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Why kidnap victims and battered women may be to slow to escape

Katherine Van Wormer

USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) > July, 2007

IN JANUARY, THE SEARCH for a missing 13-year-old boy, Ben Ownby, led police to the
home of his suspected kidnapper, Michael Devlin. There they found not one, but
two, kidnap victims. Shawn Hornbeck had been abducted while riding his bicycle
four years before. The 15-year-old Hornbeck was well-known to neighbors and
friends. The story, as flashed out over the TV networks, left Americans stunned.
Here was a boy who had surfed the Internet, owned a cell phone, ridden a bike, and
even called the police to report that an earlier bicycle had been stolen. Here was
a boy who had helped in the capture of a second, younger boy. Here was a kidnap
victim who had every opportunity to escape, but failed to do so.

Some people's minds had flashbacks to the 1970s when former kidnap victim Patty
Hearst was found by police engaging in robberies with the gang that had abducted
her. On his Fox News Channel show, "The O'Reilly Factor," host Bill O'Reilly did
not mince his words: "I'm not buying this. If you're 11 years old or 12 years old,
13, and you have a strong bond with your family, Okay, even if the guy threatens
you, this and that, you're tiding your bike around, you got friends. The kid
didn't go to school. There's all kinds of stuff. If you can get away, you get
away. All right?.... This is what I believe happened in the Hearst case and in
this case. The situation that Hearst found herself in was exciting. She had a
boring life. She was a child of privilege. All of a sudden, she's in with a bunch
of charismatic thugs, and she enjoyed it. The situation here for this kid looks to
me to be a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents. He didn't have to
go to school. He could run around and do whatever he wanted."

There was a reason Devlin afforded his young captive such freedom: his
conditioning of the boy had been successful. It was because the youngster he took
care of was different from the one whom he had captured and tortured
(psychologically and possibly physically) four years earlier. Hornbeck probably
had proved his loyalty to Devlin in many ways. Devlin's techniques may not have
been aimed deliberately at indoctrination, but they most certainly were designed
to break down any resistance. The strategies he used would have been relatively
the same as those employed by the government to accomplish the same thing.

The government, as O'Reilly should know, uses advanced techniques to get

noncitizen detainees captured in the war on terror to "crack." According to
reports on these methods, the most efficient technique is to break down the
suspect's defenses through a combination of physical discomfort and psychological
deprivation (of light or dark, regular meals, sleep, comfortable sitting
positions). The good-cop, bad-cop strategy also is utilized so that the detainee
will confide in the supposed ally. Once the person talks a little, he or she is
told, "You're mined now with your people, so you might as well tell all and let us
help you." Loners usually take longer to break down.

These methods bear some resemblance to those of brainwashing, although

brainwashing is not an official psychiatric diagnosis. This term first was coined
as a description of political indoctrination of captured American soldiers by the
Chinese communists during the Korean War. "Brainwashing" is a translation from
Chinese characters meaning "wash heart" or thought reform. Captured soldiers were
subjected to prolonged interrogations, removal of group leaders, and a "good-cop,
bad-cop" approach. Some Americans became so convinced of the Communist party line
that they defected to China. Those who criticize kidnap victims for their
seemingly passive behavior should check out psychological research related to
victimology. The classic study in this regard is that of Bruno Bettelheim, who
described in haunting detail the transition in behavior of concentration camp
inmates. Instead of anger, many prisoners came to identify with the SS troops who
were torturing them, regressed to a childlike state, and tried to emulate the
prison guards. They were extremely grateful for small, often imagined favors. Over
time, some rejected their families and friends who seemed to have abandoned them;
their only reality was life in the camp.

For kidnap victims such as Hearst and Elizabeth Smart, both of whom were beaten
and raped while held captive for months, the process of adaptation to the
mistreatment imposed upon them was relatively similar to that of Hornbeck. Both
victims ended up conforming to the lifestyle of their captors. Hearst went so far
as to take on the identity of Tania and to rob banks with her former captors. Yet,
like most of the Communist converts, Hearst and Smart resumed their original
identities upon their return to society.

These incidents bring to mind the case of Steven Stayner of California, a youth
who was snatched in 1972 at age seven and held by a convicted child molester for
eight horrifying years. Although Stayner went to school during this period, he
escaped only after his captor told him he was getting too old and kidnapped a
five-year-old boy to replace him. Motivated by the boy's distress, Stayner escaped
with him and brought him to the police.

Much media coverage in Austria was devoted to the case of Natascha Kampusch, who
disappeared at the age of 10. Kept in a basement cell and likely sexually abused
for eight years, Natascha managed to escape the man she was forced to call
"master" when she was trusted to wash his car. When, in 2006, the police went to
arrest her captor, he threw himself in front of a commuter train to his death.
Upon hearing of this, Kampusch reportedly wept inconsolably. She had a brief
reunion with her family, but has chosen not to see them since. Police
psychologists suggested Kampusch may have suffered from so-called "Stockholm
Syndrome" a term that refers to a hostage situation in Sweden in which the seized
individuals bonded with their captors to such an extent that they even testified
on their behalf in later court proceedings. Today, this term often is used as an
explanation for why people who are exposed to intermittent kindness by the captor,
kindness that is experienced within the context of a life and death situation,
become emotionally dependent on the captor.

So, what is the process by which persons in these highly vulnerable situations
come to identify so closely with their tormenters and victimizers? Basically,
one's identity with powerful individuals who can exact terrible punishments and
withhold the necessities of life can be understood as regression to a dependent,
childlike state. This response is not gender specific, but human; it derives from
a state of powerlessness and regression under situations of extreme stress.

Animal research shows the impact of extreme stress on behavior. Behavioral

scientists have found that, in experiments with mice, for example, if the
creatures are provided with an escape route, they learn very quickly how to avoid
an electrical shock that occurs right after they hear a bell ring. However, if the
escape route is blocked, the mice eventually quit trying to run away, even after
the escape route is cleared. In humans, this phenomenon is referred to as "learned

Traumatic bonding, a term sometimes applied to battered women who seem unduly
devoted to their abusive partners, also aptly describes the phenomenon of the
loyalty of the child victim in kidnapping cases. The term brainwashing is from the
point of view of the captor and less relevant here in that it implies a deliberate
attempt at thought control, often of a political nature. The concept of traumatic
bonding is a more accurate and less pejorative term that places the focus on the
victim of long-term abuse and denotes a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
From this perspective, the seemingly incomprehensible behavior of the victim is
viewed as an emotional reaction to a situation of terror and a functional survival
skill in adopting the captor's attitudes and belief system. Unlike a single sudden
traumatic event, long-term psychological abuse affects a person's well-being by
gradually eroding his or her taken-for-granted assumptions. A long-term sexual
relationship plays havoc with the emotions as well. Kidnap victims, like battered
women, are subject to extensive sexual exploitation and game-playing.

Traumatic bonding is a preferable term to "Stockholm Syndrome," which is more

appropriate to a situation of capture in a robbery-type context that is short term
and devoid of a sexual relationship. Moreover, as distinct from Stockholm
Syndrome, the notion of bonding through trauma goes beyond mere description; it
offers an explanation as to why the individual seems more or less frozen in the
role of victim.

Children--as young kidnap victims--are much more vulnerable in situations of

powerlessness and to strategies of thought control than are adults, and the time
period involved, whether it be days, weeks, months, or years, seems much longer to
a child.

Sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is

induced by coercion. Sex traffickers use a variety of methods to "condition" their
victims, including starvation, confinement, beatings, physical abuse, rape,
drugging, and threats of violence to the victims and their families. The goal of
such forceful violence, which often is used in the early stages of "the seasoning
process," is to break down resistance and make the victim easier to control.

According to Project REACH (Rapid Evaluation, Assessment, and Consultation

Services), a mobile crisis intervention team that treats traumatized victims of
international human trafficking, these abused individuals often are exposed to
horrific violence at various points in the trafficking situation. Tom away from
family and friends and a familiar culture and language, trafficking victims--many
of whom are children--are extremely vulnerable. The impact of violence on
youngsters can be very different than on adults, as kids' brains have yet to
mature fully. Violence thereafter can cast a long shadow on the way they develop.
When children live in fear or chaos, without a safe and reliable adult to
structure their environment or to help them calm down, developmental competencies
often are compromised.

Sexual slavery

From a mental health perspective, victims of human trafficking, or "sexual

slavery," suffer from many of the same symptoms as victims of other forms of
kidnapping. The deleterious effects of fraud, force, hunger, and coercion--the
favored tools of traffickers who transport girls far away from home to alien
territory often under promises of a job or a false marriage proposal--are
undeniable. Typically, the girls are passed from brothel to brothel, forced to
perform sex or hard labor to repay their "debt" that was incurred for being
smuggled into the country. Many feel a sense of guilt and shame and fail to escape
or seek help even when given the chance. A steady dose of such mistreatment can
hinder the mind and body's ability to respond to stress and danger, leading to
troubling symptoms and behaviors.

The challenge to feminist theorists is to explain the often irrational attachment

of battered women to their abusers. Many writers of the feminist school focus on
rational aspects (such as economic considerations and death threats) in a battered
woman's decision to stay with her man. Others look to psychology. The feeling that
one has no control is key to behavior that may appear unduly submissive and
strangely loyal. The impulse to survive takes precedence, and dependence upon the
captor (batterer) is associated with deep emotions. It is worth noting that, in
positions of vulnerability (such as old age), men as well as women can, and
clearly do, experience battering in relationships. Vulnerability, in short, is the
issue here, not gender.

Deeply disturbing and violent events can leave an indelible mark on the human
psyche. When the trauma is ongoing and caused by a partner, the likelihood that
the victim will cope in maladaptive ways is especially high. Unlike a single,
sudden traumatic event, long-term psychological abuse affects a woman's well-being
by eroding her taken-for-granted assumptions gradually.

In the U.S., enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 made sex
trafficking a serious violation under Federal law. When victims of trafficking are
identified, the government can assist them in adjusting their immigration status,
as well as help in recovery and building new lives. The intervention team that
specializes in aiding victims of trafficking, Project REACH, is composed of trauma
specialists who conduct needs assessments of individuals who have been trafficked
and provides counseling to assist the survivors in reestablishing physical and
psychological safety.

Prevention from the point of view of the victim may begin in democratic child
rearing that encourages youngsters to take the initiative in threatening
situations--that blind obedience of adults is no virtue--and that they must rely
on their own critical thinking abilities. In working with children who have been
trafficked or kidnapped, it must be kept in mind that the impact of violence will
depend on the developmental stage of the particular youngster and that, after the
individual is returned to the community, the development of mast may be a long
time coming.

In battering situations, research shows that knowing help is available and there
is somewhere to go (for example, a women's shelter) enhance the chance that the
victim will seek the aid she (or he) needs. We need to recognize, from an
empowerment perspective, that leaving is a process that may require many attempts
before being successful. Stages in the process of breaking loose involve changes
in one's level of serf-awareness combined with a reevaluation of the relationship
as dangerous. Survivors must build up their courage to retreat from the dangers.
Research on women who have managed to leave reveals that those with sufficient
self-esteem to make the break attribute social support as helping them to start a
new life.

Perhaps O'Reilly would retract his flippant and victim-blaming statements if he

understood the psychology of living as a captive and considered the facts
concerning what Shawn Hornbeck endured: Cut off from his parents, he became
completely dependent on a 6-foot-4, 300-pound stranger for food, sleep, warmth,
attention, and affection. According to the Associated Press, Hornbeck said that,
at times Devlin awakened him every 45 minutes. Yet, all the while, he showered him
with gifts.

Katherine van Wormer is professor of social work, University of Northern Iowa,

Cedar Falls, and author of Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Micro Level:
Individuals and Families.