Elizabeth Smart may have begun to identify with her abductors, expert says
San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 14, 2003
Katherine Seligman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Her face, it seemed, was everywhere Thursday. News anchors and Hollywood agents lined up to talk to her parents. Even President Bush called to say how happy he was that Elizabeth Smart was back home.
So what about the 15-year-old girl who used to be, after all, just an ordinary young teenager? Gone for nine long months, what can seem an eternity to a teen, Elizabeth Smart now faces another challenge — trying to return to a normal life.
“We need more happy endings in cases like this,” said Georgia Hilgeman, director of the San Jose-based Vanished Children’s Alliance and mother of a child abducted in 1976 and hidden for more than four years by her ex-husband. “But obviously (Elizabeth’s family members) are going through the honeymoon stage here. This is not the end of the story. There will be some adjustment and lots of emotional triggers. They have been forever changed by this event.”
Elizabeth was photographed Thursday hugging her grandparents and siblings. It was a joyous reunion, but one that psychologists and those who know what families of missing children go through say is the first step in what could be a long, complicated recovery.
“Unfortunately, people are usually supportive for a few months and then there begins to be the assumption that you’re OK,” said JoAnn Lippert, a psychologist who has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to develop effective treatment for abducted children once they are recovered. “The reality is that it takes longer than that. Victims often feel abandoned, like people don’t care anymore.”
Lippert said that initially kidnapped children may feel euphoric, but that may be followed by sadness as they realize the impact of their abduction.
Typically, victims in high-profile cases are overstimulated by attention from the media, law enforcement and friends and neighbors, Lippert said. They appear vulnerable and may want to talk about it as a way of being helpful, recalling small details about their abduction.
“That is an abduction survival strategy,” Lippert said. “It gives them something to help out with. They might want to give precise descriptions of where they were held, how they determined day from night.”
Another survival strategy, she said, is continuing the same compliant behavior employed during the abduction. Victims learn that they need to comply with orders from their captors to escape alive, and children might continue that behavior after they are freed, Lippert said.
Details of Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal have not yet been made public, but some observers say it appears she might have been frightened into complying with her kidnapper. Her father has referred to “brainwashing.”
Reports that Elizabeth appeared in public with her alleged kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, without trying to escape may indicate she suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, a common malady of hostages, according to Douglas Goldsmith, a Salt Lake City child psychologist.
Kidnap victims with this syndrome, named after four Swedish bank robbery hostages who began to identify with their captors, “start to realize immediately that (the captor) has control over your life and that you better do what they tell you,” Goldsmith said.
“Then, the captor starts to talk to (the victim) about their own issues, and it’s not unusual for the people to start having some sympathy. But it’s really derived from a level of high anxiety and stress.”
The Smart family has not pressed Elizabeth to reveal details of her ordeal, her aunt, Cynthia Smart Owens, said Thursday. But along with the girl’s feelings of shock and relief, Owens said, is some empathy for her abductors.
Elizabeth “is just reflecting on everything she’s been through and trying to figure out where she fits in now,” Owens said. “With what went on over the last nine months, I think that she feels these people cared for her, too, and is reflecting on what is happening to them.”
In pictures of her taken at a party with her abductor that have been aired on television, Elizabeth appears “cowed and afraid,” said Alan Lipman, executive director of the Center for the Study of Violence and a psychology professor at George Washington University.
“That was a girl who was internally terrorized,” Lipman said. “You could see her face, her body posture.”
Elizabeth suddenly bolting from her captors “would actually be inconsistent with the syndrome,” Goldsmith said. “It’s very hard for people to imagine, but Patty Hearst did the same thing.”
Public attention can be overwhelming, agreed Hilgeman, who recalls her own daughter’s distress after she was recovered at 5 years old. Now 28, married and a mother herself, her daughter works for the Vanished Children’s Alliance and says it took therapy and many years to recover from her abduction.
Elizabeth Smart is returning to a large and supportive family, Lipman noted.
“That kind of social support is critical in terms of recovery,” he said.
After the initial stages of adjustment, Lippert said, she often sees children becoming emotionally numb or apathetic. “There is a denial and avoidance of the event,” she said. “They turn off the feelings because they are overwhelming.”
The victims then sometimes feel guilty, Lippert said. They may feel partly responsible for causing the grief, or for not trying to escape their captors. They may feel they need to do more for their families because of what they went through.
Long-term recovery depends on being able to grieve loss of time with family and friends, Lippert said, and trying to reconcile how bad things can happen to children. Kidnap victims often have a hard time learning “to trust that the world is a good place,” she said.
“The other part I’d say is that there is hope,” said said. “People can take these experiences and integrate them. They can become stronger. That is the challenge.”
Chronicle staff writer John M. Hubbell contributed to this report.