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Can a Psychotherapist Brainwash a Client?

Over the years a number of my clients have expressed the fear that I (or any psychotherapist) might take control of their mind and lead them to a place they never intended to go. That is, they were afraid of being brainwashed.

The word “brainwash” was originally coined by the Chinese. After confining those who did not think right into prison, they would xǐ năo, which translates as “wash brain.” Throughout history various totalitarian governments used methods such as, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, harassment, intimidation, verbal repetition and peer pressure to induce people to accept their way of thinking. The dictionary defines brainwashing as: a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas; or, persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship.

Since the term was invented, brainwashing has been applied to religions, cults, political movements and sometimes even to advertising (including public service announcements) that attempt to manipulate people and change their way of thinking. More recently the word has been used to warn about a certain pitfall of therapy, suggesting that sometimes psychotherapists, wittingly or unwittingly, brainwash their clients.

Beth Rutherford is a case in point. In the fall of 1992, Rutherford, 19, was having trouble sleeping due to work stress. Her father, a church pastor, suggested she see the church counselor. One day, after four months of intermittent therapy, she brought in a dream in which she and her friends were being raped in the presence of her father. According to Rutherford, her counselor, Donna Strand, told her the dream was an indication of childhood sexual abuse. They then did 65 more therapy sessions during which Strand used hypnosis and taught Rutherford how to do autohypnosis.

By the time these session were over, Rutherford believed she had uncovered memories of her father sexually abusing her from ages 7 to 14: of him raping her with a hot curling iron; tying her to a bed and penetrating her with various objects while her mother watched; performing a coat-hanger abortion on her after she became pregnant.

A year or two later Strand reported the alleged sexual abuse to the General Council of the Assemblies of God, and Tom Rutherford was defrocked. He lost his job and reputation and many of his friends before the news finally came out that he had had a vasectomy when Beth was four years old, and that Beth, upon being given a gynecological exam, was still a virgin. Rutherford then sued the counselor and the Church for malpractice to the tune of $10 million, and the case was settled for $1 million, according to a report in the November 16, 1996 Southeast Missourian.

Early in his career Sigmund Freud used hypnosis. He stopped using it because he found that hypnosis did not really help clients remember their childhood better, as was assumed. Instead, he discovered that under the influence of suggestion, many women who were diagnosed as hysterics (today it is called histrionic personality disorder) came up with memories that they thought he would want to hear, often memories of sexual abuse. Initially he believed their memories and formulated a theory that hysteria was caused by childhood incest. However, upon realizing that many of these memories were the result of hypnotic suggestion, he revised his theory.

There is no doubt that some psychotherapists have agendas or axes to grind and those attitudes may influence how they do therapy. Therapists may have been sexually abused as children and if they haven’t worked through and resoled the feelings connected with the sexual abuse, they might be on a mission to sniff out sexual abuse in the histories of their clients. Pastoral counselors may have religious agendas. Other therapists may have political agendas. And of course, they may have biases of which they are unconscious and which therefore may cause them to lead susceptible clients in a certain direction. This is why psychotherapeutic training is so important.

On the other hand, therapists are sometimes accused by clients of what amounts to brainwashing, when they actually did nothing of the kind. Clients sometimes get in touch with anger towards a parent or both parents, and then have a guilt reaction with regard to talking about them. “I don’t want to blame my parents,” they exclaim. This is a common occurrence with which most psychotherapists are familiar.

The job of psychotherapy is a very complex job. You are dealing with intense emotions that, like a hurricane, can get projected, displaced or spin out of control. In the case of Donna Strand, she was wrong to suggest that Rutherford’s dream about her father watching as she and her friends were raped was an indication of childhood sexual abuse. There are many other possibilities. For example, Rutherford may have had an unresolved Oedipus complex toward her father. A therapist should always be quite cautious about coming to quick conclusions.

I have had a number of cases in which young women were angry at their fathers but not exactly sure why. Sometimes a girl at the oedipal age of three or four makes innocent childhood advances toward her father (expressing, say, the wish to run off with him, which is normal for girls that age). If the father is a devout Christian, he may become defensive and sternly reject such overtures. He may make her feel evil for having such a thought. She will be enraged by this accusation, but will repress it, because her father is a good man who she shouldn’t hate.

Later on, to defend against his momentary sexual feelings for his daughter, which is normal for a father to have when his daughter starts developing sexually, he condemns or mocks her sexuality. This rekindles her earlier rage. If I suggested to such a young woman that her father may have molested her, she might gladly grab on to that idea in order have something tangible to justify her anger, which has its underpinning in a very early time and a subtle memory she has repressed.

Therapists can and do sometimes brainwash clients. This is something that should absolutely be condemned. As one of the first physicians said, “First, do no harm.”

At the same time, clients can and do sometimes accuse therapists of thinking, saying and doing things they did not do. When this happens, and it happens frequently, the trained psychotherapist shouldn’t become defensive, but rather should have an honest and open discussion with the client in order to ascertain if, in fact, the therapist did do what he or she was accused of, and if not, how the client came to that conclusion and what it is saying about his or her process.

It’s by untangling such knots that psychotherapy crouches onward.



Can a Psychotherapist Brainwash a Client?

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2014). Can a Psychotherapist Brainwash a Client?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Oct 2014
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