There are few things as thrilling as the story of a dramatic escape, especially one with a happy ending. It is understandable, therefore, that the public is often disappointed and critical when a kidnapping victim found alive is revealed to have had seemingly enough contact with the outside world to make such an escape. Stories of survival can feel ruined when there turns out to have been what looks like an ‘easy way out’.
One well-publicized example was that of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teenager who was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom in 2002. Nine months later she and her captors were stopped by police not far from her home. Elizabeth was in disguise, and lied about her identity. It was not until some time after being handcuffed and separated from the abductors that she began to cooperate. More recently, Missouri teenager Shawn Hornbeck was found in early 2007 after having been kidnapped and held for more than four years outside St. Louis, only 50 miles from home. Unlike Smart, Hornbeck was able to tell police officers who he was; it was revealed, though, that Hornbeck had been allowed Internet access and a fair degree of autonomy.
In such cases, it is extremely easy to blame the victims; it seems very plausible that the kidnapped individuals were simply not clever, resourceful, or courageous enough to flee their respective abductors. However, this disturbing tendency has little to do with any supposed weakness on the part of the victim. Given the right conditions, abductors are able to exert an astonishing amount of influence over their victims – to the point at which the captive has full loyalty to his or her captor while believing that this was his or her own choice. It is a cognitive phenomenon related to brainwashing and known as Stockholm syndrome.
The condition was named for a 1973 kidnapping case in Stockholm, Sweden, in which four bank employees held hostage for six days ended up siding with their abductors and even trying to fight being rescued. It was only a year later that a much longer, more extreme, and more well-documented case occurred. The kidnappers were part of an extremist left-wing group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small but radical leftist revolutionary group formed in the San Francisco, California area. Loosely based on urban guerilla groups in South America, the SLA quickly made itself known by shooting and killing a school superintendent whose ideas they had opposed. “To those who would bear the hopes and future of our people,” said the group’s constitution, “let the voice of their guns express the words of freedom.”
Two of the SLA’s members were arrested and imprisoned for the murder. To negotiate for their release, the SLA planned an abduction. Hating well-off capitalists above all others, the group decided to target the prominent and wealthy Hearst family. On 4 February 1974 three members of the SLA broke into the Berkeley apartment of 19-year-old millionaire heiress Patricia Hearst and kidnapped her. As anticipated, the event was widely-reported; however, SLA leader Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze realized that the general public was going to side with the Hearst family. DeFreeze thus decided to manipulate Hearst into working for his group.
According to later testimony, for the next two months Hearst was put into a closet and repeatedly starved, raped, and otherwise abused. The group constantly bombarded her with pro-SLA propaganda and forced her to denounce her family and friends in recorded messages. The Hearst family frantically complied with the demands made by the SLA for Patricia’s release, but to no avail.
Hearst’s first appearance after the kidnapping was startling. A now-infamous photo was released showing her wielding a rifle alongside the cobra symbol of the SLA. A tape from the same time stated that she had renamed herself ‘Tania’ (after an accomplice of Che Guevara) and voluntarily joined the very group responsible for her abduction. In mid-April another tape surfaced, one on which the voice of Patty Hearst denied that the SLA had performed any psychological manipulation: “As for [my] being brainwashed, the idea is ridiculous to the point of being beyond belief.” She declared that she was loyal to the SLA.
This seemed inconceivable. However, arguments that Hearst had been forced to record the message were contradicted by two events. First, at a bank robbery on 15 April 1975, Hearst was spotted on the security-camera footage – much to the surprise of the local police. More substantial was an event of 16 May: Hearst was left in a van while two other SLA members shopped for needed supplies at a sporting-goods store. One of them suddenly decided to shoplift; left completely alone in the van, Hearst noticed that he was about to be caught and starting firing on the store, nearly killing the owner. The other SLA members escaped to the van and the three of them fled.
From that point, the police vowed to crack down on the SLA. They killed six members of the small group after surrounding their hideout on 17 May; by September, the police captured and arrested several very prominent members of the SLA in quick succession. The last of these was Patty Hearst.
She was the only one really charged at the time, and her trial began on 4 February 1976 – two years to the day after her abduction. It lasted for nearly forty days, and could hardly have gone any worse for Hearst. The psychologists called in to testify that she had been brainwashed presented a poorly-organized argument, and her lawyer was uncoordinated and possibly drunk through much of it. On 20 March, Hearst was declared guilty and eventually sentenced to seven years in prison, although she was granted five years’ probation by a second trial later on.
The public was deeply divided over the verdict. Many still sympathized with Hearst and considered her a victim. Others denounced the way in which she had seemed to enjoy shooting at the store owner and held that she was responsible for her own actions. Regardless, Hearst had already been found guilty. She served 21 months of her sentence before the sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. From that point, she pieced together a quieter existence – acting in several films, marrying a former bodyguard, and giving birth to two daughters. The only way in which she was involved with the SLA after that was at the much later trials of several other former members. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Patricia Hearst Shaw a full pardon.
Obviously not every kidnapping situation results in Stockholm syndrome. It is believed to manifest upon a confluence of four factors:
• The clear existence of a serious threat to the victim’s physical or mental well-being – or to those of the victim’s loved ones. The victim’s initial compliance with the captor is caused by fear of harm to oneself and to friends and family.
• A perceived ability of the captor to be ‘kind’: in context, this could be as little as the captor granting his or her victim a brief reprieve from abuse. These ‘kindnesses’ look exponentially magnified compared with all else that has befallen the victim, and so they help to form the beginnings of an emotional bond. Often the captive begins to sympathize with the cause of the abductor, especially in examples of political hostage-taking such as that of Patty Hearst. Another contributing factor is cognitive dissonance, which is the tendency for the mind to rationalize excessively in order to resolve opposing simultaneous beliefs. The idea that a captor can be so cruel while also demonstrating such apparent kindnesses is certainly such a conflicting set of ideas. In order to reconcile these observations, a victim of abduction might convince him- or herself that the abuser had a difficult childhood, or had lived in desperate circumstances, an emotional context which could lead quickly to sympathy.
• A sheer immersion in the beliefs and abuse of the captor: effectively the role played by brainwashing.
• The captive’s sense of being entirely unable to escape, of being dependent on the captor for survival; a state of mind which severely impairs the victim’s ability to reason through escape-plans. In fact, the victim begins to fear the idea of being rescued since that would introduce instability (and possibly injury) into the situation, which despite being clearly unpleasant, seems familiar, predictable, and survivable.
Patricia Hearst Shaw reports on having felt many of these aspects during her ordeal. During a 2002 interview with CNN’s Larry King, she said:
I had no free will. I had virtually no free will until I was separated from them for about two weeks. And then it suddenly, you know, slowly began to dawn that they just weren’t there any more. I could actually think my own thoughts. It [had been] considered wrong for me to think about my family. And when [SLA leader DeFreeze] was around, he didn’t want me thinking about rescue because he thought that brain waves could be read or that, you know, they’d get a psychic in to find me. And I was even afraid of that.
These effects are not limited to kidnapping situations, either. Stockholm syndrome likely has links to other situations in which oppression leads to loyalty: abusive relationships (including those between adults and children), prisoners of war, and cult members. It is also important to note that such reactions to abuse under extreme conditions are a natural reflex. Modern police officers have become so familiar with Stockholm syndrome that it is often expected when dealing with a long-term hostage case.
Elizabeth Smart and Shawn Hornbeck – among many others – were fortunately never inducted into guerilla organizations. The reasons behind their inexorable loyalty to their respective captors, however, are likely the same as those behind why Patty Hearst became a criminal. Like Hearst, Smart was held in isolation (at Emigration Canyon near Salt Lake City) and abused until her abductor decided that he was in control. Hornbeck is thought to have been sexually abused, and some sources report that his captor threatened to kill him and his family if he tried to escape; he thus may have been controlled by just the same process. It is also worth noting that both were younger than Hearst when they were kidnapped: Smart was 14 and Hornbeck only 11. Both were thus more easily intimidated and manipulated.
In her interview with King, Patricia Hearst Shaw later described how strongly she felt “haunted by what happened…a lot of it stemmed from feeling so horrible that my mind could be controlled by anybody.” The counterintuitive aspect of Stockholm syndrome is that there was absolutely nothing about her mind that was unusually susceptible. In fact, rather than being an indication of any weakness whatsoever on the part of the victim, Stockholm syndrome turns out to be an instinctive and often effective strategy for survival.