THE FLIP SIDE OF PROFILING: COERCION & THE CAPTIVE MIND
By Carla Norton
Years ago, I wrote a true account of an astonishing crime that gave me nightmares: Twenty-year-old Colleen Stan was kidnapped at knifepoint, locked in a coffin-sized box, and held captive for over seven years. She was subjected to unthinkable deprivation and abuse.
She finally escaped, but at her kidnapper’s trial, the defense attorney startled everyone by portraying this captor/captive “relationship” as consensual. Indeed, the victim had failed to seize multiple opportunities to escape. Why?
You’re probably thinking “Stockholm syndrome,” but the term was so poorly understood in those days that journalists actually wagered over whether this sadistic kidnapper would be set free. Luckily, the jury also heard the testimony of expert witnesses who explained Stockholm syndrome as existing on a spectrum of mental coercion, or “brainwashing.”
Thus began my lifelong obsession with a niche of forensic psychology that is essentially the flip side of profiling, looking not at perpetrators, but victims.
Here’s a bit of background: The term Stockholm syndrome was coined by a Swedish criminologist in 1973 after a team of bank robbers locked hostages in a vault for six days. Some of the captives later expressed affection and sympathy for their captors. This seemingly counterintuitive response is a survival mechanism that has since been seen in so many cases—plane hijackings, prison riots, POWs—that hostage negotiators are trained to anticipate it.
Most victims suffer a cluster of symptoms, including paralyzing fear. Those held for even brief periods can be plagued for years by anxiety, sleep disorders, and flashbacks.
Stockholm syndrome is actually a form of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, but this was scoffed at in 1974, when Patty Hearst’s arrest made headlines. By the time Elizabeth Smart was rescued in 2003, the public had grown more compassionate. And by 2013, when three women were rescued from a hellish captivity in Ohio, there was an unprecedented outpouring of public support.
These true stories of prolonged captivity can be called “stranger than fiction.” And readers who want to learn more should check out My Story by Elizabeth Smart, A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard, Hope by Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, and Finding Me by Michelle Knight.
For readers who prefer crime fiction to true crime, I highly recommend the following novels because each uniquely illuminates the psychology of captives.
- The Collector by John Fowles (1963)
This story is chilling, insightful, and timeless. Fowles writes in the alternating points of view of captor and captive, and it’s absolutely amazing that he so accurately portrayed Stockholm syndrome a decade before the term was even coined.
- I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (2010)
Lippman’s main character is startled by a letter from her former captor, who is on death row. The story deals with the aftermath of kidnapping on many levels: the woman’s desire to get on with her life, survivor’s guilt, and probing questions about the lasting connections between captor and captive.
- Misery by Stephen King (1988)
Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has just completed a great manuscript when his car careens off an icy road. He’s rescued by large, capable Annie Wilkes, who just happens to be a nurse, a psychopath, and his biggest fan. Thus King pulls us into this crime story through a trap door: not a girl kidnapped by a man, but a man taken captive by a woman. Trust King to scare you silly as this novel builds to unrelenting terror.
- Room by Emma Donoghue (2011)
The point-of-view character of Donoghue’s novel is a five-year-old boy, Jack, who was born in captivity. The voice is extraordinary. (Donoghue says her novel was inspired by the true story of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age twelve, held captive for eighteen years, and had two children with her captor.)
Lastly, you may be interested to know that my true-crime book, Perfect Victim, which describes the crimes against Colleen Stan and her kidnapper’s trial, also inspired my fiction: The Edge of Normal and What Doesn’t Kill Her.
Most importantly, I’ve just launched a fundraising campaign for Colleen. If you’d like to help, you can find details at “Help Colleen Raise Her Grandson,” on GoFundMe.com. Thank you!
Carla Norton is a novelist, journalist, and true-crime writer. Her debut fiction, The Edge of Normal, was a Thriller Award finalist in 2014 and is being adapted to film. The sequel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (titled Hunted overseas) was released in 2015. Carla also co-authored Perfect Victim, which made the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more, visit CarlaNorton.com.