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Societal Stockholm Syndrome

The term, Stockholm Syndrome, was coined in the early 70's to describe the puzzling reactions of four bank employees to their captor. On August 23, 1973, three women and one man were taken hostage in one of the largest banks in Stockholm. They were held for six days by two ex-convicts who threatened their lives but also showed them kindness. To the world's surprise, all of the hostages strongly resisted the government's efforts to rescue them and were quite eager to defend their captors. Indeed, several months after the hostages were saved by the police, they still had warm feelings for the men who threatened their lives. Two of the women eventually got engaged to the captors.

The Stockholm incident compelled journalists and social scientists to research whether the emotional bonding between captors and captives was a "freak" incident or a common occurrence in oppressive situations. They discovered that it's such a common phenomenon that it deserves a name. Thus the label, Stockholm Syndrome, was born. It has happened to concentration camp prisoners, cult members, civilians in Chinese Communist prisons, pimp-procured prostitutes, incest victims, physically and/or emotionally abused children, battered women, prisoners of war, victims of hijackings, and of course, hostages. Virtually anyone can get Stockholm Syndrome it the following conditions are met:

  • Perceived threat to survival and the belief that one's captor is willing to act on that threat
  • The captive's perception of small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror
  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor
  • Perceived inability to escape.
Stockholm Syndrome is a survival mechanism. The men and women who get it are not lunatics. They are fighting for their lives. They deserve compassion, not ridicule.

Psychologist Dee Graham has theorized that Stockholm Syndrome occurs on a societal level. Since our culture is patriarchal, she believes that all women suffer from it--to widely varying degrees, of course. She has expanded on her theories in Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men's Violence, and Women's Lives, which is well worth reading. While Graham's book can get quite harsh, it does end on a hopeful note: The most reliable way to deal with Socketal Stockholm Syndrome is to develop strong friendships and political alliances with feminist women.

Graham's theory is controversial and it tends to put many women on the defensive. Still, I think it's a much more convincing explanation of women's "self-destructive" behavior than such theories as "masochism" and "codependency". I also know from personal experience that Graham is "right on" with her view that feminist activism is the best way to deal with Societal Stockholm Syndrome. In college, my feminist friends saved me from some emotionally abusive romantic relationships. In discussing why many women like John Gray's books, I think we should take Graham's theory seriously.

As I read Loving to Survive, I thought of all the women who lambasted Susan Hamson for criticizing John Gray. It reminded me of the Stockholm captives who resisted the police and protected their captors. I also thought of Oprah Winfrey, who understandably wants a soul mate but gets ridiculed for that desire because she's "too successful and too independent". The lack of social support undoubtedly has had an isolating effect, especially considering the groundless rumors a few years ago about her "lesbianism". While I cringe at her support of John Gray, I must admit that he's never ridiculed her for wanting a "great guy". Gray's anatomy plays very well into Societal Stockholm Syndrome, as it manipulates women's fear of being alone but also shows "compassion" for their problems. "Dr" Gray did say, "Men are notorious for giving less in relationships" (MMWV, p. 191). But he never told them how to really give more.

Graham's Societal Stockholm Syndrome Theory probably can't be "proven", but neither can most other psychological theories. Nonetheless, I think Graham's ideas are invaluable resources for anyone who wants to build alternatives to Mars&Venus.

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Copyright @ 1999 Kathleen Trigiani. All rights reserved.