Review of Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control

Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control by Dominic Streatfeild, Hodder & Stroughton, 402 pp, notes and index, £20.00 hardback, ISBN 0-340-92103

Reviewed by Susan Blackmore for Focus June 2006

If you’re seriously squeamish about torture then don’t open this gripping book. Describing methods used from the inquisition, to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Streatfeild concludes that the same techniques underlie them all. Sleep deprivation, sensory overload, solitary confinement and disorientation amount to an ‘assault on the personality’.

The term “brainwashing” was coined in the 1940s when the Americans suspected the Soviets of using powerful new drugs or hypnosis. In fact drugs were sometimes used, and Streatfeild tells the depressing story of the CIA’s testing of major hallucinogens on unwitting soldiers, but in fact the Soviets were using the age-old techniques. One horror was the ‘magic room’ where nothing was straight, the bed sloped, moving images adorned the walls and anything from music to the screams of tortured women played day and night.

Brainwash ends with a fictional scene in which you, the reader, are asked to imagine you are an MI5 officer who has to get captured terrorists to tell you where they’ve planted a bomb – before it goes off. How far would you be willing to go?