Surviving Captivity: Stockholm Syndrome

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

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.

Leave a Reply

Copyright 2013, Dr. Michelle Golland. All Rights Reserved.