The curious case of Bobbi Parker, the missing deputy warden’s wife who was found living 11 years later with the escaped convict who kidnapped her, has pop psychologists once again citing Stockholm syndrome. But what is the Stockholm syndrome, how was it identified, and does it really apply in this situation?
Three decades ago, after a rash of kidnappings, behavioral scientists and police negotiators began for the first time to collaborate intensely. At the time, I was the psychiatrist on the National Task Force on Terrorism and Disorder. Shortly after I took up the post, we became intrigued with the strange case of Kristin, a Swedish bank teller who was held hostage in a vault at Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm for several days in August 1973.
Kristin had become enamored with Olsson, her armed assailant; after she was released, she broke off her engagement to her fiance. And both during and after her captivity, she lambasted then-Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
Kidnap and hostage experts already were aware that in certain cases an unexpected bond can form between captor and captive. Psychoanalyst Anna Freud called a similar situation that occurred in Nazi concentration camps “identification with the aggressor.”
But what I saw in the Stockholm case and at least a dozen times afterward -- and what I learned from a year of interviewing people once held hostage -- was not identification and not behavior so aggressive that it would emulate a sadistic guard.
In Stockholm syndrome, there is a sudden, terrifying capture. The hostage is stunned, shocked and often certain that he or she will die. The hostage then becomes like an infant. He or she can’t talk, eat, move or use a toilet without permission.
But then, in every one of these cases, little by little, small acts of kindness by one of the captors evoke feelings deeper than relief. “We knew they were killers, but they gave us blankets, cigarettes,” one Dutch ex-hostage told me, going on to explain the warmth and compassion he felt toward the men who chose not to kill him. It would be akin to what an infant feels when he gets attention, relieving his thirst, hunger, wetness or fear of neglect -- a primitive gratitude for the gift of life, an emotion that eventually develops and differentiates into varieties of affection and love.
The attachment goes both ways. The captor often develops reciprocal feelings toward the hostage. When he does, we on the outside, concerned with rescue, have an advantage. The hostage-taker wants to protect the hostage. But both captor and hostage have little trust in us and may come to hate us. We are the common enemy.
That is how I defined the syndrome for FBI and Scotland Yard negotiators.
Could Stockholm syndrome explain a decade-long relationship between a married mother of two and the convicted murderer who says he abducted and threatened her? It could if she went through the stages of shock, terror and regression that are seen in sudden captures, and if she developed the ironic and profound positive feelings spontaneously and without conscious control. But if, by contrast, she made a calculated choice to stay with her assailant (or to leave with him in the first place), perhaps out of fear of harm to her family, perhaps out of preference for a different life, then the syndrome would not apply.
Although the syndrome was defined to help negotiators and incident commanders choose effective strategies when managing a hostage situation, it has other applications.
The significance of Stockholm syndrome goes beyond rare instances of kidnapping and hostage-taking. It explains aspects of attachment to battering husbands and incestuous fathers. It is not just conscious, willful behavior to avoid punishment. It is regression and recovery of a powerful, primitive feeling toward a giver of life.