Smart Comes Back From Stockholm

How to Brainwash Girls and Influence the Media


Elizabeth Smart is back home. Her parents are happy, the world is happy. But is she happy?

Certainly, I'll never know for sure. But it is an interesting question, whose possible answer is being muddied by all the talk of "brainwashing" and "mind control" being tossed around.

Those concepts, which one might have thought a nostalgic relic of the days of Charlie Manson and Patty Hearst, are being called into service to address a question obvious to anyone who thought twice about the resolution of this public drama: Why didn't Elizabeth make any attempt to run away, at any point? Why, even upon being found by her saviors, the police, did she refuse to admit she was Elizabeth Smart? In my favorite touch, her response to police insistence that, come off it, she was Elizabeth Smart, was a coyly Biblical "thou sayest."

Of course, if someone takes control of someone else's very survival and controls all the information that person receives—which seems to be what happened to Elizabeth vis à vis the strangely charismatic street freak "Emmanuel" (and is not unlike what happens in any strict religious family)—it becomes easier to implant certain ideas and make them stick. In other contexts, this is called "socialization," but when we don't like the ideas and thoughts thus influenced, it becomes mind control.

But as many exasperated and despairing parents know, human beings are not automatons who can be mechanically brainwashed in the way that popular (and responsibility-shirking) metaphor implies.

Speculation will run rampant, of course. My favorite, from colleague Jesse Walker, guesses that she might have been pregnant prior to her disappearance (about five months after Emmanuel first entered the Smart household). Elizabeth's sister's apparent confusion between a gun and a knife raises some interesting questions as well, though it might well be a perfectly innocent mistake.

Until some very enterprising reporter is able to get Elizabeth to talk at length, we'll never know. I suspect that won't happen at the very least until she's reached the age of majority and is no longer living with the parents whom she apparently found it rather easy to stay away from and deny three times and more. Even then, self-exculpatory stories or after-the-fact rationalizations are probably the best we'll get. People are speculating that Emmanuel must have threatened her family, but I've seen no reliable reports that credit Elizabeth with saying this herself (yet).

But the press and public ought not to be so quick to embrace the painfully loose concept of "brainwashing" or "mind control" as an explanation. These are the most colorful weapons in the arsenal of those who try desperately to deny the reality of human choice when that choice goes in directions they don't approve of or refuse to understand. Human beings are, of course, subject to influence, threat, and duress. But at any moment they are choosing what to do. Smart may have made decisions under duress, and decisions that she now regrets. But the very speed with which she apparently happily readjusted to her harp-playing Mormon life with her family seems to put the lie to the claim that she had gone through any process like the traditional pop notion of brainwashing. Whatever her reasons, the decisions were hers—not the mechanical result of a brain that has been washed or controlled.