Feb 17, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome: what it is

In August 2009, when Jaycee Dugard, a woman kidnapped 18 years ago, was found, the media reported that she displayed symptoms of the psychological disorder known as Stockholm Syndrome, so named after a famous Swedish robbery in which hostages sympathized with their captors. Housed in a shed in her captor’s backyard, Dugard was repeatedly raped since she was eleven years old. But when investigators questioned her, Dugard reported that her captor was a “great person.”

Dugard’s case is only one of the many news stories that have received worldwide media attention. The public is fascinated by victims’ seemingly inexplicable positive responses after having suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

In her groundbreaking book, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives, Dr. Dee Graham, one of the earliest Stockholm Syndrome researchers, identified four characteristics that typify those suffering from the syndrome:

1. Perceived threat to survival, and belief that the captor is able to carry out the threat at any time.
2. A captor carries out a small act of kindness, and the captive perceives it as redemptive.
3. The captive is isolated for a significant amount of time, such that the victim can only see through the captor’s perspective.
4. Perceived impossibility of escape.

Shirley Julich, a professor at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, focuses her research on child sexual abuse. In 2005, she wrote a comprehensive report analyzing interviews with 21 survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In her attempt to understand her interviewers’ initial reticence to report abuse, she turned to Graham’s research, concluding that Stockholm Syndrome was indeed a major culprit, in effect contradicting an earlier child sexual abuse study conducted by the Otago Women’s Health Survey.

Shirley Julich’s full report is available here.

To read a more in-depth description of Stockholm Syndrome symptoms, read Dr. Joseph Carver’s Mental Health Matters blog post .

To get a brief history of major news stories featuring victims suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, read this recent Time magazine article.

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