Though cases exist in which the victim of a kidnapping develops an emotional alliance or bond (or kinship, whatever you wish to call it) with their captor, even when the captor is brutal, this Stockholm syndrome reaction doesn’t necessarily occur with every hostage.
It’s not fair to say, “Anyone can develop Stockholm syndrome,” especially when considering that a captor can impose torture on the victims.
I consulted with David M. Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist from San Diego with extensive experience in PTSD, and interim medical director, Providence Behavioral Health Hospital (Holyoke, MA).
Just like it’s false that “anybody can be capable of kidnapping a teenager and brutalizing that individual in a basement for months,” it’s equally illogical to believe that anybody could fall prey to Stockholm syndrome as a coping mechanism or as a natural fallout of being held prisoner.
“Stockholm syndrome is just one type of reaction to traumatic/frightening situations,” says Dr. Reiss.
“Even if one accepts that ‘everyone has their breaking point,’ that does not mean that everyone is vulnerable to this particular type of regression.”
Two Famous Victims of Stockholm Syndrome
Jaycee Lee Dugard. Kidnapped at age 11, she had plenty of opportunities to escape her brutal captor (Phillip Garrido) and countless chances to alert authorities via the Internet as well as when dealing with visitors to the house of her captor.
She willingly stayed with him for 18 years before the police intervened.
Dugard’s parents had described her, as a child, as being very easy to get along with, very accommodating and mellow.
From a layman’s standpoint, I can clearly see how a youth who’s more rebellious, challenges authority, is outspoken and daring, would jump at the first opportunity to escape from Phillip Garrido’s loosely barricaded yard.
Shawn Hornbeck. Being female is not a risk factor for Stockholm syndrome. Hornbeck was kidnapped at age 11 and for about five years lived with his abductor who raped him, Michael Devlin.
However, on many occasions, Hornbeck was allowed to leave Devlin’s house to ride his bike, go to movies and visit friends. Of course, he always returned to his “captor.”
Were the following kidnap victims immune to Stockholm syndrome?
19-year-old woman, East St. Louis, Illinois. The victim reported being raped and beaten daily and had made numerous escape attempts, but each time her captor chased her down and forced her back to his house at gunpoint.
His mother also lived there and took part in the captivity. Finally, after two years, the woman, who had given birth to the captor’s baby during the first year of captivity, bolted successfully.
Kevin Lunsmann, 14, Manila, Philippines. After five months of captivity by armed captors, Lunsmann tricked them into thinking he was going to a stream to bathe. Instead he fled, barefoot, into the jungle and was eventually rescued.
11-year-old girl, Whittier, California, March, 2013. She was forced into a car in which a crying 7-year-old girl was in.
At some point the older girl saw an opportunity to escape and, along with the younger girl, both bolted from the car.
28-year-old woman, East Moline, Illinois. She was held captive by a former boyfriend who’d beat her if she tried to escape. After two weeks of this, she finally escaped.
Stockholm syndrome is over-emphasized by the media, and the vast majority of abduction victims do not develop it.
“There are other regressive behaviors that are even more dangerous – but with sufficient underlying emotional strength and ongoing conviction, most people can avoid becoming pathologically co-dependent in personal relationships and in traumatic situations,” says Dr. Reiss.