Religious Tolerance logo

The case of Elizabeth Smart:
Was she "brainwashed?"

horizontal rule

Sponsored link.

horizontal rule

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, belief in the reality of brainwashing by religious cults was gradually diminishing. Academic researchers in the field determined that belief in brainwashing had no grounding in reality. Then, the recovery of Elizabeth Smart, a kidnap victim, returned the topic to front-page headlines.

Elizabeth Smart, 14, of Salt Lake City, UT, was kidnapped in 2002-JUN-5, allegedly by "Emmanuel" (Brian David Mitchell) and his wife Wanda Barzee. Elizabeth is a member of a Mormon family affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mitchell is an ex-communicated Mormon. He considers himself the prophet of God, and is the founder of his own fundamentalist Mormon splinter group which consisted only of himself and Barzee. He allegedly believes that he received a revelations from God instructing him to take seven more wives. Like many other Mormon break-away sects, his "group" advocates a return to the original teachings of founder Joseph Smith; they consider the practice of polygyny to be of prime importance in this life and the next.

Smart was rescued on 2003-MAR-12. Mitchell and Barzee were charged on 2003-MAR-18 with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary. They also received charges of aggravated burglary and attempted aggravated kidnapping for allegedly attempting to kidnap Smart's cousin in 2002-JUL. As of 2004-JUN, The judge has declared Barzee incompetent to stand trial. Mitchell's trial is proceeding. 5

horizontal rule

Beliefs of representatives from the anti-cult movement:

Anti-cult leaders, such as Rick Ross and Steven Hassan, subsequently appeared on media talk shows. They claimed that Elizabeth's case is similar to that of Patty Hearst who they believe involuntarily converted to the beliefs of the Symbionese Liberation Front (SLA) during brainwashing. They drew parallels to what they assert are techniques commonly used by religious cults to involuntarily convert their recruits. They see victims of such brainwashing as having lost their personal autonomy and free will. They are reduced to almost a zombie-like state. Elizabeth Smart's father agrees with this assessment. 1

Paul Martin, is a mental-health counselor and a founder of the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center, near Athens CT. He said: "For every Elizabeth Smart out there, I can tell you there are probably 100,000 a year that don't go reported. There are 100,000 teen-agers that join groups like that, maybe not as bizarre but equally destructive....These are serial killers of the soul. It's a national tragedy.''

Rick Ross is founder of the Ross Institute, which specializes in reporting on mind control and cult activity. He commented: "All a cult requires is a leader and at least one follower...Based on his 27-page manifesto and his behavior, it's clear that Brian Mitchell saw himself as a leader and was attempting to gather a cult following....He was largely a failure. He had only one dedicated follower (Barzee). I think it could be said he simply did not have the charisma and skill to do either.'' Whoever held Smart has an instinct for mind control, Ross said: "He understood the importance of isolation. He controlled her within a kind of bubble, like a world within a world. ...Basically, he totally monopolized Elizabeth's conversation, her interaction with others, cutting her off from her family, friends, community and church. ...We don't admit how we rely on others for what's going on in our lives.'' 2

In support of their brainwashing theory, investigators found that, while under the control of Mitchell and Barzee, Elizabeth Smart walked around freely close to her neighborhood without trying to regain her freedom. When she was rescued, she denied her identity. When she finally admitted who she was, here only concern was for the welfare of her captors. 4

horizontal rule

Sponsored link:

horizontal rule

Beliefs of academic researchers:

The brainwashing theory was found to be a propaganda device created by the CIA to explain conversions of a small percentage of American POWs during the Korean War. Twenty-year-long studies of brainwashing conducted by the CIA and U.S. Defense Department starting in the early 1950s were complete failures. After studying the coercive treatment of American prisoners of war by the Communist Chinese and North Korean armies, researchers found that the 11 American POWs out of a population of 3,000 who converted to Communism and a larger number who made anti-American statements were influenced by programs involving fear, force, torture, and duress, rather than brainwashing. 

One researcher, Professor James T. Richardson of the University of Nevada, claims that both Elizabeth Smart and Patty Hearst were subjected to physical coercion and control by their kidnappers. Their experiences were unrelated to those of recent willing converts to NRMs.

According to Dick Anthony, a research and forensic psychologist specializing in NRMs, "the brainwashing thesis is all smoke and mirrors, i.e. it is not based upon methodologically sound research and it does not even in principle provide or constitute a well-formed theory that could in the future be scientifically evaluated by methodologically sound research. Incidents such as the Elizabeth Smart event and the earlier Patricia Hearst events do nothing to change that situation one way or the other....On the other hand, Smart was only 14 years old when she was kidnapped and she apparently had had a strict Mormon upbringing. She may actually have been predisposed to accepting the stern religious authority of the self-appointed prophet Brian David Mitchell. Mitchell’s messianic creed is somewhat akin to those of various fundamentalist sects that have split off from the mainstream Mormon church, and which the mainstream Mormon church regards as beyond the pale of legitimate Mormon theology and conduct." 1

Richard Hecht, an expert on religion and psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said: "I think to call it all brainwashing is far too simplistic. There are powerful motives for what appears to be very passive behavior, and they have to do with survival and the loss of any context and connection with the outside world." 4

Noting that she was kidnapped at knife-point during the middle of the night, Douglas Goldsmith, a child psychologist at the Children's Center in a Salt Lake City, UT commented that: "She must have been simply terrified throughout the ordeal, living in constant fear that he could hurt her, and the best way to survive was simply not to act out... 4

Cynthia Berg, a developmental psychologist at the University of Utah, said: "Here she was camping out, in very different surroundings than she had known, living among the homeless, in caves, and clearly this is going to affect how you view yourself." 4

According to reporter Benedict Carey, "Raised in a tradition with strong emphasis on respect for elders and authority figures, Smart may have had some predisposition to respect religious authority, however bizarre and intimidating Mitchell may have been, experts say." 4

Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University at San Bernardino said that people who spend long stretches of time with their captors often begin identifying with them. This is called the Stockholm Syndrome. She said: "If they are held for a length of time, they begin to have distortion in their thinking, to take the side of the hostage-taker and see police as a threat...When someone has the ability to make life or death decisions about you it's powerful...When they show you any kindness, brainwashing is possible." 3

According to Linda Bortell, a child psychologist in South Pasadena, CA, adolescents attempting to return to their normal life after an abduction are often mistrustful of adults and angry at people they thought should have protected them. She said: "These issues are going to persist, whether the kidnapping lasted nine days, or nine months....The question is how the family deals with them, and how resilient the child is." 4

horizontal rule


  1. Dick Anthony, "Brainwashing allegations and the Elizabeth Smart abduction,"
  2. Mark Ellis, "Kidnapped Teen-ager Smart Possibly Held by Mind Control," The Columbus Dispatch, 2003-MAR-23, at:
  3. Vincent J. Schodolski and V. Dion Haynes, "Captive girl's actions hint at brainwashing,"
    Chicago Tribune, 2003-MAR-15.
  4. Benedict Carey, "The Controversy on Elizabeth Smart: Experts Say Teen's Compliance Was Not Brainwashing," Los Angeles Times, 2003-MAR-15. Online at:
  5. "Trials in the News,", 2004-JUN-14, at:

horizontal rule

Site navigation: Home page > Cults > here

horizontal rule

Copyright 1997, 2000, and 2002 to 2004 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest updated: 2004-JUL-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

line.gif (538 bytes)

horizontal rule

Go to the previous page, or return to the "cult" menu, or choose:

Custom Search

Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Twitter link

Facebook icon

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.