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and the Treatment of Personality Change
in Victims of Captivity and Cults
Part 1 of 3
From Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical
Perspectives. Lynn, SJ and Rhue JW, eds. ©1994 The Guilford Press.
Reprinted with permission.
Louis Jolyon West
Paul R. Martin
Dissociative phenomena are not necessarily symptomatic of illness, and
probably represent a continuum beginning with normal psycho-biological
modulation of information -- incoming, stored, and outgoing -- by the
(West, 1967). In recent years there has been a sharp increase of interest
dissociative phenomena accompanying psychiatric disorders, especially
multiple personality and related disorders of identity, including states
possession (Bliss, 1986; Kluft, 1991; Suryani & Jensen, 1993).
symptoms also are important in many other types of psychopathology, and
commonly accompany a range of psychiatric disorder from schizophrenic
illnesses to severe stress reactions. Still, the distortion or alteration
a person's identity and the appearance of a new and different persona
remains one of the most interesting manifestations of dissociation.
Prolonged environmental stress, or life situations profoundly different
the usual, can disrupt the normally integrative functions of personality.
Individuals subjected to such forces may adapt through dissociation by
generating an altered persona, or pseudo-identity (West, 1994).
Such a pseudo-identity enables the subject better to cope with the
extraordinary situation in which he finds himself, regardless of how he
there.1 Parents and others close to
individuals who have
become members of totalist cults are often astonished at such changes,
saying "He has become a different person." This article is based on
observations of such changelings from a clinical point of view.
Conditions of brutal captivity, such as those experienced by prisoners of
war (POWs) or civilian victims of hostage taking, in which the captor
to force a false confession or induce compliant behavior, can generate a
type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which dissociative
are prominent. During the Korean war, the relative success of the Chinese
communists in eliciting false confessions of war crimes (e.g., germ
warfare), self-denunciations, and participation in propaganda activities
in large measure achieved because of the captors' absolute control over
environment of the prisoners. To achieve this control, the communists
contrived a variety of stressors, which produced in their captives a
of debility, dependency, and chronic apprehension or dread (Farber,
& West, 1957; West, 1964).
Civilian prisoners were also subjected to prolonged manipulation by their
Chinese communist captors to produce altered political convictions, as
described in Lifton's discussion of thought reform (Lifton, 1961). As
the Korean War POWs, these civilian victims were subjected to prolonged
stress in situations from which, at least for a time, there was no
Necessarily, they became dependent upon their captors for various
and psychological needs. In response to these conditions their
begin to change in many cases. O'Neil and Demos (1977) have likened the
first step in the thought reform process to the creation of an identity
crisis. In our view, it is during such a crisis that a new
may begin to emerge. Once formed, it is likely to endure, and gradually
stronger and better defined, as long as the demand characteristics of the
situation require it.
Long before the term "Stockholm syndrome" was coined (see below),
difficult-to-explain feelings of sympathy and even identification with
one's captors were recounted by former prisoners. One of these was
Hungary's late Cardinal Mindszenty, who was arrested, tried, and
imprisoned from 1948 until the 1956 uprising in Budapest. In his memoirs
(1974), Mindszenty wrote that within 2 weeks of his arrest, under
constant coercive interrogation he found himself
thinking along different lines from before and seeing things from his
captors' point of view. His judgment, reasoning, and sense of self became
distorted. He wrote: "Without knowing what had happened to me, I had
a different person" (p. 114).
Patricia Hearst was violently abducted by members of the Symbionese
Liberation Army in February of 1974, brutalized, raped, tortured, and
forced to participate in illegal acts beginning with the bank robbery for
which she was later (in our view wrongly) convicted. The traumatic
kidnapping and subsequent 2 months of torture produced in her a state of
emotional regression and fearful compliance with the demands and
expectations of her captors. This was quickly followed by the coerced
transformation of Patty into Tania and subsequently (less well known to
the public) into Pearl, after additional trauma over a period of many
months (Hearst & Moscow, 1988; The Trial of Patty Hearst,
1976). Tania was merely a role coerced on pain of death; it was
Pearl who later represented the pseudo-identity which was found on
psychiatric examination by one of us (West) shortly after Hearst's arrest
by the FBI. Chronic symptoms of PTSD were also prominent in this case.
The term "Stockholm syndrome" was coined to describe a certain
psychological phenomenon in hostages following a 1974 bank holdup in
Sweden. Four employees were held captive by two robbers for 5-1/2 days.
During the ordeal, some hostages became sympathetic toward the robbers.
fact, one female hostage swiftly and unaccountably fell in love with one
her captors and then publicly berated the Swedish prime minister for his
failure to understand the criminal's point of view. For a limited period
time after her release, the former hostage continued to express affection
for her captor(Ochberg, 1978).
Other hostages have also developed sympathy for or identified with
their captors. For example, in 1975, during the 13-day seizure of a Dutch
train by South Moluccan gunmen demanding freedom for their islands in
the Malay archipelago, despite the executions of 2 hostages, some of the
surviving captives rapidly developed feelings of affection or sympathy
their murderous captors, along with attitudes of distrust toward the
legitimate Dutch authorities. A psychiatrist might better define this
phenomenon using the more psychodynamically descriptive phrase:
with the aggressor" (coined for a different purpose during World War II
by Anna Freud). If this process is sufficiently profound and prolonged,
our view the accompanying personality change may best be understood in
terms of pseudo-identity as explicated below.
Identification with the aggressor has been analyzed in relation to a
variety of psychiatrically important situations, ranging from
in Nazi concentration camps, where doomed prisoners sometimes sought
out discarded insignias and other shreds of SS uniforms with which to
their rags, to the battered children who grow up to become
child-battering parents. However, some cases do not involve prisoners or
example, Solomon Perel, the subject of a recent film (Europa,
Europa [Holland, Menegoz, & Brauner, 1911), was a German Jewish
boy who assumed a non-Jewish identity in order to cope with the
life-threatening conditions of the time. He transformed himself into
Joseph ("Jupp") under extremely stressful circumstances.
Knowing that Jews would be killed, he got rid of all documents
identifying him as a Jew and, in the chaos of war, said, "I am a
patriotic German." He even served in the German army. Gradually, however,
the teenager's role became a new identity because of the demand
characteristics of his situation. For years after the war, following his
emigration to Israel, Perel experienced moments when he had to ascertain
whether it was Sol or Jupp who was answering a question (Williams, 1992).
Like the incomprehensibly compliant Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty and the
abnormally passive Patricia/Tania/Pearl/Hearst, under stress, Solomon
Perel's identity had changed. The new pseudo-identity, initially formed
as a role played in response to stressful circumstances, was a different
personality of sorts. This personality was superimposed upon the original
which, while not completely forgotten, was enveloped within the shell of
Through the exercise of psychosocial forces more subtle than those
described above, people can be deliberately manipulated, influenced, and
controlled to a considerable degree, and induced to express beliefs and
exhibit behaviors far different from what their lives up to then would
have logically or reasonably predicted. While the thought reform program
of the Chinese communists to convert people to "right thinking" was
hardly subtle, the indoctrination techniques applied to new recruits by
contemporary totalist cults can be very subtle indeed (West, 1989, 1993).
Subjects are forced to communicate verbally and continuously, in a
strictly controlled fashion. Most of these cults rely also on the effects
of structured group dynamics, environmental manipulation and control, the
relationship of dominant leaders to dependent members, the relative
initial isolation of recruits from previous ideas or relationships, and
the evolution of a new identity with constant group pressures to bring
errant individuals into line.
A totalist cult is defined as follows: "Cult (totalist type): a group or
movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some
person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical, manipulative or coercive
techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends
and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten
suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressure, information
management, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of
leaving it, suspension of individuality and critical judgment, and so on,
designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the possible or
actual detriment of members, their families, or the community." The basis
for this definition, and a general discussion of the cult problem, is
given elsewhere (West, 1983). Among various totalist cults, there may be
some differences as to how intense the persuasive activities are, and in
the degree to which recruits can be separated from their previous social
networks. Even though he may have been attracted to the cult by elaborate
and deceptive recruiting techniques, the neophyte cultist enters it
"voluntarily." With rare exceptions, nobody puts a gun to his head. Yet,
successful indoctrination of a cult member often includes many elements
similar to the political indoctrination by such groups as the Chinese
communists, which Schein (1961) described as coercive persuasion. In
cults, as in the Chinese "brainwashing," "thought reform," or "coercive
persuasion," people are often encouraged to criticize themselves in
small-group confessionals as a means of strengthening their dependence on
the group. As the process continues, members are systematically trained
to relinquish independent action and thought, since only obedient
behaviors and passive attitudes are rewarded, while resistance or
self-assertion is punished.
Even groups that have derived from respectable religious sects (such
as the Lundgren cult, a splinter or a sect of the LDS, see below) or that
have evolved from therapeutic communities such as Synanon, can evolve
totalist cults if the autonomy of the members is progressively
while the concentration of power in the leadership grows more and more
absolute. Under these conditions usually the emphasis shifts from the
members' well-being to their manipulation and exploitation. In this way,
it is easy to understand how the followers of Jim Jones (People's
L. Ron Hubbard (Church of Scientology), Sun Myung Moon (Unification
Church), Moses David (Children of God), Elizabeth Clare Prophet (Church
Universal and Triumphant), Rajneesh, and others are successfully
influenced to become "different people."
Lifton (1961) describes how certain Chinese citizens and Westerners,
having undergone the stressful process of" thought reform" and apparently
changed their political beliefs, upon liberation continued to parrot the
programmed Maoist cliches for a time until, in the new and free
environment, those beliefs and the attendant formulae began to crumble
away, leaving each bewildered survivor with an acute identity problem.
Lifton characterizes this process as resembling death and rebirth. Former
members of religious cults, or veterans of mass-marketed group therapies
and self-help techniques, have called abrupt forms of such transformation
"snapping" (Conway & Siegelman, 1978). This corresponds to the
observations of many former cult victims, who have undergone
"deprogramming" and, as a result, abruptly reverted from their
cult-induced pseudo-identity to something resembling their previous or
original personality. Indeed, "snapping" seems like an appropriate term
when the victim, having been coerced or manipulated into his strange
pseudo-identity, eventually "snaps out of it." He is again his old self,
but with some serious new problems as a result of the cult-related
experience and the trauma involved in relation to it. Furthermore, years
may have passed since the original identity was functioning normally;
meanwhile the world has become a different place.
The term pseudo-identity has only been used twice previously in the
scientific literature. In 1974, Glatzel used it to describe a delusional
alteration of self in cases of major depression involving cyclothymic
illness (Glatzel, 1974). To the best of our knowledge this usage has not
since been repeated. More recently, Girodo (1985) employed the term when
describing problems experienced by certain undercover narcotics agents
who, after prolonged role playing, found it difficult to discontinue
assumed behaviors when an operation was finished. Employed only once or
twice in Girodo's article, the term was used casually to convey the sense
of a long assumed role, not a dissociative disorder, and was limited to
the highly specialized circumstances of undercover work. In fact, Girodo
minimized the possibility of dissociative reactions in the subjects he
studied. However, careful review of his clinical material suggests that
some cases of pseudo-identity in our sense may indeed have occurred in
certain cases, studied by Girodo, of law-enforcement officers who were
required to play the part of criminals for months or even years. In our
view some of these officers showed symptoms of PTSD as well.
Through hypnotic suggestion, it may be possible to create temporary
distortions of values, viewpoints, or perceptions of reality, which are
sufficient to induce in some subjects behaviors that would be otherwise
unacceptable to them. Certain hypnotists (e.g., the late Harold Rosen and
Milton Erickson) specialize in hypnotic induction that does not involve
trance induction or the exercise of traditional techniques such as eye
closure. Clinical literature is also replete with examples of increased
suggestibility or controllability of individuals during altered states of
consciousness, such as those induced by psychotropic substances,
environmental manipulation, sensory isolation, powerful emotions elicited
by group dynamics (especially in large groups), religious ceremonies, and
other special circumstances. Latah is a special case in that
hyper-suggestibility usually occurs as the consequence of the subject
being taken by surprise through a harmless maneuver (e.g., an abrupt
noise, tickling, etc.) (Suryani & Jensen, 1993).
Pseudo-identity is more than a temporary role assumed by a subject in a
laboratory exercise or during a transient period of intoxication. It is
more like an "alter" in a case of multiple personality disorder (MPD).
However, pseudo-identity differs from the alter of MPD in the following
1. Pathogenesis. MPD is most likely a consequence of early
childhood trauma, with symptoms appearing later in life as a result of
inner conflicts interacting with experiential circumstances. A
pseudo-identity is usually generated by external stress originating in
the environment of a person who may have been previously quite free of
any signs or symptoms of personality malfunction, and for whom the new
persona represents a transformation required to meet the demand
characteristics of a life situation markedly different from the person's
2. Psychopathology. The MPD patient may have more than one
alter; in the case of pseudo-identity, the personality change, whether
swift or gradual, usually involves the generation of a single different
personality. In pseudo-identity, under certain conditions there may be
abrupt switching back and forth between behaviors characteristic of the
two separate personalities (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as
"floating"), but without MPD's typical boundaries between the two
personalities, and without the MPD patient's sense that one self is
separate from the other one. In MPD, the different alters or
personalities primarily reflect facets of the original character. In
pseudo-identity, the new personality primarily reflects the new
situational forces and requirements. In MPD, the original identity is
usually unconscious of the existence of the alters as they emerge and
submerge. In pseudo-identity, the original persona remains but is
overlaid or enveloped by the new identity.
3. Prognosis. MPD is notoriously difficult to treat (Braun,
1986; Kluft, 1984b). The outlook is generally better for the patient with
pseudo-identity, although the syndrome may become chronic like any
dissociative disorder or (in the old terminology) monosymptomatic major
hysteria. Sometimes merely returning the patient to his original life
situation (or even a neutral environment where information is freely and
honestly exchanged and nonexploitive people are available for support)
will, in a few weeks, result in the abrupt ("snapping") or gradual
disappearance of the pseudo-identity. However, the patient then faces
resuming many long-neglected functions of his former personhood, and
working through the complex emotional aftermath of having -- for whatever
period of time and to whatever degree -- become a different person.
4. Treatment. Therapy of both syndromes requires
appreciation of the mental mechanisms involved, the reality of traumata
or stress -- however subtle -- in pathogenesis, and the technical
maneuvers known to be useful in management of dissociative disorders.
While in the psychotherapy of MPD the usual goal is primarily the
reconciliation and integration of the alters into a new and healthier
whole, the goal in therapy of the patient with pseudo-identity is
restoration of the original identity. However, the patient then usually
requires treatment for the residual PTSD which is the legacy of the
stress that produced and maintained the pseudo-identity syndrome.
Cases of pseudo-identity observed among cult victims are often very
clear-cut, classic examples of transformation through deliberately
contrived situational forces of a normal individual's personality into
that of "a different person." (Others are colored by certain prominent
additional symptoms into types that have been described as "floaters,"
"contemplators," and "survivors," see below.) The following brief case
description illustrates a more or less classical case of pseudo-identity
in a small totalist cult.
Danny Kraft grew up in a small town in the midwest. Testimony
from over 60 family members, friends, and former teachers indicated that
Danny was a fairly normal young man. He appeared to be well
adjusted, sociable, performed well in school, had many friends, and
showed no signs of anti-social behavior. There was no evidence that Danny
suffered from any mental or personality disorder. His parents were
divorced, and he sometimes appeared to experience conflicted loyalties
between his father and mother, but not inappropriately so.
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