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Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, Sweden, was destroyed by the clatter of a submachine gun. As clouds of plaster and heaps of shattered glass settled around the 60 stunned occupants, a heavily armed lone gunman called out in English, The party has just begun.
The party was to continue for 131 hours, permanently affecting the lives of four young hostages and giving birth, in name at least, to a psychological phenomenon subsequently called the Stockholm Syndrome. During the 131 hours from 10:15 a.m. on August 23 until 11:00 p.m. on August 28, four employees of the Sveriges Kreditbank were held hostage. They were Elizabeth Oldgren, age 21, then an employee of fourteen months working as a cashier in foreign exchange, now a nurse; Kristin Ehnmark, age 23, then a bank stenographer in the loan department, today a social worker; Brigitta Lundblad, age 31, an employee of the bank; and Sven Safstrom, age 25, a new employee who today works for the National Government of Sweden. They were held by a 32 year-old thief, burglar, and prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson. Their jail was an 11 by 47-foot carpeted bank vault that they came to share with another criminal and former cellmate of Olsson: Clark Olofsson, age 26. Olofsson joined the group only after Olsson demanded his release from the Norrrdkpoing Penitentiary.
For weeks after this incident, under the care of psychiatrists, some of the hostages experienced the paradox of nightmares over the possible escape of the jailed subjects and yet felt no hatred for their captors. In fact, they described feeling that the subjects had given them their lives back and that they were emotionally indebted to their captors for this generosity.
Several theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain the observable symptoms that law enforcement professionals and members of the psychiatric community have come to call the Stockholm Syndrome. One of the earliest concepts formulated to explain it involved the phenomenon of identification with the aggressor that Anna Freud described. This type of identification is summoned by the ego to protect itself against authority figures who have generated anxiety. The purpose of this type of identification is to enable the ego to avoid the wrath and potential punishment of the enemy. The hostage identifies out of fear rather than out of love. It would appear that the healthy ego evaluates the situation and selects from its arsenal of defenses a mechanism that had served it best in the past during similar trauma.
I view the Stockholm Syndrome as a regression to a more elementary level of development than is seen in the 5-year-old who identifies with a same-sex parent. The 5-year-old is able to feed himself, speak for himself, and has locomotion. The hostage is more like the infant who must cry for food, cannot speak, and may be bound and immobile. Like the infant, the hostage is in a state of extreme dependency and fright. In addition, like the infant or extremely young child, the hostage is terrified of the outside world and of the prospect of separation from the parent.
normal infant is blessed with a mother figure who sees to his needs. As these
needs are satisfactorily met by the mother figure, the child begins to love this
person who is protecting him from the outside world. The adult is capable of caring
and leading the infant out of dependency and fear. So it is with the hostage -
his every breath a gift from the subject. He is now as dependent as he was as
an infant; the controlling, all-powerful adult is again present; the outside world
is threatening once again. The weapons that the police have deployed against the
subject are also, in the mind of the hostage, deployed against him. Once again
he is in dependency, perhaps on the brink of death. Once again there is a powerful
authority figure who can help. So the behavior that worked for the dependent infant
surfaces again as a means of survival.
Reflection Exercise #5
QUESTION 14: What are the three phases of the Stockholm Syndrome? To select and enter your answer go to Answer Booklet.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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