29 August 2006

Identifying with a kidnapper

Natascha Kampusch's escape eight years after she was kidnapped, raises the question: Did she suffer from Stockholm Syndrome? And what is it?

The news media have been enjoying the story of Natascha Kampusch, which seems likely to have a nice, happy ending. She was kidnapped at the age of 10 back in 1998, and held captive for eight years. She is now reported to be in a hotel with a policewoman and a psychologist.

Her captor was a Wolfgang Priklopil, who after her escape, killed himself by jumping under a train. She was held in a specially-built and cunningly hidden prison-room beneath his house outside Vienna, only some 10km from her home. It's said she was initially required to call him "Master". Apparently he recently loosened his security precautions and had allowed her occasional outings in the village, with him. She eventually escaped when he was somehow distracted, and she wandered into a neighbour's garden.

But, despite many claims in the media, is this really an example of the Stockholm Syndrome? Nothing in what has been released about this case so far, suggests the Stockholm Syndrome at all. Had it been present in real force, one wouldn't have expected her to have taken the opportunity to escape.

What is the Stockholm Syndrome?
In 1975, a bank robbery at the Stockholm Kreditbankenin, Sweden became a three-day siege. It was noticed that in this time, hostage members of bank staff came to form very close relationships with the robbers, with whom they were barricaded in a vault; to the point that when the police launched a rescue attempt, the hostages noticed this and warned their captors. Some of them continued, afterwards, to praise and maintain contact with the robbers, and allegedly refused to testify against them. Later, after the gang were tried and sentenced to jail, one of them married a woman who had been his hostage.

Other examples have been reported, including an air hostess who had been held at gunpoint by a hijacker, who months later still visited him in prison, bringing him gifts. Various complex explanations have been offered. Maybe in part, it's an exaggeration and continuation of the wise policy (for a hostage) of being cooperative and ingratiating with the criminal in control. Also, there is a quasi-hypnotic effect possible when in a restricted environment and wholly controlled by someone else, that can induce strong suggestibility, especially in people with a natural talent for dissociation.

The situation is one in which, though the captors at first appear to be in power, it soon becomes clear that ALL of them are essentially powerless while in the grip of the situation that has arisen. The situation is analogous in some ways to that much more commonly seen in abused women and children, who, though highly distressed, may show disturbing loyalty to their abuser and may fail to escape when an opportunity arises.

The millionaire heiress Patty Hearst (the one who became famous well before the vapid Paris Hilton lurched on-screen) was kidnapped in February 1974 by a bizarre group of naive political fanatics calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. Two months later, she was seen in surveillance cameras, robbing a bank with them. When she was arrested in September 1975, and charged with the robbery, her lawyers claimed that she had suffered from the Stockholm Syndrome and had been coerced into taking part in the robbery.

My old friend Dr William Sargant from London was one of those who helped with the case. But she was convicted and sent to prison, though in 1979 President Carter commuted her sentence, and President Clinton gave her a Presidential pardon in 2001.

More similar to the present case, a girl of 14, Elizabeth Smart, was alleged to have been kidnapped and raped repeatedly by a psychotic man who kept her under his coercive control from June 2002 to March 2003. After initial harsh conditions of imprisonment, she later continued to live with her captors without physical restraint, for several months.

Though some thought this to be an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, it was later revealed that she had kept a journal in French about how much she hated her captors, and she insisted she had only cooperated with them due to fear.

Another curious case was that of the British journalist Yvonne Ridley who was captured and held by the Taliban for 11 days in 2001. While captive, she promised them that she would study Islam if released. She later converted to Islam and came to express strong fundamentalist Islamist views. She has denied that this is an example of the Syndrome, claiming that her actual interest in Islam only emerged after she was freed.

There is also the Lima Syndrome, probably due to very similar factors, but in one respect the opposite of the Stockholm syndrome. In the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis in December 1996, there were signs that the MRTA guerrillas were becoming more sympathetic to the situation and requirements of their hostages.

Media examples
Relevant situations have been depicted in some major movies. In The Collector, 1965, directed by William Wyler, Terence Stamp played a young London bank clerk and butterfly collector. After winning a fortune in a lottery, he stalks and captures a beautiful girl (Samantha Eggar) and keeps her captive in a cellar. It was a great novel by John Fowles, and despite a weak script, a compelling film about a situation rather like that which is now in the news.

A much more brilliant film, including aspects of the Stockholm Syndrome, is Dog Day Afternoon, 1975, still sometimes shown on TV. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it is, incredibly based on a true story, and shows a married, working-class chronic loser, played by Al Pacino, who holds up a bank in New York, to raise money for his lover's sex-change operation, and to his amazement, while the plan goes wrong, this escalates into a major incident. The increasingly desperate Sonny tries his best to look after everyone, his wife and children, his forlorn lover, his hostages. To the crowd in the street, and to his hostages, he comes to be seen as an increasingly sympathetic character.

Apart from more recent action thrillers, who have used this as a plot variant, in an episode of The Simpsons, Homer is kidnapped and develops the syndrome. And in the film John Q, Denzel Washington's character takes hostages in a hospital, in desperation to try to save his son, and they begin to sympathise and side with him. Rather forced uses of the concept have appeared on TV in series as varied as Star Trek, House and Malcolm in the Middle; and the phrase appears in a surprisingly large number of pop songs. There's even a minor pop group with that name.

Interestingly, skilled authors often recognise such patterns before scientists do. In George Orwell's brilliant book "1984", published back in 1949, he depicts his hero Winston as coming to love his torturer, O'Brien; long before the Swedish bank episode. – Prof M.A. Simpson, Health24's CyberShrink


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