The Blog

The Psychology of Abduction - The Cleveland Kidnappings Could Explain the Jimmy Savile Scandal

The allegations surrounding the hostage case in Cleveland, Ohio, remain truly astonishing; how can three women be kidnapped, raped and beaten for so long? One possible explanation derives from a psychiatric phenomenon which is supposed to develop in these extraordinary and intense predicaments, termed 'Stockholm Syndrome'.

The allegations surrounding the hostage case in Cleveland, Ohio, remain truly astonishing; how can three women be kidnapped, raped and beaten for so long?

One possible explanation derives from a psychiatric phenomenon which is supposed to develop in these extraordinary and intense predicaments, termed 'Stockholm Syndrome'.

Named after a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973, this describes a puzzling positive emotional connection kidnap victims develop with their keepers.

The four hostages in the original Swedish bank robbery appeared to bond with their captors, to the extent of seemingly not wanting to be rescued by the police, and even seeing rescuers as enemies.

This bizarre bond develops as part of the victim's psychological survival defence mechanism. By sympathizing with their jailer, accepting the predicament, limiting retaliation to the captor and even bonding with a torturer, this theoretically maintains survival in an otherwise high-risk scenario.

Attachment stabilises the potential conflict, and can also arise because in keeping your torturer happy and involved with you, chances of your survival improve. Maybe over time what began as a primitive survival instinct, develops into a perverse yet deep attachment.

'Terror bonding' and 'traumatic bonding' have also been used along with 'Stockholm syndrome' to explain these incidents.

Psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Sampson from University College Medical School, London, has lead a team who analysed five recent high profile cases of Stockholm Syndrome.

The study published in the academic journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica could provide clues as to how Ariel Castro could have imprisoned Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, for so long (as is alleged) and remain undetected.

The study entitled 'Stockholm syndrome: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?' concluded there are common features in victims of Stockholm syndrome; in the cases Sampson and colleagues reviewed, each experienced direct threats, they were kept in isolation, had an opportunity to escape during their period of captivity but failed to use it, all were relatively young at the time of their captivity (range: 10-30 years), and showed sympathy with their captors post-captivity.

Perhaps the most famous case of Stockholm Syndrome is the kidnapping in 1974 of heiress Patty Hearst who was kept blindfolded in a closet for 57 days. Physically and sexually abused, yet she became critical of her family s wealth and joined her captors, the Symbionese Liberation Army, in their criminal and terrorist activities.

She was later famously caught on film wielding an assault rifle while robbing a bank in San Francisco. During the robbery, she had several opportunities to escape. Convicted and sentenced to 7 years for her criminal activity, she served only 22 months. After her release from prison, she married her former bodyguard and was granted a full pardon by President Clinton in 2001. She claimed that she had been 'brainwashed'.

Psychological dynamics involved in 'Stockholm Syndrome' may have occurred in the case of Wolfgang Přiklopil, an Austrian communications technician who in 1998 kidnapped 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch in Vienna, holding her for eight years. Kept in a small room with no windows she was threatened with being blown up if she tried to flee. She was beaten and photographed by Priklopil, yet she had several opportunities to run off - she even went on a ski-trip with her captor.

After her release she claimed not to have missed anything during her imprisonment, expressing grief when her captor committed suicide shortly after her escape. She even declared that in some ways her captivity was a good thing as it meant she wasn't exposed to negative influences.

Perhaps the key to 'Stockholm Syndrome is the youth of the captives.

Dr Elizabeth Sampson and colleagues in their recent investigation conclude that impact of captivity earlier in life may have a profound effect on future personality development. This contrasts with the experience of older captive hostages. For example, Sampson and colleagues point out that in the 1980s several people were taken hostage in Beirut, Lebanon. These included Brian Keenan, a 35-year-old held for over 4 years and Terry Waite, a hostage negotiator, held for 5 years, at the age of 48.

They did not develop such a bond with their captors.

The reason studying Stockholm Syndrome is important, goes beyond the horrific but rare cases of prolonged abduction. The psychological dynamics involved may also explain why so many who were sexually or physically abused are reluctant to report the perpetrator - cases like Jimmy Savile, where many only come forward decades after abuse first occurred.

Dr Shirley Jülich from Massey University, New Zealand explains for example, how battered women can perceive the cessation of violence as a demonstration of kindness. She reports, in her paper entitled 'Stockholm Syndrome and Child Sexual Abuse', how some survivors of child sexual abuse appear flattered to had been singled out for such adult treatment. The mere fact that many victims believed the offender loved them, indicates their conviction that compassion existed.

Dr Shirley Jülich explains in her paper published in the 'Journal of Child Sexual Abuse' that if unable to escape and isolated from others, victims turn to offenders for nurturance and protection. The need to be nurtured and protected combined with the will to survive compel victims to actively search for expressions of kindness, empathy or affection from the offender. The victim suppresses any feelings of danger, terror or rage, and through this denial, is able to bond to the 'positive' side of the offender.

To facilitate survival, the victim similarly suppresses his or her own needs and becomes both hyper-vigilant and hypersensitive to the offender's needs, feelings, and perspectives.

Through this process, Dr Jülich contends, victims come to view any would-be-rescuers, such as parents, police, therapists, or friends, as the "bad guys," because that was the offender's perception. The offender became the "good guy" and victims eventually believed that they deserved the abuse or were somehow responsible for it.

Dr Jülich argues that Stockholm Syndrome teaches us that nurturance and protection are basic needs, possibly particularly for children. Victims in a state of isolation do not want to lose the only relationship they have. These fears are expressed by feelings of abandonment, emptiness, loneliness, and an inability to live without the offender.

Without the abuser or keeper, a young victim could even have no sense of self.

Therefore, in this terrible crime, even after the imprisoned are liberated, uniquely, captive and captor, might find it difficult to ever separate.