuse or threats, they are engaged in information control and social isolation. Although Reviere acknowledges that therapists should respect the fact of a power differential, she states, "the client retains the ability to question, evaluate, and dialogue with the therapist." If the retention of that ability were necessarily true why would it be necessary for therapists to "acknowledge and respect" the power differential? When therapists do not respect that power differential the client does not retain the ability to question the therapist as the cases of Ann and Cath clearly illustrated. At least I had hoped that these cases illustrated how therapists do have the power to induce a trauma-based identity. Clearly, we can see how Ann's and Cath's ability to choose could be undermined by their therapists.

Lives as Narratives

Setting aside the question of whether the retractor's narratives refer to fundamentally different phenomena, I would like to return to Sarbin's commentary (which

is compatible with the framework suggested by Lynn et al.). Sarbin's account of the retractors' experiences focuses on the fact that humans are storytellers. He asserts that we not only tell stories to give accounts of happenings, but that our very lives are involvements in stories. I presume he would argue that these stories always involve some degree of creative imagination along with the acceptance of cultural and subcultural accounts and ideas. From this perspective, we can certainly see how all of the retractors became deeply involved in a particular story that is being told in one of our society's subcultures, a narrative of CSA that could not be remembered because of repression.

To explain the depth of their involvement in this particular story, Sarbin points out that all of the retractors assumed their problems had a specific cause, and they granted Aesculapian authority to a therapist who assisted them in exercising their imagination to construct an abuse story. (In Beth's case this use of the imagination occurred even before therapy but was validated by the therapist.) The obvious conflict between such a story and memories of a normal childhood could be suppressed by the simple expedient of not paying attention to conflicting information, a task made easy by severing communication with the protesting family.

To my mind one of the strengths of Sarbin's account is that it humanizes the retractors and may help us identify with their situation. All of us become involved in stories; an imaginative element is always present in these accounts; and imagining how a person could become lost in a story that was supported by an Aesculapian authority and an entire subculture is easy.

However, Sarbin's account raises the troublesome question of how we can--even in principle--distinguish between our involvement in true and false stories. Certainly we can distinguish between a fact and an imagining, and true stories refer to facts whereas fictional stories do not. However, narrative worlds are always imagined and to the extent we are involved in the story we are enacting with our life we lose the perspective to distinguish fact from fiction. (See the interesting discussion by Rapoport ( 1960 , pp. 259-272). Although Sarbin distinguishes imaginings from believing in these imaginings, how are we to say which imaginings warrant our belief? If our lives are "storied," in the sense that we are always involved in stories, in which stories should we become involved? I believe this problem is at the root of Doris's (partial) rejection of the narrative model. Although Doris agrees that she was involved in a believed-in-imagining, she rejects the more basic idea that life necessarily involves a living of stories.

Sarbin argues that Doris's partial rejection of the narrative model lies in her taking story to mean a fictional account. This is certainly possible, but even after I made a distinction between true and false stories, she continued to object to the term story. Perhaps she was simply persevering in equating story with fiction. However, my impression is that she was pointing to the fact that stories are always about events, that a sort of distance exists between the storyteller and the event, and this makes it possible for a story to be false and for self-deception to occur. As someone who has just had the experience of living a story that was untrue, she believes that self-deception was possible because she was engaged in "telling a story" about what happened. Hence, she wants to distinguish between stories--which to her, are necessarily about what happened--and the experiencing of an event with all the feelings that are present. She appears to be arguing that self-deception is only possible when feelings are divorced from cognition and to be rejecting the idea of stories because she realizes that stories may be false.

Doris may be throwing out the baby with the bath water, for we may grant her point and yet keep the idea of ourselves as involved in stories if we can distinguish between living stories in which cognition and feelings are integrated and stories in which they are split. In fact, Macmurray ( 1961 ) made an equivalent distinction (and see de Rivera, in press). Like Sarbin, Macmurray viewed humans as actors in human relationships. However, as mentioned earlier, he argued that these relationships are always based on both a genuine caring for the other (love) and a concern for the self (fear). When the former is dominant, a person is "real," but when the latter is dominant, defenses are employed and cognition is split from feeling (as well as mind from body, and ideal from practicality). From this perspective our stories are situated in personal relationships and we should allow ourselves to be involved in stories that are dominated by a genuine caring for others rather than by stories motivated by fear for ourselves. In the latter case, we may distinguish between stories that involve a real loss of control the mind-control model and those that do not (the self-narrative model).

Recently, Shapiro ( 1996 ) made a distinction that may help clarify the difference between the two types of fear-dominated stories. He pointed out that in selfdeception a disjunction occurs between what one feels or believes and what one imagines oneself to feel or believe. Most of us occasionally engage in self-deception and, as Sarbin points out, it is present in all of the retractors' cases. However, Shapiro pointed out that self-deception can either be driven by an individual's own anxiety or enforced by external coercion. (One of his examples of the latter is the bullied wife who admits false deficiencies.) With regard to these latter cases he stated:

The evidence is strong that the subject of coercion never does come to believe in the ordinary sense that he did what he did not do. But he can be brought to the point where he is unable to sustain disbelief. To be more exact, he cannot sustain the capacity to consider the matter, to believe or disbelieve. ( Shapiro, 1996 , p. 795)

This appears to describe Ann's and Cath's situation. By contrast, the self-deception in Beth's and Doris's cases appears more motivated by individual anxiety.

The loss of ability to sustain disbelief appears completely congruent with Sarbin's conceptualization and may parallel Gudjonsson's suggestion of a "memory" distrust syndrome in which people lose confidence in their own recollections of events. Certainly such conceptualizations should be used in future conceptual encounters with retractors.

Improving Our Conceptualization

With regard to testing the conceptualizations further, I was excited by Lief and Fetkewicz's use of the models to review the open-ended responses from their much larger sample of 40 retractors. As they note, a number of retractors spontaneously mentioned aspects of the mind-control model (10 mentioned extreme dependence, 7 described giving into pressure, and 8 reported that therapist suggestions were the most influential factor in the development of their "memories"), and 13 retractors mentioned the search for an explanation for current problems that is characteristic of the narrative model. However, Lief and Fetkewicz observe that not all of the retractors mention these factors, and the models are by no means completely exclusive. They point out that important features of one model may be mixed in with the underlying elements of the other model as when a person who is attempting to construct a narrative may be subjected to the undue influence of a therapist, suggesting that sexual abuse must have occurred, or as when a person who is subjected to mind control is led to use her or his own imagination to construct the abuse narrative. Their critique, as well as Qin, Tyda, and Goodman's, clearly suggests the need for models that capture the interaction between person and therapist as cocreators of the abuse narrative. Such conceptualizations should incorporate Sarbin's point that the person grants Aesculapian authority to the therapist, yet attempts to distinguish between this trust and the emotional dependency that. appears inherent in mind control. As Lief and Fetkewicz observe, as persons begin to recover abuse "memories" their level of emotional dependence appears to increase and overmedication may hinder the client's ability to think clearly about her or his situation.

Lief and Fetkewicz also report that many of their respondents mentioned the important influence of membership in survivor groups. As Qin, Tyda, and Goodman observe, such groups may foster the construction of a "survivor" identity and, as noted in the target article, these groups are embedded in a subculture that believes that memories can be recovered from complete dissociations. These facts suggest that yet a third basic conceptualization may be relevant. We know that when persons are assigned to roles within a group, their identity may be "captured" by the roles to which they have been assigned. Thus, in Hansen, Banks, and Zimbardo ( 1973 ) simulated prison study, persons who were designated to be prisoners began to behave as if they were really prisoners, to the extent that the experiment had to be terminated. Hence, to the extent that persons with FMS have been placed in groups of "survivors," they may be lost in the roles they are enacting in these groups.

Although an individual retractor might exemplify a "pure" case of mind control, narrative construction, or group role-enactment, many FMS cases may certainly reflect mixes of undue influence, narrative construction, group influence, and mixes of both types of selfdeception. My goal has been to help us sympathetically understand how reasonably normal persons may become trapped in FMS. I hope this has been successful.


I thank Len Cirillo for his helpful comments on a draft of this commentary.

Joseph de Rivera, Department of Psychology, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01610-1477.


Aronson, E. ( 1995 ). The social animal (7th ed.). New York: Freeman.

Briere, J., & Conte, J. ( 1993 ). "Self-reported amnesia for abuse in adults molested as children". Journal of Traumatic Stress, 6, 21-31.

Dembo, T. ( 1976 ). "The dynamics of anger". In J. de Rivera (Ed.), Field theory as human science (pp. 324-433). New York: Gardner.

de J. Rivera ( 1976 ). Field theory as human science. New York: Gardner.

de J. Rivera ( 1994 ). "Impact of child abuse memories on the families of victims". Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 6, 149-155.

de J. H. Rivera (in press). "A philosophy for social science". In H. A. Carsen (Ed.), Contemporary implications of John Macmurray's philosophy. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. ( 1956 ). When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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