Experts' view: Escaping is not so simple

Brainwashing, fear, drugs might have hindered girl

March 14, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - A man kidnaps you at gunpoint from your bedroom and makes you live with him and his wife for months.

Wouldn't you try to get away?

That's the question that many people are asking about the Elizabeth Smart abduction. With the whole country looking for her, why didn't a bright teenager ask for help when she was out in public with Brian Mitchell, the man accused of taking her from her affluent Salt Lake City home?

Far too few facts have been released for anyone to know the answer for sure, but therapists familiar with psychological trauma say it's harder to fight back than many people think.

"None of us knows how we would act, how we would react under stress like that," said Donna Fiedler, a trauma expert who teaches social work at LaSalle University.

The experts said that Mitchell, an excommunicated Mormon who saw himself as a prophet to the homeless, might have brainwashed Smart, as her father has said.

Or she might have experienced what psychologists call the "Stockholm syndrome," a reaction in which prisoners begin to identify and sympathize with their captors.

Patricia Hearst, the heiress who participated in a 1974 bank robbery with her kidnappers, is the best-known example of this.

Another possibility is that Elizabeth was simply paralyzed by fear.

Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, likely controlled Elizabeth with a combination of fear and persuasion, experts say.

Moira Rynn, a child psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mitchell might also have used drugs. "I could think of a million things that would slow her down, make her think slower," she said.

Rynn frequently sees battered women who stay with their abusers, or children who don't tell their parents of abuse because of fear and guilt.

Elizabeth, she said, "was in a crazy situation. Depending on what he did to her, who knows what she thought she had to do to stay alive?"

The Stockholm syndrome was named after a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in which two men held four people hostage for six days and the captives bonded with their captors.

James McGee, a Baltimore psychologist who consults with police departments, saw the syndrome at work during a hostage situation in Baltimore in 2000 in which the hostages became angry with police during negotiations.

"The fundamental issue is that when someone has total, complete, absolute control over your life, it's relatively easy for you to develop a kind of dependency and even positive feelings toward that person," he said.

McGee added that, whatever Elizabeth did during her captivity, it worked.

"She deserves an enormous amount of credit for keeping herself alive," he said. "She somehow intuitively figured out what she needed to do to keep alive."

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