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Stockholm Syndrome and Regular Old Abuse

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

CNN is running a story about a young woman, Natascha Kampusch, presently 18 years old, who recently escaped from captivity in an Austrian suburb after being kidnapped about 8 years ago. The news reports are somewhat sensationalized because there seems to be a "sex slave" aspect to this case (which has not been confirmed yet, to my knowledge), but the bones of the situation are that the girl was kept in a small cell under the captor’s garage and allowed to interact only with him for 8 years – her entire teen aged experience. All very "Silence of the Lambs" it would seem.

You would think that after having been so clearly and thoroughly abused for such a long time that Natascha would be angry at her captor, but apparently her feelings are instead mixed. Upon learning that her abuser had abruptly committed suicide after her escape, she reportedly mourned for him, and took care to defend him in a letter to the media:

"In my eyes, his death was not necessary. It would not be the end of the world if he had simply been given a prison sentence. He has been a big part of my life, and as a result I do feel I am in a sort of mourning for him. It is true that my youth was different to the youth of others, but in principle I don’t feel I missed anything. On the contrary, there are certain things I avoided, having nothing to do with smoking or drinking to start off with, and I didn’t meet the wrong friends."

"The one thing I would appeal for from the press is a stop to the insulting reports, the misinterpretations of reality, the commentaries that claim to know better and the lack of respect for me".

A rather good commentary in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper talks about how this sort of reaction, sometimes known as Stockholm Syndrome, is fairly common in kidnapping victims. What is striking to me is how this sort of situation illustrates just how socially determined people’s sense of self actually is.

As the psychologist Abraham Maslow taught us years ago, people have a very strong need to belong. The need to belong is stronger than the need for self-esteem. So long as we are fed and sheltered and not in imminent danger of dying, our next motive is generally to seek belonging; to be part of a social group.

This sort of "Stockholm Syndrome" is certainly not limited to 8-year captives. Instead, clinicians see it every day when treating abuse victims. When a person’s one shot at belonging (whether actual or perceived, it makes no difference) is to identify with an abusive family or spouse (or captor as the case may be), that is exactly what people tend to do. People get used to abuse, rationalize it away until it seems normal to them … something expected, even deserved. For this reason, it often doesn’t even occur to many people that what they’ve experienced was abuse. Or, if there is recognition that abuse has occurred, there is an urge to minimize the extent to which the abuse is recognized. Not a pretty picture of how people’s psychological insides work, but it does seem to be the case that this is how identity tends to work.

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