What Do Domestic Abusers and Chinese Communists Have in Common?
You'll be surprised at the answer ...
The manipulative techniques of domestic abusers have been well documented not only by psychologists, advocates, and researchers, but by countless survivors. In articles, books, studies, videos and more, the same patterns keep popping up again and again in discussions about domestic violence. Isolation, threats, gaslighting, crazy-making, degrading remarks, and the occasional indulgences are all familiar tactics to keep a victim in a state of foggy, self-doubting, trauma-bonded confusion.
But what does this have to do with Chinese Communists?
Quite a lot, actually.
Albert D. Biderman was a veteran who, after the WWII ended, worked as a research social psychologist for the U. S. Air Force. He specialized in studying American POWs during the Korean War, and in 1956 he delivered a crucial document to the Air Research and Development Command at Maxwell AFB in Alabama.
In his article, “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War,” Biderman describes the tactics Chinese Communists used after the Korean War to coerce, confuse, and psychologically torture their America POWs.
As I was reading the article I felt a sudden, deep dread of understanding. The tactics the Chinese Communists developed are eerily similar to those of the domestic abuser. And the responses of the POWs mirror the responses of victims of intimate partner violence.
In other words, there’s a plan to all this coercion. There are defining techniques and universal attitudes regarding the best ways to manipulate others. This is true whether we’re talking about military tactics, cult indoctrination, totalitarian governments, or domestic abuse.
“The desire for total control over another person is the common denominator of all forms of tyranny ... The methods that enable one human being to enslave another are remarkably consistent. The accounts of hostages, political prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps from every corner of the globe have an uncanny sameness. Even in domestic situations, where the batterer is not part of any larger organization and has had no formal instruction in these techniques, he seems time and again to reinvent them” (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery).1
The Chinese Communists, like domestic abusers, discovered “that human behavior could be manipulated by controlled environments using methods of coercing behavior.”2 What’s also terrifying is that they used the covert tactic of brainwashing in order “to teach the prisoner how to comply.”3
That’s exactly what happens in abusive relationships—manipulative and coercive tactics of gaslighting, blaming, accusing, crazy-making and circular talk all converge to form a mishmosh of confusing and subtle techniques designed to brainwash the intimate victim into complying to their captor’s needs and demands.
And the victim most certainly feels like a prisoner, not a partner.
The most insidious aspect of abusive control is its subtleness, because establishing and maintaining control over another person requires the manipulator “to teach without making his lessons explicit” and “to undermine the resistance of the prisoner.”4
In his article, Biderman analyzes psychological torture only, purposely omitting physical torture. The psychological approach to gaining power and control over another has consistently been found to be far more effective, so much so that the Chinese Communists soon realized physical coercion wasn’t even necessary.
That’s scary, yet true.
The methods of psychological torture these manipulators found to be most effective in eliciting the desired compliance in their prisoners will sound excruciatingly familiar to victims of domestic violence. Biderman lists these techniques in detail in his “chart of coercion.” Here’s a brief summary:
Isolation “deprives victims of all social support; ability to resist weakens; makes victim dependent on interrogator.”
Monopolization of Perception (gaslighting) “fixes attention upon immediate predicament; fosters introspection; eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by captor.”
Induced debilitation; exhaustion “weakens mental and physical ability to resist; includes sleep deprivation; prolonged interrogation.”
Threats “cultivate anxiety and despair.”
Occasional indulgences “provide positive motivation for compliance; occasional favors; [confusing] fluctuations of interrogators’ attitudes; promises.”
Demonstrating “omnipotence” and “omniscience” “suggests futility or resistance.”
Degradation “makes cost of resistance appear more damaging to self-esteem than capitulation; insults and taunts; denial of privacy.”
Enforcing trivial demands “develops habit of compliance.”5
There you have it, folks. There’s no need to comment further with a list like that. So how do we get out of this prison and begin rebuilding our lives?
After much research, Biderman concludes that the most successful strategies in combating the manipulative techniques of coercive control is that of “complete resistance,” which he admits is an ideal that “did not occur” in the case of the prisoners of war held by the Chinese Communists.6 Complete resistance is equally as effective, and equally as difficult to maintain, in domestic situations. This is because by the time a woman realizes she’s being abused, she has already been love-bombed into submission and then shoved into the crazy and confusing world of gaslighting, abusive rages, belittling, and all the other characteristics inherent within domestically abusive situations. Because of her devotion to her captor and her desire to be understood and loved by him, defending herself against his attacks is a natural response.
“Complete resistance,” in military terms, consists in following the following techniques:
Refuses to cooperate in interrogation
Refuses to engage in any discussion with interrogator
Refuses accusations; refuses to discuss them seriously
The “Gray Rock” technique = Don’t respond. When you have to engage with your abuser, make your responses as short, uninteresting, and non-personal as possible. Be as dull and boring as a gray rock!
These military techniques easily correspond to domestically abusive relationships. If we refuse to engage with our aggressor, resisting our natural inclination to defend ourselves and instead opting for the “high road” of refusing to take his outrageous accusations, blaming, denials, and other manipulative behaviors seriously, we’ll be much better off. Engaging with our aggressor only satisfies him and makes him more aggressive. If we allow ourselves to get too upset, he’ll spew back at us, “See? You’re the abusive one!” or “You’re so defensive!” or “You’re confrontational / Always looking for a fight.”
There’s no true engagement with an abuser, there’s no way to get him to be empathetic toward your viewpoint, and you’ll never “win” a disagreement.
Because he truly believes he’s always right. You’re always wrong, even if it’s a matter of differing opinions. He has to prove his omniscience at all costs, no matter what.
The best response is no response. Yes, this is difficult, and it takes practice—a lot of it. Normal human interactions and conversations require give-and-take compromise, and when one person misinterprets what we say, we naturally want to clear things up. Thinking about our abuser as someone who’s more like a military interrogator than a loving spouse may help us remember to remain strong and to disengage.
The goal of remaining non-reactive is to take the “fun” out of abusing. Denying an abuser the pleasure of manipulation by emotionally and, if possible, physically disengaging, can at first seem impossible. It can feel draining and tiresome—but, for your own emotional sanity, it’s crucial. Much like developing a fitness routine, you’ll build up strength and stamina over time if you consciously maintain a healthy habit and persist at it.
If you’re no longer living with your abuser, refuse to answer any calls, texts, or social media instigations unless it’s absolutely necessary, such as with childcare issues. Keep those communications to a boring minimum, and end the conversation—with no follow-up—as soon as possible.
The same holds true for those who still live with their abuser. Even in these situations, maintaining limited contact and conversation will be a sanity saver. This has to be done at the discretion of each person, of course—we all know best how our abuser will react. However, doing everything we can to protect ourselves from further manipulation and coercive control is essential.
If you’d like more information on ways to thwart manipulators or are interested in an article devoted solely to “gray rock,” leave a comment below or send me a private email to let me know. I can accommodate! Or at least I can try …
Judith Herman, M.D., Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (NY: Basic Books, 2015), 76.
Albert D. Biderman, “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War,” 617.