All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1962

Do It Yourself Brainwashing


Mrs. Westerholm is a Registered Nurse, house­wife, and student of liberty of Inglewood, California.

The little sounds a bit shocking. But the situation which inspired it was shocking, too. No political rally, no public demonstration, no wild oration was the cause. It was only a group of small boys play­ing “cowboys” in the back yard—playing with all the shrieks and shouts and swaggers so tradi­tional to the game. When all the shooting was over and the gun smoke cleared, the “good guys” had won—also traditional. So, what’s shocking? Simply this: William “Billy the Kid” Bonnie, Jesse James, and Patrick Garrett constituted the entire cadre of “good guys.” These were the illus­trious gentlemen almost deified by ten impressionable and passionate young men of eight sum­mers average age, an age most notably prone to physical action, personal identification, and black and-white interpretation of sup­posed fact—capable of compre­hending the difference between fact and fiction, but only in a broad general sense. They ask if this person really lived, and in this place; and if these answers are affirmative, they then accept all of the legend as presented.

(It had not been presented to them that one of their heroes was a psychopathic murderer, one a thief and killer, and the third a man who trod both sides of the line, using the law to suit his own personal interests and benefits.)

This problem was not as small as one might suppose on first glance. Here were children who were forging ideas and ideals on which they would build eventual mature philosophies and conse­quent behavior patterns. These were boys and girls who would one day have the task of perpetu­ating our various freedoms, and in many instances the far harder task of regaining lost freedom. Would they be apt to actively de­fend heritages of which they had no real understanding or convic­tion, and thus no real respect? We doubted it seriously.

As I handed out cookies and lemonade, I studied their eager restless faces and listened—really listened—to the words. For a brief moment I had the impres­sion that I was listening to strangers. These were not the same children who came running with their skinned knees, their empty stomachs, their fabulous new ideas, and their endless ques­tions of “Why?” They were the same, of course; it was only the listener who was different. This time there were purpose and at­tention to the listening.

The Essence of the Heroic

That evening we guided the after-dinner chatter to the sub­ject of playtime heroes and why they were considered heroic. The answers solidified my sense of shock, and shame, too. The “heroic” figures were almost all gunfighters, with a few wartime Aces and a couple of contem­porary “name singers” thrown in for leavening. Television was the primary authority quoted, and to a lesser extent motion pictures and comic books. So much for the history lessons at school and the books and stories read aloud at home. These apparently had not been enough, or strong enough, to fill the appetite for identification. We pursued it further and dis­covered that out of some twenty truly great and dramatic histori­cal names, only four were clearly recognized—and three of these were due solely to the efforts of Mr. Walt Disney and his enlight­ened and refreshing entertain­ment! Hardly an inspiring score. We were not proud of ourselves as parents that evening.

There were no established “study groups” for this age level to which we could turn for help or advice. The local elementary teachers were sympathetic and helpful in suggesting research ma­terials we might find useful, but they pointed out that there was only so much of the school day which could be devoted to history without slighting some other sub­ject.

We decided to deal with this just as we had other subjects such as nature study, chemistry, ele­mentary physics: we would start at home. If our youngsters could learn at home about atomic struc­ture, and the Dalton brothers, why not real heroes? Why wait until the children were old enough to join young adult study groups, for then they would have so much to unlearn?

We had always spoken matter-of-factly in our home about de­mocracy, free enterprise, responsi­bility to self and nation, equality and initiative—but we had neg­lected to give these concepts per­sonifications with which the chil­dren could identify. They had thus sought and found their own heroes. We knew we dared not perpetrate any abrupt attack on their beloved men of brawn. Chil­dren are fiercely loyal to their chosen idols, be they contempo­rary, factual, or legendary. All we could do was to present to them what we believed were even more attractive substitutes, and let them choose which they would ac­cept.

Some people have tried to tell us that we should simply demand that they accept what we offered—”After all, they’re only children, they should obey you.” Nonsense! First of all, you cannot demand belief; it just won’t work. To be­lieve is to accept with your mind. You can command bodies to obey. You cannot command a mind to accept. And, really now, how can you expect to teach anyone to re­spect and admire the basic prin­ciples of freedom if you deny one of the fundamentals of freedom to the one you are teaching?

Of course, teaching the quite young child is different from teaching older students. Obvi­ously, to give him a totally free choice of acceptance at this age might well result in his learning the hard way why you do not run in front of a truck, or set fire to the house, or jump off the roof! You have to use good plain com­mon sense. Also, one must natu­rally assume the responsibility of selecting material for presenta­tion, since Junior is not yet old enough to take on his own re­search activities, or to evaluate the degree of truth presented. In­deed, this is one of the most seri­ous responsibilities of parenthood.

Changing Their Ideas

What we decided on was really a quite deliberate course of “brainwashing.” Stop and think for a moment of the actual mean­ing of this hated and feared term—a washing, a cleansing; not a removal or exchange of the ob­ject “washed.” Furthermore, this cleansing is accomplished only with the consent of the subject—a gradual cleansing away of false values and interpretations by the regular use of the soap of truth, and truth alone. We would give the Jesse Jameses a fair hearing, but no gilding of the legend; nor would we give our candidates more than a fair hearing. This was our brainwashing.

For us, fortunately, the medium was relatively simple. We had long had story times for the chil­dren, so our line of communica­tion was already established. All we had to do now was choose our story material deliberately and carefully, and be patient about re­sults. The latter was as difficult as it always is. But the former, the finding of the material, proved far more difficult than we had imagined. Our history is richly peopled with truly prodigious ex­amples of bravery and wisdom, both dramatic and appealing. The problem was to find books and stories which were factual and realistic, and still within the vo­cabulary and ideological limita­tions of young children. There were some, to be sure; but for the main part we found ourselves reading several histories and biographies of each person, then condensing the total into individ­ual vignettes. We also tried to hold as much general background information in reserve as possi­ble, to meet the simply amazing number of questions children fire at you.

Children are marvelously perceptive and often sharply analyti­cal. Where many adults tend to accept a side-point because the main body of the topic is “proved,” the child will jump glee­fully on the unsuspecting side-point; and you’re off on the track of Indian lore, gunsmithing, early agriculture, animal husbandry, or the gustatory attributes of squir­rel stew! If we didn’t have the an­swers (and blushingly often we didn’t), it was back to the books. And it was fun!

A Growing Study-Group

Gradually we found our story circle growing, as other young­sters in the neighborhood dropped in, stayed that day, and returned the next. One day a question was asked regarding “Billy the Kid,” I took a deep breath and quietly gave as brief and factual an ac­count of his life as I could. There were no yowls of protest—only a moment of digestive silence. The one vehement comment was, “Man! That guy on television sure oughta bone-up!” I felt like a gen­eral who has just won a decisive battle. The boys accepted the truth quite matter-of-factly, I believe, because they now had new and steadier heroes to turn to for iden­tification and consolation.

And so it goes. We think it is showing successful results. There are no scientific or really reliable methods to measure our progress, naturally. We have to judge by such things as the buffalo hide-hunter replacing the “sod-buster” as villain; and the number of bears shot in our back yard per week, as opposed to the number of six-gun duels; and the type of questions asked in the story circle. We did not attempt, nor expect, to achieve any radical changes by this small project. All we hoped to do was help these young eagles to become more aware of their na­tional heritage—to instill the re­spect and awareness of what has been accomplished by some of our forefathers—to be knowingly proud of their heritage. We be­lieve they are. We further hope that as they grow older they will carry on their own research and inquiry, as they realize how much the past has to teach the present.

The only materials you need are a good library, a little gift of gab, a love of the truth, and a large-sized cookie jar. Just a handful of children—but this handful will soon be adult citizens. They will one day be spreading their own re­spective ideas and actions throughout the nation as they take up their individual places and professions. What they do then is up to them. I rather think we shall be proud of every one of them.

More than once I have been asked if I think it is really wise or worth-while to spend so much time on such a limited field when there is so much community work that needs doing. It is certainly true that there is much for all of us to do in many activity spheres; and I do not limit myself exclu­sively to the children. True, I shall probably never have enough time, or inclination, to be a “social suc­cess.” I also doubt that I shall ever write anything profound or nationally significant; nor be an active member of any importantly influential group or club. It does not even appear that I shall ever have enough time for as much serious libertarian study and re­search as I’d like. But, perhaps my children will. I honestly be­lieve that eventually this may prove more important to the na­tion, and more pleasing to God, than any other personally tempt­ing endeavor might be. At least it seems so for me. I am grateful for the opportunity.


  • Mrs. Westerholm is a Registered Nurse, housewife, and student of liberty of Gardena, California.