Captive girl’s actions hint at brainwashing

Chicago Tribune, via Contra Costa Times, Mar. 15, 2003

The signs at first contact were ominous.

When police initially encountered Elizabeth Smart last week on State Street in Sandy, Utah, she wore a gray wig and dark glasses. Her head and face were covered. And then she lied. When Sandy police officer Bill O’Neal and his partner approached, she identified herself as Augustine Mitchell, adopting the surname of her alleged abductor.

“We took her aside,” O’Neal recalled. “She kind of just blurted out, ‘I know who you think I am. You guys think I’m that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away.’ “

When they insisted that she was Elizabeth Smart, she replied with a non-committal phrase: “Thou sayest.”

Experts agree that her behavior seemed to be a sign that Elizabeth had bonded with her captors and that she might have undergone some form of brainwashing that could have long-term psychological repercussions.

After finally admitting her identity, Elizabeth repeatedly asked police what would happen to her companions, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ilene Barzee. Police said she showed concern only for their welfare, not her own.

Since that encounter Wednesday afternoon, Elizabeth has been surrounded by relatives in the Smart family home. The only non-relatives known to have spoken with her have been law-enforcement authorities.

Police and family members, who have said she had “been through brainwashing,” have provided little detail about what happened to Elizabeth during her 9-month captivity. She was abducted June 5.

Meanwhile, Mitchell and Barzee remained in custody over the weekend; they have not yet been formally charged in Elizabeth’s abduction.

Psychologists and child-abduction experts say cults and kidnappers use numerous mind-control techniques, including isolation, sleeplessness, hunger, extreme discomfort, and the alternating use of kindness and cruelty. They say the 15-year-old could have been manipulated enough to keep her from approaching authorities or trying to escape.

So-called Stockholm syndrome often is considered in such cases. Captives with this syndrome – named after a 1973 bank robbery and hostage situation in the Swedish capital – eventually identify with and even support their captors.

Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University-San Bernardino and an expert on child abuse, said people who spend long stretches of time with their captors often begin identifying with them.

“If they are held for a length of time, they begin to have distortion in their thinking, to take the side of the hostage-taker and see police as a threat,” Stahly said.

“When someone has the ability to make life or death decisions about you it’s powerful,” she added. “When they show you any kindness, brainwashing is possible.”

Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler, detailed a scenario that could result in Stockholm syndrome: The abductor threatens to kill the victim, establishing fear; when the abductor changes his mind, the victim feels gratitude toward him.

“They start to see the outside world as more threatening than the world they’re in,” McCrary said. “They recognize that if they go along with the captor, they’ll survive.”

Marta Weber, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in trauma cases, concurred that Smart could have suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

“If you have to be in a room with your captors, you have to get along with them in such a way so that you don’t provoke them to harm you,” she said. “What the ego does is, it will rearrange your perceptions so that you can believe you like these people so you don’t have to lie about it and be found out. You’ll actually believe you have a positive relationship with them.”

Weber used the Patricia Hearst case to illustrate how abductors can further manipulate their captives. Hearst was kept blindfolded and nude in a closet for several months and was sexually assaulted and deprived of food and sleep.

When she was let out, members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped her, showed her compassion. They told her she was alone in the world and she needed to join them.

“She was like a robot,” Weber said. “She went along with them.”

Police say Elizabeth lived in the mountains overlooking her home for months, close enough to hear her uncle’s voice when he searched for her in the days following her abduction. She heard the voice, but she did not respond.

Janja Lalich, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University-Chico, said that based on what few details have been reported about Elizabeth’s time in captivity, it is hard to question why the teen did not do more to get away from her alleged captors.

“From the outside, everyone is wondering why didn’t she call the cops. We don’t know what it’s like living in that system,” said Lalich, who wrote the 1994 book “

More Information:
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Cult leaders often are able to control their subjects by determining what they wear and eat, creating a new language, giving them a new name and identity and indoctrinating them in a religious belief system.

“A lot of it has to do with immersing the person in a new reality,” Lalich said. “In a sense, you do forget who you were.”

Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, observed from news reports that she seemed anxious when she was discovered Wednesday in Sandy, a Salt Lake City suburb.

“Was she anxious because she was with these captors or because she was being questioned by police?” Kraus asked.

Kraus said that “the trauma of separation from family, friends and school is major” and could go on for years.

He said the Smart family seemed to be placing so much emphasis on the positive aspects of Elizabeth’s return that he hoped they were being realistic about the help she and the rest of the family will need.

“Perhaps they are afraid of what they are going to find,” Kraus said.

Some psychologists criticized assertions by Elizabeth’s father, Ed, that their family would not press her to talk about her ordeal, and that they would allow her to talk in her own time.

“Her natural instinct will be to shut that whole (9-month experience) off and try not to talk about it,” said Joyce Divinyi, a psychotherapist in Atlanta who specializes in childhood trauma cases.

“Adolescents are not good about talking about their feelings on a good day,” she added. “It’s not going to be natural for her to wake up and say, `I’m ready to talk about this.’ “

Kraus and others said it would be vital for Elizabeth – and her whole family – to obtain professional counseling, and to return to school and her old routines.

Some resumption of normalcy appeared to be ahead for the teen. One of her uncles, Tom Smart, said she wanted to start horseback riding again, one of her favorite activities.

And a return to school? “I’m sure she will in time,” said another uncle, Chris Smart. “We just want to give her time and respect what she needs.”

(Chicago Tribune correspondent Judith Graham contributed to this report.)

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday March 16, 2003.
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