With the news this week 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 August of 1973. During this robbery bank employees were held hostage for six days and began to experience a number of positive emotions, including loyalty, empathy, and love towards the robbers, even defending their actions after they were freed.
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 Stockholm Syndrome develops, hostages begin to have positive feelings of loyalty, empathy, sympathy, and even love towards their abductors. This occurs in spite of 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 where 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, seven year old Steven Stayner was kidnapped in Merced California by Kenneth Parnell in 1972. He was a held captive for over seven years until early 1980. After Parnell abducted a five year old boy, Stayner decided to escape in order to return the boy to his parents. While Stayner was at work he left with the boy, eventually going to the police. Parnell was arrested and sentenced to only seven years, and was paroled after five. However in 2004 at the age of 72 Parnell attempted to get his nurse to procure a boy for him, He was reported to the police and returned to prison where he died in 2008. Steven 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 family fortune, Patty was kidnapped on February 4, 1974, by the radical left Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). After her abduction Patty was kept in a closet and systematically brainwashed, physically, as well as sexually abused, chiefly by Donald DeFreeze (Aka “Cinque”), the leader of the SLA, and later by Willie Wolfe (Aka “Cujo”). Although it has been asserted that Patty willingly had romantic relationships with SLA members, she has steadfastly maintained that this was not true. After a failed attempt to ransom Patty (this involved the distribution of food to poor people – something those of us raised in the San Francisco Bay Area will never forget), she soon issued a communique calling herself Tania (in honor of Che Guevara’s partner) and saying she was now part of the SLA. Shortly thereafter Tania showed up on surveillance cameras during a bank robbery in the Sunset District of San Francisco holding an M1 rifle. After the ringleaders of the SLA were killed in a massive shootout in Los Angeles, other SLA members robbed a bank in Carmichel California and killed a bank customer. Tania was supposedly in one of the getaway cars. She was arrested soon after. Famous (or infamous) attorney F. Lee Baily was hired as her attorney, but he did not make a great case for Patty having been brainwashed or having suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. It didn’t help matters that Patty refused to testify against the other SLA members. She was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Patty 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.Patty has had a minor but interesting career in the entertainment industry, appearing in films by John Watersas well as other films and tv shows. She wrote an autobiography titled Patty Hearst Her Story. There have been numerous other books written about Patty as well (see Bizarre Store for titles). In 1999 she was given a pardon by President Bill Clinton as one of last acts in office.
The story of Colleen Stan has been told in a number of places, including the excellent TruTV website 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 the book Colleen Stan: The Simple Gifts of Life: Dubbed by the Media the Girl in the Box and the Sex Slave. I have made a brief summary of this complicated case here. Colleen Stan was hitchhiking in Northern California in May 1977 when a car pulled over and offered her a ride. In the car was a man Cameron Hooker, his wife Janice, and their baby. To Colleen this seemed like a safe ride. However, once in the car, Hooker turned off into a wilderness area, stopped the car, and at knife point fastened a specially-made a wooden box over Colleen’s 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 Colleen was almost immediately tortured – hung by her arms and beaten. This aroused Hooker who called in his wife so they could have sex at Colleen’s feet.
Colleen 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 even harder for her to breath. She felt as if she was going to 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 Colleen 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. She would be placed in a coffin-like box every night which was under the Hooker’s bed and tortured on a regular basis. Colleen 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 Colleen he had never had intercourse with her. One day after he tried to have a menage a troi with Colleen and his wife, Hooker raped Collen for the first time. He then raped her on a regular basis thereafter. Colleen was eventually allowed to work in the yard and even go jogging. In 1980 Hooker allowed his wife Janice to take Colleen to a bar where they picked up some men. He even allowed Janice to carry on an affair with one of them. Eventually Colleen 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 Colleen to her box for the next three years, though he did allow her out to work as a maid at a local hotel. Janice, who had been reading the Bible began to have misgivings about the situation (including the sexual activities her husband commanded her to perform with Colleen). One day Janice picked up Colleen from work and encouraged her to escape. The next day Colleen quit her job and fled, returning to her parents’ home. Once home Colleen did not tell her story to anyone and stayed in touch with Janice. 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 Colleen’s captivity. When Colleen began to tell her family some of what she had been through. they urged her to call the authorities. In the meantime Janice left Hooker and confessed to her Pastor, who then called the police. The police agreed to give Janice immunity for her testifying against Hooker. She told the about another woman who Hooker had abducted and shot, as well as about Colleen. Hooker was finally arrested on charges of sodomy, kidnap, rape and various other crimes. Unlike Patty Hearst’s lawyers, the prosecutor in this case called in experts on brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome to the courtroom. In the courtroom the fact that Colleen had written 29 love letters to Hooker came out. Yet there was no doubt that Colleen 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 ten charges, including kidnapping, and rape. He was sentenced to 104 years total in prison where he remains to this day. Colleen has tried to have a normal life. She went into therapy, got married and divorced and had a daughter. She volunteers for a sex abuse hotline and warns young people about the dangers of hitchhiking.
In 1990 Fusako Sano, age 10, was kidnapped in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture in Japan. She was held captive for 9 years until the year 2000 by a mentally disturbed man, Nobuyuki Sato, 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 the police. Sano revealed herself to the police when they can to the room where she lived with her captor.
As told in her book I Choose to Live, Sabine Dardenne, was kidnapped in 1996 while biking to school in Belgium when she was 12 years old. Her abductor, Marc Dutroux, was a psychopath and serial murderer. Sabine was held captive for 80 days in Dutroux’ basement. Dutroux had murdered a number of previous victims and an accomplice. He owned seven houses in which he housed his victims and used pharmacuetical drugs to subdue them. Sabine 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 ten year old Natascha who was abducted in March 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 Natascha was allowed to interact with during this time. Not surprisingly, Natascha became dependent on Priklopil who, though he beat and likely sexually abused her, provided her with the basic necessities of life. Over the years Natacha was allowed more and more freedom, though Priklopil threatened to kill her if she tried to escape. At age 18, Natascha finally summoned the will to escape when her captor took a phone call and left her alone while she was cleaning his car. Natascha was found by by an elderly neighbor who then called the police. Priklopil committed suicide by jumping in front of a train a few hours after Natascha made her escape. Natascha was soon reunited with her parents, but her life has not returned to normal. She does not get along with her parents and has at times excoriated by the public who seemingly didn’t understand why she didn’t escape earlier and still seems attached to her captor. Nevertheless, Natascha is still suffering from her ordeal. She lives alone and rarely leaves her home due to intense phobia of the outside world. For all intense purposes she still remains a prisoner.
In 2000 seventeen year old Lena Simakhina, and fourteen year old Katya Martynova were abducted by ex-army officer and factory worker Viktor Mokhov. The girls were kept as sex slaves in a basement for for three and a half years. Lena was impregnated twice and gave birth only with the assistance of her young friend. The babies were taken from her by Mokhov and abandoned. Both girls unsuccessfully tried to resist Mokhov during the ordeal. Eventually they were able to smuggle out a note which led to the downfall of their tormentor. Lena was eight months pregnant when she was finally freed. Mokhov was sentenced to 17 years in a labor camp and two years in prison. Lena has since married.
As recounted in the book Held Captive: The Kidnapping and Rescue of Elizabeth Smart, fourteen year old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by psychotic religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell with the help of his wife Wanda Ileen Barzee in June 2002. Initially Smart was kept in close confinement but was allowed more and more freedom as time went on. She was found with the couple in March of 2003. Elizabeth may not have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome and may have not escaped for so long out of fear – Mitchell had threatened to kill her family. She kept a journal during her captivity written in French where she wrote how much she hated her captors. After her escape she has become an advocate for those who have suffered from abduction. Bright and capable, Elizabeth 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. Shawn 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 commentator Bill O’Reilly, have blamed Shawn for his captivity, questioning why did not speak up earlier or try to escape. To my mind this demonstrates a monumental level of ignorance or callousness as 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 (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 towards their abusers. The authors make the case the this is a form of appeasement which confers a survival advantage in some mammals and primates who 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 that do not demonstrate appeasement behavior. Appeasement is seen as one of six mamalian defenses which are exaggerated by PTSD. These defenses are:
1. Avoidance of threats,
2. Attentive immobility (freezing and carefure watching as a prelude to more definitive action),
3. Withdrawal (flight response)
4. Aggressive defense (fight response),
6. Tonic immobility (playing dead – this confuses the predator by inhibiting attack reflexes or fooling them 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 that has shown that victims will at times turn towards 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 non-transmission 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 pre-cursor to appeasement. However, shame is an extremely uncomfortable emotion 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.
Boulton, D. (1975). The making of Tania Hearst. London, UK: New English Library.
Cantor c, & Prive, J. (2007). Traumatic entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder: evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and the Stockholm syndrome. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2007 May;41(5):377-84.
Cosmides L., & Tooby J. (downloaded Sept. 1, 2009). Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. University of California Santa Barbara: Center For Evolutionary Psychology.
Echols, M. (1999). I Know My First Name Is Steven. New York: Pinnacle.
Green, Jim (2009). Colleen Stan: The Simple Gifts of Life: Dubbed by the Media the Girl in the Box and the Sex Slave. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.
Haberman, M., & Macintosh, J. (2003). Held Captive: The Kidnapping and Rescue of Elizabeth Smart. New York: Avon.
Hall, A. & Leidig, M. (2007). Girl in the Cellar: The Natascha Kampusch Story. New York: HarperCollins.
Hearst, PC &Moscow, A. (1988). Patty Hearst Her Story. New York: Avon.
McGuire, Christine & Carla Norton. (1989). Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in a Box By the DA that Prosecuted her Captor. New York: Dell.
Sauerwein, K. (2008). Invisible Chains: Shawn Hornbeck and the Kidnapping Case that Shook the Nation. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
Symbionese Liberation Army Wikipedia Entry