5 Works of Nonfiction That May Be [at least in part] Fiction

NOTE: There are many famous examples of books presented as nonfiction that turned out to be partially or completely fabricated (e.g. Go Ask Alice, A Million Little Pieces, Three Cups of Tea, The Teachings of Don Juan, and Papillon are examples that spring to mind.) That’s not what I was going for when I started this list. Instead, I was thinking of examples of books that may well be true to the best of the author’s knowledge, but which may also be examples of false memory syndrome. I became interested in this while reading Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion, which discusses how faulty memory can be — to the point that people can be led into false memories of something as traumatic as committing crimes that never occurred. Meredith Maran wrote a book entitled My Lie: A True Story of False Memory about what she discovered were false memories of childhood sexual abuse. So, I’m not saying these books are fabrications, and — for all I know — some may be completely true. After all, some of the featured individuals think they were exploited by the MK Ultra mind-control shenanigans, and some of them may have been, but it’s also possible some weren’t.

5.) Secret Weapons by Cheryl and Lynn Hersha: The Hersha sisters say they were in a program that turned them into femme fatales.

4.) Psychic Warrior by David Morehouse: I read about Morehouse in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. Sadly, it’s not in question that the military maintained a program of psychics, nor that Morehouse was involved in said program. What is in question is the degree to which the program had successes.

3.) Communion by Whitley Strieber: This is the most famous alien abduction story. I don’t know what really happened, but I seriously doubt it’s what the author proposed.

2.) The Control of Candy Jones by Donald Bain: This is a more well-known case similar to that of the Hersha sisters in which a woman was said to be reprogrammed by a nefarious psychiatrist in a mind control program. Candy Jones was famous as a pin up girl. After she got married, her behavior changed radically, and her husband asked her to participate in sessions of hypnosis which are said to have turned up a buried second personality.

1.) A Terrible Mistake by H.P. Albarelli Jr: This is another example of a case in which there are certain remarkable facts that aren’t in dispute, but the degree to which the fine details are accurate is hard to judge. The fact is that Frank Olson was a biologist in the employ of the government, he was dosed with hallucinogenic substances, and thereafter he took a fatal plunge out of a hotel window. Whether he was murdered as a cover up or just had a bad trip has always been an open question.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rape of the Mind by Joost A. M. Meerloo

The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and BrainwashingThe Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing by Joost A.M. Meerloo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This book, first published in 1956, describes the various tactics used by Totalitarian states, and explores why some people stand up to them better than others. It discusses brainwashing, menticide (a term coined by the author), attaining false confessions, and the gamut of tactics of mental submission — be they active or passive in nature and whether they target individuals or the whole of society. The author, Joost Meerloo, was a Dutch psychiatrist who fled the Nazis, served as a Colonel and psychiatric expert in the Dutch military-in-exile during the Second World War, and then immigrated to the United States where he taught at Columbia University and continued his research on this subject.

The first question a reader might have is whether the book is worth reading, given that it was written so long ago and so many books have come since. In other words, does it hold up? It’s true that it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, there’s occasional referencing of psychoanalytic notions that have fallen out of favor (e.g. Freudian ideas.) On the other hand, I found the section on technology as a means of indoctrination and mass manipulation to be even truer now than it was at the time. Meerloo was only thinking about radio and television, and couldn’t have imagined how technologies are being infused with lessons from neuroscience to make them, quite literally, addictive — or how even mass media is being tailored to appeal to various groups (granted this seems to be more demand driven, but its nefarious potential is apparent.)

I believe this book is a worthwhile read even more than sixty years later. The author had a lot of personal interaction with individuals affected by these tactics, and there is a great deal of insight. The value of the personal insight far outweighs the influence of any outmoded thinking. Further, I would say that the book is an interesting and informative read even if one isn’t interested in North Korea or any of the few other blatantly authoritarian nations still around today. If one is interested in questions such as why so many people can believe incorrect notions in the face of overwhelming evidence, this book provides food-for-thought on the topic. Even if one’s government is not authoritarian, in-groups may use some of these same tactics to influence members’s thinking.

While the book is famous for discussing the cases of the American soldiers brainwashed during the Korean War (i.e. the basis of the “Manchurian Candidate” novel and original movie [1962,]) Joost uses many examples from the Nazis — including a little of his personal experience — as well as Cold War stories (generally focusing on the Soviets, but touching upon the Totalitarian-style tactics of McCarthyism.) There are famous cases like Cardinal Mindszenty, but many lesser known cases with which the reader is unlikely to be familiar.

The book’s eighteen chapters are divided into four parts. Part I (chapters 1 through 4) expounds upon the tactics used to cause individuals to submit. Meerloo discusses how false confessions are elicited using techniques from Pavlov’s classical conditioning to drugs to manipulation by doctors to playing on the subject’s guilt. It should be pointed out that a central idea in this book is that it’s just a matter of time. It’s an idea that’s revisited later in the book when considering the ethics of sentencing for treason and when evaluating how to best train soldiers to hold out as prisoners of war. It’s true that some individuals are much more resistant to these techniques but no one holds out forever. One can become more robust to interrogation, but the idea is to do so in the hope that one can outlast the enemy.

Part II (ch. 5 to 9) discusses techniques for mass submission. This dives into how totalitarian leaders affect thinking by controlling semantics, the information available to the public, and by using fear through various methods including the surveillance state and show trials. One key concept is how having spies everywhere isn’t necessarily about gaining information so much as keeping the populace in fear so as to influence their behavior. It creates a steady state prisoner’s dilemma in which one never knows whether someone is going to roll over on one for his or her own benefit.

Part III (ch. 10 to 14) continues on the theme of mass compliance but with a focus on “unobtrusive coercion.” Running a totalitarian state isn’t all about torture, truth serum, and having spies everywhere. There is a soft power component to totalitarianism. This section explores this side of the coin with special attention to the roles of technology and bureaucracy. These chapters also consider how education and child development can be a tool of the dictator or authoritarian regime, and how indoctrination about concepts of treason and loyalty can be exploited by totalitarian governments.

Part IV (ch. 15 through 18) considers how individuals and societies can make themselves more robust against authoritarian tactics. This section delves into how members of democratic societies might best think about concepts of loyalty and treason in light of the fact that even the most stoic soldiers and spies can be weakened given enough time. There is one chapter that mirrors material in part III, except that instead of discussing how totalitarian systems use education to weaken and manipulate, this one suggests how education might be used to make a society of individuals less vulnerable to authoritarian arguments and tactics. This is also where Meerloo offers analysis of what traits tend to make one more robust to brainwashing and other totalitarian tactics and why.

There is no ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, notes, or bibliography) in the edition that I read. However, I can’t say that it was missed. The author uses many cases and anecdotes to make the book interesting to read, and much of it comes from the author’s personal knowledge.

I found this book intriguing, and would recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, one needn’t be exclusively interested in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Union, or countries like the DPRK (N. Korea) to find this book interesting. Sadly, the book has a lot to say of relevance to individuals in modern-day democracies.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Brainwashing by Kathleen Taylor

Brainwashing: The Science of Thought ControlBrainwashing: The Science of Thought Control by Kathleen Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There are few terms more loaded with myth and misunderstanding than “brainwashing.” For many it conjures up images from “The Manchurian Candidate.” [For those who’ve never seen either of the two movies of this name (1962 and 2004, starring Frank Sinatra and Denzel Washington, respectively) or read the Richard Condon novel on which they were based, they involve American POW’s who return home brainwashed—one to commit a political assassination and the others to talk the assassin up so that he’ll be able to gain a position to conduct the murder.] Some think brainwashing is complete bunk and others assume it’s reality just like in the movies. Few know the nuanced truth that’s somewhere in between—brainwashing is real but much less reliable than the movies depict. (Projects like America’s MKUltra proved unsuccessful at producing reliable mind control results.)

Taylor’s book is like a number of others that try to get to the truth about brainwashing. Where her book is unique is in its focus on neuroscience rather than psychology. That fact may make it worth reading even if you’ve read other scholarly works on the subject. The middle section does get technical as it attempts to bring a general readership up to speed on topics like neurotransmitters and neurons.

While one might expect a book on this topic to deal overwhelmingly with entities like the CIA and KGB, readers may be surprised to see how much the book focuses on advertising agencies, religions, and the educational system. While the term “brainwashing” has many nefarious connotations, it’s not unrelated to terms like persuasion and indoctrination. The book does provide many less blasé cases–and even discusses the fact in fictitious works like Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

The 15 chapters of the book are organized into three parts. The first part lays the groundwork for understanding what the author does—and doesn’t—mean by brainwashing. This section covers many of the same topics as one would expect from a psychologist writing on brainwashing. The middle part of the book (chapters 7 through 11) delves into neuroscience and how it applies to brainwashing. (The book assumes no particular knowledge of brain science, and so this section begins with a crash course on your brain.) The final part explores some of the ramifications of brainwashing as well as asking the question of the degree to which brainwashing can be resisted (and by whom.)

I found this book interesting on many levels. Even if you’re not so interested in the intricacies of the science of the mind, you may learn something about how susceptible you would be to brainwashing (if you can be sufficiently honest with yourself) and how you might become less susceptible (if that’s your goal.)

I’d recommend this book for readers interested in not only brainwashing, but related topics such as free will, persuasion, and emotion.

View all my reviews

READING REVIEW: April 24, 2015

I completed three books this week. The first was Richard Wiseman’s Night School. I wrote a lot about this book in my last Reading Report. Night School examines what happens when we sleep, what happens when we don’t, and a host of events that happen in and around our sleeping life (i.e. nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, etc.)  The notion that dreams and nightmares are our subconscious working out waking life problems is well established, but there was some interesting discussion of how to change one’s dreamscape (i.e. lucid dreaming) that was fascinating.




The second book I finished was Sam Harris’s Free Will. I had high hopes for this book, but they didn’t pan out.   It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. There’s a well-established scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion. This conclusion was reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of rotating letters / numbers. Some subjects became convinced that the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.)  What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when they became aware of their decision.

While I’m normally a big fan of brevity, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. First, he barely mentions a couple of the neuroscience experiments, and expects that the reader will treat this all as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Harris also scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps the conscious can overrule the subconscious. He seems to deem this as not worthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision. So we learn about a couple of studies in which a.) the decision-maker has no stake in the decision (is it possible the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number in which there is no more costly outcome?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.) Maybe all of this has been studied (e.g. high stakes cases and cases with monks and meditators), and we can safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris didn’t make this point. He concludes we will take it as a given just as he has. (Much like he suggests that anyone who truly studied their mind would understand this point already. Would it surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who have spent far longer alone with their minds than he, who have concluded quite the opposite?)

Second, if the conscious mind is just a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-style) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives (what happened to evolution not over-engineering?), what guides all of these “decisions?” Given that they produce, I might point out, a fairly orderly world. Harris doesn’t answer this. One might guess that he would point to Dawkinesque suggestion that it’s all about genes advancing their own agenda. (A proposition that seems to me has trouble explaining a corporeal who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades.) I shouldn’t put words in the author’s mouth. Quite frankly, I have no idea whether he believes there are rules or some guide to these subconscious decisions, because he doesn’t tell us. (Maybe he thinks they are random neuronal firings, but I doubt it.) From what I’ve heard of his other books, he doesn’t think it’s a god making these decisions–a sentiment I share. However, there must be something underlying these decisions, and an author writing about this topic should at least make some effort to address it. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.



The final book I finished this week is entitled The Sensual Body. This is a book that discusses a number of systems of movement and bodily activity as means to increase bodily awareness. Among the systems included are Tai chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, running, Aikido, and massage. It’s an interesting overview, but without sufficient detail of anything in particular to be of practical value. It’s the kind of book one might read to see what kind of classes one should take or what more focused books would be of benefit.


Besides the aforementioned books, I spent most of my reading time on two books that look at two very different subjects from the viewpoint of neuroscience. The first is Wired for Story, and it’s a how-to book for writers that sets itself apart by explaining how humans are hardwired by evolution to love stories. Just as a few notes produce an infinite variety of music. There is an inherent limiting / shaping structure to stories that is ignored at the writer’s peril. Much of the advice offered isn’t that different from other books on writing or storytelling, but one gets insight into which advice one should really treat as inviolable because it touches upon something fundamental to our human nature.



Wired for Story


The other book is the only book I purchased this week. It’s entitled Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control and is by Kathleen Taylor. So far the book is intriguing. The chapters I’ve read so far provide an overview of brainwashing and cults. The middle section of the book delves into the neuroscience behind brainwashing, and the final section gets into practical matters such as how one can make oneself resistant to thought control techniques.