Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Human trafficking, Michelle McKnight, Sexual exploitation, Stockholm syndrome, survivors
Speculation is a dangerous thing but it is difficult to not let one’s imagination run wild as to why an abducted person, let alone three, would not try to escape then remain in captivity for 10 years. Less than 24 hours after the brave escape and rescue of Amanda Berry, Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, as well as a 6 year old unnamed child who might very well be the daughter of one of the captive women, I am already hearing otherwise well respected psychologists jump to the conclusion of Stockholm syndrome as an explanation for the long-term captivity. To some, from the outside looking in it may seem unfathomable that anyone could detain three young women successfully for a decade without their consent even if that consent were coerced. I find this speculation highly offensive. Furthermore, as armchair sleuths begin the process of “analyzing” the known yet limited facts of this case there are already self-proclaimed experts speculating as to why Stockholm syndrome is the only explanation. I ask you, based on what, exactly? Your misunderstanding of the concept? Of one thing I am reasonably certain as respects at least Amanda Berry if not also Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, and Michelle Knight: their long-term captivity is not likely the result of Stockholm syndrome. I contend that the leap toward Stockholm syndrome as an explanation for the long-term captivity of Berry, DeJesus, and Knight is not one that should be taken without a parachute. It is far too early to make that judgment. Even so, allow me to give the reader a little background on Stockholm syndrome.
Before I begin, let me state this very clearly and in no uncertain terms. Stockholm syndrome is very rare. Stockholm syndrome is not clearly understood and has not been as thoroughly researched as well as other survival mechanisms primarily because it is so rare. The so-called syndrome is a reference to a now infamous robbery which took place in 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll give you a “Reader’s Digest” version of the case. For five days in August of 1973 bank employees at Kreditbanken were held captive in a vault and eventually developed an emotional bond with the hostage takers. The Stockholm bank robbery which gave birth to the term “Stockholm syndrome” is particularly interesting because the captives at one point rejected government assistance and even defended their hostage takers after the fact. It should also be noted that this case became of particular interest after the fact because one of the captives later married one of the hostage takers. In analyzing this case after the fact criminologist Nils Bejerot coined the term “Stockholm syndrome” because he could not classify the bonding behavior through any other psychological definition already well-documented prior to this event.
There are numerous factors involved in the development of Stockholm syndrome and it should be clearly noted that it is more the intensity of the event rather than the length of time of the event which can lead to the development of so-called Stockholm syndrome. Current research related to the development of Stockholm syndrome strongly suggests that three elements must be present before a hostage event can be classified under this label: hostage and captive must be together for an intense period of time (not to be confused with a long period of time); the hostage must be in direct social contact with their captor for the duration of the incident; and the hostage taker(s) must at all times treat their captives kindly. If these three elements are not present in some combination at all times during the event then it cannot be classified as Stockholm syndrome. I ask the reader to carefully note that in the original incident in which the term Stockholm syndrome was coined, the intense period of time was five days during which the captives became intimately knowledgeable of their hostage takers; captives and hostage takers were never away from each other during that time; and the captives were treated kindly by their hostage takers for the duration of the incident.
Ultimately, Stockholm syndrome might best be described as a paradoxical psychological phenomenon – which, again, is rare – in which positive feelings are developed and shared between hostage and captive. Usually there is no desire for the captive to escape the situation and that is a critical difference in this case. It is clear in listening to the initial release of the 911 call placed by Amanda Berry that she took the one opportunity that she had to act on behalf of herself and her fellow captives, and escape from Ariel Castro and those believed to be his brothers. It is unknown at this time whether this was the only opportunity within the last 10 years that these three young women and the unknown child had to escape. Perhaps there were other attempts that had failed; however, that will not be known for some time. Listening to Amanda’s frantic voice in the 911 call makes it clear that she wanted to be rescued along with Gina, Michelle, and the six-year-old girl.
The family has asked that their privacy be respected at this time and that is a request that all self-respecting journalists should abide by. There is no doubt in my mind that in the coming months and even years, these brave young women will eventually tell their story. It is incumbent upon us as advocates and journalists to not skew that story with insatiable speculation and armchair psychology gleaned from unreliable sources. I guarantee you there will be plenty of that in the coming days. I will be covering this case as information develops but will not be invading the family’s privacy nor jumping to erroneous conclusions for the sake of boosting my readership. What I will do over the next few days is provide education as to the concepts of basic human survival techniques in the face of crisis particularly the concept of learned helplessness. In the meantime I invite you to take a serious look at the following resources. These resources provide viable information regarding the truth behind child abduction and what needs to change in terms of intervention after the fact.
I remind you that evil often wears a smile and hides in plain sight. Those who wish to do harm sometimes masquerade behind a good guy (or girl) persona. How is it possible that these young women were contained for 10 years just a few short miles from where they were originally abducted? Very likely because no one questioned when they should have? How often do we fail to act or say something out of fear of how we will be perceived for the potential embarrassment of being wrong? When it comes to the safety and well-being of another human being who is potentially in harm’s way I would rather be embarrassed and wrong than to have my ego intact and someone hurt because I failed to speak up. I’ve been in that position before. I have lost relationships that needed to be lost because I was bold enough to say something when nobody else would. I don’t care about embarrassment in that regard and neither should you. If you see something, say something! Someone else’s very life may depend on it.
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2008). Criminal Behavior (8th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ
Doerner, William G., & Lad, Steven P. (2008). Victimology (5th ed.). Anderson Publishing: Newark, NJ
Seigel, Larry J. (2009). Criminology (Tenth ed.). Thomson Wadsworth: Belmont, CA