News this week that Jaycee Lee Dugard, 11 years old when she was abducted in 1991, was discovered living in her abductor's backyard, prompts reactions both of happiness and horror. Happiness that this poor young woman, raped and twice-impregnated by her abductor, is finally free. Horror when you think of what her life must have been like these past 18 years. How is she going to fare now that she’s been reunited with her family and will finally be able to see a doctor, and hopefully, a therapist? Clues about her mental state were revealed by her stepfather Carl Probyn after talking to Jaycee’s mother: "She told me that Jaycee feels really guilty for bonding with this guy. She has a real guilt trip."
We hear this counterintuitive detail in many cases where kidnap victims and people in abusive relationships feel sympathy for their captors/abusers, identifying with them and even bonding with them. Natascha Kampusch, the young woman who only three years ago escaped from the man who abducted her at age 10 and kept her in a windowless cellar for eight and a half years, was distraught after hearing that he had committed suicide. Some psychologists say that this sympathy is, in part, what keeps abused women so psychologically attached to their abusers.
Although it's probably impossible for most of us who have never been in such extreme situations to imagine that someone would have any positive feelings toward a person who abused them or imprisoned them, psychologists have a term for why it happens: Stockholm syndrome. To find out what this fascinating and disturbing psychological term means,
Coined by Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot to explain why, in 1972, Swedish bank employees sympathized with the bank robbers who held them hostage for six days, Stockholm Syndrome can arise if the captor — in between his or her abuse — occasionally shows gestures of affection or concern, or gives them something they need. Experts say that what the victim doesn't consciously acknowledge is that these gestures tend to be self-serving, rather than genuine tokens of kindness.
Stockholm Syndrome became a household word in the '70s with the infamous Patty Hearst case. The millionaire heiress granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Hearst was abducted at age 19 from her apartment in Berkeley, CA, by a fringe left-wing guerilla group that called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. During her captivity, according to Hearst, she was blindfolded and kept in a closet, occasionally taken out to be beaten or sexually assaulted. After a time, the brainwashed Hearst succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, according to psychologists who examined her, and began to sympathize with the SLA's agenda of creating a fairer society. She helped them rob a bank and later even said positive things about them to the press.
After Hearst's arrest and trial, her lawyer told the jury that she should not be charged in the case as a person who was operating in a normal capacity, of her own free will. They didn't buy the diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome, however, and Hearst served two years in prison until Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979.
It's terrifying to think about the convolutions our minds are capable of when survival is the goal. What do you think about Stockholm Syndrome — do you buy it as a diagnosis?