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Bizarre Behavior & Culture-Bound Syndromes: Stockholm Syndrome

What draws a victim to a captor or an abuser, and why?

With the recent news of Jaycee Dugard’s abduction and 18 years of captivity, I thought I would write something on Stockholm Syndrome. This syndrome was coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot in relation to the robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973. During the robbery, bank employees were held hostage for six days and began to experience a number of positive emotions, including loyalty, empathy and love, toward the robbers, even defending their actions after they were freed.

Kevin Volkan
Kevin Volkan

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response by people (usually, but not always female) who have been abducted and held for some period of time. When the syndrome develops, hostages begin to have positive feelings toward their abductors, despite immediate danger, loss of freedom, sexual abuse and, in extreme cases, torture. Stockholm Syndrome has been seen in various degrees in many different types of hostage-taking situations, including bank robbery, rape, domestic violence and child abuse.

Over the years there have been a number of cases of abduction in which Stockholm Syndrome has been confirmed or suspected. The following cases are by no means an exhaustive list:

As recounted in I Know My First Name Is Steven, 7-year-old Steven Stayner was kidnapped in Merced by Kenneth Parnell in 1972. He was held captive for more than seven years, until early 1980. After Parnell abducted a 5-year-old boy, Stayner decided to escape to return the boy to his parents. While Parnell was at work, he left with the boy, eventually going to police. Parnell was arrested and sentenced to only seven years, and was paroled after five. In 2004, at age 72, Parnell asked his nurse to procure a boy for him. He was reported to police and returned to prison, where he died in 2008. Stayner was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1989.

One of the most famous cases involving Stockholm Syndrome is that of Patty Hearst. An heiress of the Hearst fortune, she was kidnapped on Feb. 4, 1974, by the radical left Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. After her abduction, Hearst was kept in a closet and systematically brainwashed, and physically as well as sexually abused, chiefly by SLA leader Donald DeFreeze and later by Willie Wolfe. Although it has been asserted that Hearst willingly had romantic relationships with SLA members, she has steadfastly maintained this was not true. After a failed attempt to ransom her (this involved the distribution of food to poor people, something those of us raised in the San Francisco Bay Area will never forget), Hearst soon issued a communique calling herself Tania and saying she was now part of the SLA. Shortly thereafter, she showed up on surveillance cameras during a bank robbery in San Francisco’s Sunset District, holding an M1 rifle. After the SLA ringleaders were killed in a shootout in Los Angeles, other SLA members robbed a bank in Carmichael, killing a customer. Hearst was supposedly in one of the getaway cars and she was arrested soon after. Famous (or infamous) attorney F. Lee Bailey was hired as her lawyer, but he did not make a great case for Hearst having been brainwashed or having suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. It didn’t help matters that Hearst refused to testify against SLA members. She was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She served almost two years of her sentence before it was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. After her release from prison, she married her former bodyguard and had two children. Hearst has had a minor but interesting career in the entertainment industry, appearing in films by John Waters as well as other movies and TV shows. She wrote an autobiography titled Patty Hearst: Her Story. In 1999, she pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

The story of Colleen Stan has been told in a number of places, including the excellent TruTV Web site as well as in the book, Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in a Box By the DA that Prosecuted her Captor, and more recently in her own words in Colleen Stan, The Simple Gifts of Life: Dubbed by the Media the Girl in the Box and the Sex Slave. I have summarized the complicated case here: Stan was hitchhiking in Northern California in May 1977 when a car pulled over and offered her a ride. In the car was Cameron Hooker; his wife, Janice; and their baby. To Stan, it seemed like a safe ride. Once in the car, however, Hooker turned off into a wilderness area, stopped the car, and at knife point fastened a specially made wooden box over her head. She was bound, gagged, stuffed into a sleeping bag, and kept out of sight for the drive to Hooker’s remote home. Once there, she was almost immediately tortured — hung by her arms and beaten. This aroused Hooker who called in his wife so they could have sex at Stan’s feet.

Stan was then locked in another box and the head box was placed over her again. She could barely breath, but when she started to scream, Hooker placed a constricting band around her chest making it even harder for her to breathe. She felt as if she would die. When she didn’t die and some of the restrictions were removed, she was relieved. Her brainwashing had begun.

For the next seven years, Stan would lead the life of a sex slave. For the first three years she would only be allowed out of the box an hour a day. Each night, she would be placed in a coffin-like box under Hooker’s bed, and she was tortured on a regular basis. She was told that if she escaped, a sex slave ring named “The Company” would kill her family. Hooker had done his homework on brainwashing and used isolation, starvation, severe beatings, torture, bathroom privileges and sexual abuse to bring her to a state of complete subservience. As she became more and more brainwashed, she was given more and more freedom and was allowed to do chores around the house. While Hooker molested Stan, he never had intercourse with her. One day after he tried to have a menage a trois with Stan and his wife, Hooker raped her for the first time. He then raped her on a regular basis thereafter.

Stan was eventually allowed to work in the yard and even go jogging. In 1980 Hooker allowed his wife to take Stan to a bar, where they picked up some men. He even allowed his wife to carry on an affair with one of them. Eventually Stan was allowed to write letters to her family, call them by phone, and finally visit them. During the visit she introduced Hooker to her family as her computer programmer boyfriend. After this visit Hooker confined Stan to her box for the next three years, although he did allow her out to work as a maid at a local hotel. Janice Hooker, who had been reading the Bible, began to have misgivings about the situation (including the sexual activities her husband commanded her to perform with Stan). One day, she picked up Stan from work and encouraged her to escape. The next day Stan quit her job and fled, returning to her parents’ home. Once home, she did not tell her story to anyone and stayed in touch with Janice Hooker. She assured Hooker she would not go to the police. Hooker, however, obviously expected to be arrested and started to get rid of any evidence that could link him to Stan’s captivity. When Stan began to tell her family some of what she had been through, they urged her to call authorities.

In the meantime, Janice Hooker left her husband and confessed to her pastor, who then called police. The police agreed to give Janice Hooker immunity in exchange for her testifying against her husband. She told them about another woman whom Hooker had abducted and shot, as well as about Stan. Hooker was finally arrested on charges of sodomy, kidnap, rape and various other crimes. Unlike Hearst’s lawyers, the prosecutor in this case called in experts on brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome. In the courtroom, the fact that Stan had written 29 love letters to Hooker came out. Yet there was no doubt that she had developed Stockholm Syndrome and this was competently shown to be the result of the treatment at the hands of her kidnapper. Hooker was found guilty of 10 charges, including kidnapping and rape. He was sentenced to 104 years in prison, where he remains to this day. Stan has tried to have a normal life. She went into therapy, got married and divorced and had a daughter. She volunteers for a sexual abuse hotline and warns young people about the dangers of hitchhiking.

In 1990, 10-year-old Fusako Sano was kidnapped in Japan. She was held captive for nine years by a mentally disturbed man, Sato Nobuyuki, who lived in a room above his mother’s house. Sano said she gave up the idea of escape because she was fearful. Nobuyuki eventually caused trouble for his mother, who called police. Sano revealed herself to police when they came to the room where she lived with her captor.

As told in her book, I Choose to Live, 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne was kidnapped in 1996 while biking to school in Belgium. Her abductor, Marc Dutroux, was a psychopath and serial murderer. Dardenne was held captive for 80 days in Dutroux’s basement. Dutroux had murdered a number of previous victims and an accomplice. He owned seven houses where he kept his victims and used pharmaceutical drugs to subdue them. Dardenne would also likely have been murdered if Dutroux had not been apprehended by police. Dutroux was sentenced to life imprisonment and his former wife and other accomplices also received long sentences.

The book, Girl in the Cellar: The Natascha Kampusch Story, tells the ordeal of 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted in 1998 while walking to school in Vienna. Her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil, kept her in captivity for eight years in a cellar she was told was rigged with explosives. Priklopil, who insisted his victim address him as “Master,” was the only other person Kampusch was allowed to interact with during this time. Not surprisingly, she became dependent on Priklopil, who, although he beat and likely sexually abused her, provided her with the basic necessities. Over the years, she was allowed more and more freedom, although Priklopil threatened to kill her if she tried to escape. At age 18, Kampusch finally summoned the will to escape when her captor took a phone call and left her alone while she was cleaning his car. Kampusch was found by by an elderly neighbor who then called police. Priklopil committed suicide by jumping in front of a train a few hours after Kampusch escaped. She was soon reunited with her parents, but her life has not returned to normal. She does not get along with her parents and has been at times excoriated by the public, which seemingly didn’t understand why she didn’t escape earlier and still seems attached to her captor. Nevertheless, Kampusch is still suffering from her ordeal; she lives alone and rarely leaves her home due to intense phobia of the outside world. For all intents and purposes, she remains a prisoner.

In 2000, 17-year-old Lena Simakhina and 14-year-old Katya Martynova were abducted by ex-Russian army officer and factory worker Viktor Mokhov. The girls were kept as sex slaves in a basement for for three and a half years. Simakhina was impregnated twice and gave birth only with the assistance of Martynova. The babies were taken from her by Mokhov and abandoned. Both girls tried unsuccessfully to resist Mokhov during the ordeal. Eventually they were able to smuggle out a note, which led to the downfall of their tormentor. Simakhina was eight months pregnant when she was finally freed. Mokhov was sentenced to 17 years in a labor camp and two years in prison. Simakhina has since married.

As recounted in the book, Held Captive: The Kidnapping and Rescue of Elizabeth Smart, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped in 2002 and repeatedly raped by psychotic religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell, with the help of his wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee. Initially, Smart was kept in close confinement but was allowed more freedom as time went on. She was found with the couple in 2003. Smart may not have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome and may have not escaped out of fear as Mitchell had threatened to kill her family. During her captivity, she kept a journal written in French, in which she wrote how much she hated her captors. After her escape, she became an advocate for abduction victims. Bright and capable, Smart has also been able to hold her own with obnoxious media pundits.

As detailed in Invisible Chains: Shawn Hornbeck and the Kidnapping Case that Shook the Nation, Shawn Hornbeck was kidnapped at age 11 in 2003 and held for four years by Michael Devlin in Missouri. Devlin repeatedly molested the boy. Hornbeck began using Devlin’s last name and, even though he spoke to police on two separate occasions on unrelated matters, he did not reveal his true identity. He was finally discovered when police received a tip as they were searching for another recently missing boy, Ben Ownby, who had also been abducted by Devlin. Incredibly, some in the media, such as TV commentator Bill O’Reilly, have blamed Hornbeck for his captivity, questioning why he did not speak up earlier or try to escape. To my mind, this demonstrates a monumental level of ignorance or callousness as to the nature and effects of Stockholm Syndrome.

What is the reason for Stockholm Syndrome? Why would captured humans behave in this way? For me, the most cogent answer comes from the field of evolutionary psychology. A recent article by Chris Cantor and John Price (Cantor & Price, 2007) looks at the evolutionary basis of Stockholm Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, or as they put it the “... evolutionary theory of complex PTSD specific to those trapped in traumatic subordinate relationships” (p.378). Traumatic entrapment includes people who are abducted and kept against their will, as well as children abused (sexually or physically) by adults, including their parents, over a period of time. It is well known that these victims experience post-traumatic stress resulting from their ordeals and that this stress can lead to personality changes, an inability to regulate emotional states, and a decrease in cognitive function. In both complex PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome, victims may idealize and have positive feelings toward their abusers. The authors make the case that this is a form of appeasement, which confers a survival advantage in some mammals and primates that undergo traumatic subordination to a captor. Prisoners who appease their captors will be less likely to be killed and are more likely to reproduce than captives who do not demonstrate appeasement behavior. Appeasement is seen as one of six mammalian defenses that are exaggerated by PTSD. These defenses are:

» Avoidance of threats

» Attentive immobility (freezing and carefure watching as a prelude to more definitive action)

» Withdrawal (flight response)

» Aggressive defense (fight response)

» Appeasement

» Tonic immobility (playing dead, which confuses the predator by inhibiting attack reflexes or fooling it into thinking the victim is “contaminated” food) (p.380)

In a situation of traumatic entrapment, appeasement may be the only defensive option. In apes, research has shown that victims will at times turn toward their attackers for comfort and safety (this is termed “reverted escape”). In chimps the victim of an attack will have heightened anxiety and will engage in soothing behaviors such as hugging and kissing with former combatants. These soothing behaviors show the dominant animal that the victim is subordinate, and may be the prelude to Stockholm syndrome in humans, and especially female victims. As Cantor and Price note:

“Hunter-gatherer women have been remarkably frequently kidnapped by opposing tribes, with little likelihood of rescue. From an evolutionary perspective, defiance in such circumstances carries the prospect of death and the nontransmission of related genes. Submission and defection may promote genetic survival. This has been described as ‘capture-bonding’” (p.380).

Finally, the authors point out that appeasement is associated with fear and shame. Fear provides motivation for defense. Shame on the part of the victim, however, gives the signal that he or she is of no threat to the captor. In this way, shame may be the precursor to appeasement. Shame is an extremely uncomfortable emotion, however, and victims may dissociate to avoid experiencing it. This dissociation may also help the victim to continue to appease the aggressor. When the ordeal is over, the shame returns along with the other aspects of PTSD. The victims of traumatic entrapment have a long road to recovery.

Kevin Volkan is a psychology professor at CSU Channel Islands. He holds doctorates in clinical and educational psychology, as well as a master’s degree in public health; has written numerous journal articles; and is the author of a book on compulsive drug use. He writes the Bizarre Behaviors & Culture-Bound Syndromes blog with CSUCI colleague Neil Rocklin.

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