Hostages can be paralyzed by fear
St. Louis ? It just doesn’t make sense to so many people. How could Shawn Hornbeck ride his bike, surf the Internet, make phone calls, even go to a school dance, and not escape from Michael J. Devlin, the man accused of kidnapping him and holding him hostage for more than four years?
He could have told someone. He could have alerted his parents. Ten months after he disappeared, he talked to a police officer about his stolen bike. He could have asked for help then. Why didn’t he just bolt when he was away from Devlin?
People are telling each other, “That’s what I would have done,” or “It’s what my child would do in Shawn’s situation.” Right?
Not so fast, say experts who have treated children and adults who have survived traumatic experiences, such as abuse, kidnapping and hostage situations.
“I think most people would be surprised at what they might say or do to survive,” said Dr. John Rabun, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Washington University.
Shawn was reunited with his family on Jan. 12 after being missing since Oct. 6, 2002, when he disappeared riding his bicycle about half a mile from his home. Police rescued Shawn from an apartment in Kirkwood, Mo., along with William “Ben” Ownby, 13, who disappeared Jan. 8 after getting off a school bus near his home.
Devlin, 41, a pizza-store employee, was arrested that day and is charged with kidnapping both boys.
Although nobody but Shawn knows the details of what he endured, mental health providers do know plenty about psychological chains from studying people in other situations. Some hostages of kidnapping or other abuse experience a psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome, where they form a bond with their captors. For others, fear itself is enough to keep them shackled to their captors, even when there are no physical restraints.
Stockholm syndrome was first labeled in 1973 after a bank robbery in the Swedish city. Three women and a man were held hostage from Aug. 23 until Aug. 28. During that time, the hostages were strapped with dynamite and threatened. But at the end of the experience, the hostages resisted rescue, refused to testify against their captors and even helped raise money for their legal defense.
That tendency to form a bond with a captor or abuser has been noted in domestic violence victims, concentration camp prisoners, cult members and others. The captors also reportedly formed an attachment to their hostages, Rabun said.
The syndrome seems baffling but can be an effective survival technique for people who are held captive because it makes the captor seem more human, Rabun said.
Hallmarks of the Stockholm syndrome include:
¢ The victim is isolated – physically or psychologically or both.
¢ The victim fears (and believes) that the captor will harm the victim or the victim’s loved ones.
¢ The victim perceives kindness in the tormentor. The act of kindness could be something as small as allowing the captive to live, Rabun said. That leads the victim to think, “He’s not such a bad guy.”
¢ The situation is made worse when a child is involved. Adults have size advantages, experience and resources that a child lacks.
The response is an unconscious reaction to fear, said Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Well Being at Washington University. One way out of a fearful situation is to eliminate the division between captor and hostage by beginning to identify with the captor, he said.
“Once you’ve begun to identify with them, you don’t have to fear them anymore, because you’re in harmony with them,” Cloninger said. “If there’s any conflict, it’s not between you and the captor, it’s with the outside world.”
Taking the captor’s side may involve letting go of the desire to run away, he said.
Power of fear
But it’s not necessary to invoke a complex psychological theory to explain why someone might not leave a dangerous situation, said Terri L. Weaver, an associate professor of clinical psychology at St. Louis University. Fear alone is enough to keep people chained, she said.
Cloninger agrees. He cited the case of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart.
Elizabeth was kidnapped from her bedroom in June 2002 and held by Mormon fundamentalist Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee, for nine months. Elizabeth did not try to escape, and many people speculated that she also identified with her captors. But Elizabeth’s diary, written in French, clearly shows that she didn’t sympathize with her kidnappers. In fact, she despised them, Cloninger said. She didn’t escape out of fear that Mitchell would kill her or her family, Elizabeth has said.
Shawn and his parents appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show last week. Winfrey said she had asked Shawn privately why he had never contacted his parents. He told her that “he was terrified to do so,” Winfrey said.
Fear is a powerful emotion.
Weaver said: “Fear can be paralyzing. Fear can literally silence people. Feelings of terror can literally leave people unable to talk, unable to scream.”
Fear can overwhelm rational thought and behavior, Cloninger said. Brain imaging studies have shown that a primitive emotional center called the amygdala can suppress rational thought, Cloninger said.
Children may assume that adults know what is happening to them, or may try to reach out, but do so in ways that adults don’t recognize, Weaver said. Every time a child tries to get help and fails, it reinforces the abuser’s message that the child is helpless.
That is a well-known psychological condition known as learned helplessness. Some people think it may be involved in depression and other mental illnesses.