Nov 10, 2014

North State Voices: Brainwashing, dictators, cults ... and other spooky things

Rachael Newkirk
North State Voices
October 22, 2014

Fear and October are old friends, but zombies and witches never kept me awake.

Once when I was 7 years old I received money for a lost tooth. An attached note explained that the tooth fairy was indisposed, and thus she asked the trolls under my bed to collect the tooth on her behalf. The note gave me pause, but only a little.

What frightened me as a child was falling victim to groupthink. The fear of being the only one left after everyone else had been brainwashed was the basis for my wakeful anxiety and for my nightmares.

The adults I knew were well read and politically active. Being raised in Bay Area in the 1970s put me in a political place, during a political time. I grew up terrified of Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Franco, Ceausescu, Pinochet, Mao — the power and indifference in the faces of these men rattled me. I shuddered at the thought of living under their rule.

A neighbor's family visited from Czechoslovakia in 1976. The pains they took to visit were discussed. They had a son my age. When he went home I viewed him as someone whose commuted death sentence was reinstated.

I imagined a cramped and colorless life where happiness arouses suspicion and your mother will turn you in for extra petrol coupons. Not being able to travel, read and speak freely — these things seemed even to my childhood self to comprise a wretched existence. But the worst part would be having to pretend you liked it, even in private with family and friends.

And Patty Hearst didn't help.

My mother worked just blocks from where she was taken. My father told me we weren't rich enough for me to be kidnapped, and this provided mixed feelings of comfort until Patty reappeared, apparently the victim of brainwashing. In photos she went from being sweet, to being the woman in the ugly jacket with the big gun such radical change had to be the result of mind control.

But the political isms (fascism, communism, totalitarianism, extremism) were only half my problem. There were also their kissing cousins, religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, to worry about.

My parents shared a wariness of organized religion. This, coupled with the fact I often walked home across the Berkeley campus, meant my exposure to the idea of dogmatic thought led me to believe it was as bad, if not worse, than non-religious based political repression.

There was an exception; the Hari Krishna never spooked me. I thought of them like town mascots. They represented home in a harmless and friendly sort of way. Like someone dressed up in a bear suit, only it was dirty feet and tambourines.

The Moonies were a different story. Unlike the Hari Krishna, the Moonies looked normal on the outside, but once you got them going it was clear something was terribly wrong. Talking to them was like experimenting with cigarettes in junior high, sort of dangerous but also boring after you let it sink in.

Then there were the lesser known, harder-to-detect cults.

My mother's best friend had a cousin who'd joined a cult. She and family members hastily flew off once the cousin had been captured by a deprogrammer. They took turns talking to the cousin, trying to bring her around. It didn't work. The cousin went back to the cult.

And Jim Jones didn't help. You won't catch me making a joke about "drinking the Kool-Aid." Most of those victims were from Oakland, my occasional hometown, and some were kids.

I feared cults and political oppression like I feared the plant pods from the "Body Snatchers" movie. Originally anti-communism propaganda, I was 10 when the remake came out. It was filmed in San Francisco and I saw a scene being shot when I visited my mom's office to kill time. But the familiar setting only exacerbated my condition. It would be like if you had a fear of sharks and they filmed part of "Jaws" in your bathtub. My mother probably shouldn't have taken me to see it. Afterward we had to walk around while I tried not to hyperventilate.

Even though I am middle aged and know things aren't as black and white, each October I keep a weather eye out. The Halloween stores never sell portraits of Mao, and there's no card table with pamphlets about Reverend Moon. Maybe there should be.

Rachael Newkirk is a Chico resident and columnist for North State Voices. The panel of four rotating guest columnists appears each Thursday.