Stockholm Syndrome, Kidnapping and Childhood Abuse

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The news has shocked and fascinated the world – details are still sketchy but it seems at the time of writing an Austrian 73 year old man has confessed to the authorities to imprisoning his daughter and several of her children in a cellar below his home for 24 years, sexually abusing her repeatedly and fathering her seven children.


Three of the children appear to have been locked up in the windowless basement since birth and as two were in their late teens, this extended period in such peculiar and deprived circumstances naturally raises the question of the emotional impact upon them, and what hopes there are for recovery and a return to a normal life.


The authorities report at the time of writing that Psychiatrists have only just begun their assessment of the children and their mother and the world media is speculating feverishly as to what they are going to find. Given there are several crucial brain development spurts throughout childhood and adolescence, and as our nervous systems need not just vital nutrients but sunlight and physical plus emotional stimulation, the very real possibility exists that those poor children in Austria might need not just psychological, but also even neurological help.


Another surprise many will not realise is that setting aside the particularly bizarre nature of many aspects of this case, physical and sexual abuse within a family, and in the context of some kind of sense of imprisonment, is probably and shockingly not that rare.


Surveys from around the world suggest that one in three women have experienced physical abuse at some time in their lives and in extreme cases very violent and controlling men may ban the partner they are abusing from leaving the home. Isolating the victim from the outside world using various strategies is in fact a key component of the psychological strategy involved in abuse. It ensures that neighbours, friends or authorities are not alerted and the perpetrator stopped, plus it assists with creating a mental state within the victim that ensures they are more pliable in the abuser’s hands.


In the case of incest one common technique of generating this isolation psychologically rather than physically is the threat that should a victim tell on a perpetrator the abuser will go to prison and that will destroy the family, or that no one will believe them, or that what others will believe is that the victim is the cause of the abuse – that they brought it on themselves or seduced the abuser. The abuser often convinces the victim that they should feel guilty and responsible for the fact the act is taking place. A victim may not want to be the source of shame that would inevitably follow the discovery of incest within a family and may begin to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that everything is ‘alright’ – at least to the outside world.


The taboo around incest, sex and violence means that victims naturally become confused and frightened, contributing to their inability to obtain outside support or advice about what is going on. When a story emerges that incest has been occurring under the very nose of others living in the same home – many will say how come no one knew – the answer is these horrors are rendered more possible because of a variety of complex psychological forces in play. The incredulity that outsiders bring to bear on the story – including the one dominating the headlines today does not necessarily help those struggling to come to terms with their suffering at the hands of abusers.


For example it is often the case that some level of unconscious or even conscious collusion from the victim seems to be a key factor in assisting the abuse to occur or to endure for so long. Classically this is referred to as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ after a famous hostage taking bank robbery in Stockholm back in 1973. Peculiarly the four hostages barricaded into the bank vault seemed to develop a bond with their captors and even appeared to resist rescue.


Since that notorious incident there have been many other cases where those tortured or taken hostage appeared to develop a bizarre attachment with their abusers. 


For example in the other recent case that brought Austria to the attention of the world, Natasha who was abducted on her way to school and who had been reportedly kept prisoner for many years, expressed sadness and grief when Wolfgang Priklopil her abductor and tormentor subsequently committed suicide. She even is said to have gone as far as declaring that her captivity was in some ways ‘a good thing’ as it meant she was protected from negative outside influences. 


The reality is that the relationship which develops between a victim and an abuser in whatever context is complex, particularly if the abuse occurred over an extended period, and the superficial reporting of cases which hit the headlines will provoke disturbing feelings in those who have had similar experiences of abuse.


One theory as to why the abused sometimes form a kind of attachment to their torturer is that if you believe that future pain and even survival depend on the daily or hourly mood or outlook of your persecutor, then you develop a detailed interest in them as you desperately try influencing them in positive way to prevent or lessen their disposition to hurt you. After a while you believe you can have an impact on them and this begins a kind of relationship driven by a powerfully basic need for survival.


Another theory is that victims develop a second personality – hence the beginning of multiple personality disorder – and it’s this second persona who experiences the abuse while another identity is free to have a different kind of relationship with the outside world – including the abuser. The ability to switch identities might not just protect the mind from overwhelming trauma, it facilitates a way of living with oneself and another who embodies frighteningly hostile as well as other qualities.


There are many other theories as well – including the intriguing idea that sometimes strong states of arousal produced through fear can get confused with excitement and attraction in the relief of discovering that your abuser is actually going to let you live after all.


But whatever the eventual explanation for why the relationship between abuser and victim is not as straightforward as the media would like us to believe given their sound bite understanding, before the spotlight moves on to another story and this one is forgotten, it’s vital for those who have experienced abuse or who are experiencing it now, that they know there is now a developing understanding of their complicated, frightening and disturbing feelings. These are feelings that may have been stirred up in a disturbing way by the wall to wall coverage of this story.


If you have been effected by these horrifying events – perhaps you experienced incest or abuse or domestic violence or even imprisonment either physical or psychological, then sharing your thoughts and feelings with a clinician or a doctor, or using web resources, books or other self-help groups, or even the big white wall itself (check bigwhitewall on the web), might be an opportunity to process some very difficult ‘stuff’ that may have been lying suppressed for some time, but brought to light by the shocking news now coming out of Austria.




Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych has worked as Consultant Psychiatrist at The Bethlem Royal and Maudsleny NHS Hospitals Trust as well as at the Institute of Psychiatry and Institute of Neurology and as Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry. He is a supporter of The Big White Wall project as well as various other charities including Action Aid and The Alzheimers’ Research Trust. He has been awarded numerous Academic and Professional Honours including the Research Prize and Medal from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He is the editor of the top ten best-selling book ‘The Mind – A Users Guide’ published in collaboration with fifty mental experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. A survey in the Independent on Sunday Newspaper found he was voted on of the top ten psychiatrists in the UK and The Times Newspaper voted him one of the top twenty Gurus in the world.  

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