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Surviving Captivity: Stockholm Syndrome

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Do you judge Jaycee Dugard for staying with her captors? You shouldn't -- and here's why.


Michelle Golland, Psy.D.: As a psychologist and a mother, I have been getting a variety of responses regarding the Jaycee Dugard captivity situation. There have been more than a few mothers who said, "I wouldn't have stayed. Why didn't she leave?"

It is important to understand the psychology of captivity. It is also imperative to understand that it is traumatic for us as humans to hear this story -- and to help us feel more in control of our own lives and distance ourselves from the horror of Jaycee's captivity, we try to emotionally defend ourselves against it by believing that we wouldn't have stayed, or that we would have responded differently to the trauma. It is important to understand this response, because inherent in that defense is the "victim blaming" that can occur while trying to understand Jaycee's traumatic experience.

The Stockholm Syndrome (named for a bank robbery in Stockholm in 1973) was actually a well-known psychological response to trauma known to clinicians long before its famous namesake. The Stockholm Syndrome explains the psychological bonding that can occur between captive and abuser. It also helps explain why people stay even if it seems they could physically escape the situation.

The emotional bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation. Within the syndrome, there are four situations and conditions that are present that insure the victim's psychological bonding with the abuser:

1) The presence of a perceived threat to one's physical or psychological survival, and the belief that the abuser would carry out that threat
2) The presence of a perceived small act of kindness from the abuser to the victim
3) Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser
4) The real or perceived inability to escape the situation

When these four elements are at play with a victim of captivity -- like Jaycee Dugard and her two daughters -- they are put in the horrible position to survive physically through an emotional manner that causes a huge psychological fallout. The range of psychological disorders these three may have developed include: dissociative disorders, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and personality disorders due to the length of time in captivity.

For victims of captivity, the Stockholm Syndrome develops on an involuntary basis. Jaycee and her daughters did not purposely invent this attitude. This develops as an attempt to exist and survive in a threatening and controlling environment and relationship. They were trying to survive. Jaycee, abducted at the age of 11, was still in the early stages of her own identity development as she was stripped of all things familiar, and was physically and sexually abused for years. Jaycee Dugard's personality was developing feelings and thoughts in order to cope with and survive the situation, and to do anything she could to lower her emotional and physical risks.

As a clinician, I know the more dysfunctional and abusive the situation, the more dysfunctional the victim's adaptations may be to survive. Jaycee was trapped in a horrific situation and was simply trying to survive at all costs.

Given the recent revelations about the abusive couple who are now being investigated for multiple homicides in addition to the Jaycee case, one thing we know for sure is that Jaycee is amazingly resilient, and adapted well enough to survive for 18 years -- while also keeping her daughters alive.

next: Duggars Expecting Their 19th Child!
7 comments so far | Post a comment now
Laura August 31, 2009, 11:02 PM

Well said! I cringe every time I hear a comment beginning with “well,I wouldn’t have stayed…” This is a girl who wasn’t even an adolescent yet when she was forcibly kidnapped & repeatedly raped by a 6’2’ man who is frighteningly unbalanced & dangerous. Kudos to Jaycee for staying alive!!!! Whatever her circumstances were, SHE DID THE RIGHT THING EVERY STEP OF THE WAY TO SURVIVE. We so rarely hear of survivors of these sort of crimes because the criminals are so vicious in their manipulation of their victims. Jaycee shows remarkable strength & resilience in her very survival and that of her two daughters. My thoughts are with this family.

Faye September 1, 2009, 10:00 AM

How anyone in their right mind could accuse the abused is beyond me.

I can’t fathom the idea that any means taken to survive could be considered ‘wrong’.

Shame on those who would pile more guilt and shame on this victim of abuse!

Did she choose to be abducted and abused? NO! She survived the best way she could, and I say BRAVO! to her for surviving ANY way she could and keeping herself and her children alive long enough to be rescued!

Teresa September 1, 2009, 10:40 AM

Blaming the victim is an all too common and unfortunate response to many events similar to this. What Dr. Golland states about people as observers trying to make sense and control their own feelings about such a horrific event makes sense, but unless those of us that know better try and educate people that are ignorant to to what Dr. Golland explains, people will just continue to think that the victim was somehow at fault. My hope is that Dr. Gollands article will be seen by as many people as possible, and that we Moms let people know the truth. After all would we feel the same if that was our daughter this happened to?

Lorraine September 1, 2009, 3:03 PM

Unless u have been in a situation like that u never know how u will react. Having been there as a child, I know. Survive @ all cost. If someone is crazy enough 2 do what they r doing 2 u, then u believe them when they threaten 2 harm your family if u try anything. U feel as if the world has become the enemy and u don’t know who is in on it with that person, so you second guess all chances to get away, until u just lost that moment, because u hesitated. You may not know where u r & might be afraid of getting caught by someone worse than who has u. Fear, fear, fear, distrust of the whole world is what u feel all the time. Why is no one coming to your rescue? They all must b in on it. Will anyone believe u if u tried to get away. If not, will they bring u back & things will b a lot worse after that. Does anyone out there understand yet? I hope and pray they don’t bombard these girls with “professionals”. Leave them alone to have their family just love them for a little while. Leave them alone and treat them with love, compassion and extreme patience. Please!

Gloria  September 1, 2009, 4:48 PM

I am not quite sure how many would react, it is a tight space to keep sanity versus going insane. The fear factor alone had to be a high risk for a young girl to over come on her own. Her captors evidently may have tried in their own strange way to make it better for their young victim. But I am sure taunted her, and cajoled her into beliving what they were saying. It had to be a bad situation to not know how or when to look to flea from her captors, and not face their wrath. I can not imangine her pain.

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