The Mind of the Kidnap Victim: How They Endure and Recover

A decade of confinement can do untold psychic trauma, yet the Cleveland victims may well move past it

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Amanda Berry, center, reunited with her sister on May 6, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Abduction is a singularly grotesque transaction. In a single instant, a relationship between two people changes to one of captor and prisoner, owner and chattel. One holds absolute power and the other holds none. Worse, the person in charge knew the moment was coming—sometimes for a long time. The powerless one had no idea.

The head-spinning news out of Cleveland that three young women, Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michele Knight, all kidnapped as children, remained in captivity for roughly 10 years raises questions that we’ve had to ask too many times before. What happens to the mind of any person—especially a child—after such a trauma? Is full recovery even possible, and if so, how do you achieve it? More puzzling, in the months and sometimes years victims like this are imprisoned, why don’t they try to escape when opportunities present themselves? Perhaps the Cleveland women did try: they were discovered when one of the three men who has been accused of kidnapping them, Ariel Castro, 52, left the house where they were held, and Berry began pounding on the door and screaming for a neighbor to rescue her. Maybe this was the only time since her abduction in 2003 that she had such a chance. But in a small house on a crowded block with a kidnapper who was often seen outside, that was probably not the case.

Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was kidnapped from her suburban California street in 1991 when she was 11 and held prisoner for a horrific 18 years, worked as a graphic artist in her captor’s printing shop and at least one customer claimed to have spoken to her by phone and even met her. Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl who was 14 at the time of her kidnapping in 2002 and was held until 2003, was spotted when she was outside in the custody of her kidnapper, disguised in a wig, veil and sunglasses.

(MOREAvoiding Abduction: 3 Tips from Jaycee Dugard’s Therapist)

Clearly, something breaks the mind and the will of anyone so stripped of autonomy. As much as we might like to tell ourselves that we’d fight like wildcats in the same situation, the chances are pretty good we’d do exactly the same thing they did. The challenge becomes understanding precisely what kind of psychological damage is done to victims in cases like this, partly so we can better fathom the human mind, but much more importantly, so we can help them heal.

The worst part of the Dugard, Smart and Cleveland abductions was that all of the victims were children or teens when they were taken—except for Knight, and she was only 20. All of them were also girls. Smart and Dugard are known to have been raped by their abductors. Berry emerged from captivity with a child, so the presumption so far is that she was too, though no details have yet been released. If she was raped, it’s hardly a leap to suspect that DeJesus and Knight were too. For the victims, that’s trauma piled on trauma, and the damage from it all is hard to measure.

“People who are rapidly sexually traumatized sort of leave their bodies, and their mind is somewhere else to deal with it,” says Dr. Tina J. Walch, director of ambulatory services at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York. That kind of escapist  strategy is a good one in the moment, but over time, it can do terrible harm. “They may be suffering depression and anxiety or some PTSD and dissociative disorder depending on if there was severe sexual trauma.”

Then there’s the disorientation of vanishing from one world when you’re a child and remerging into an entirely different one when you’re a different person yourself. “This has been their life for 10 years,” Walch says. “We don’t know if they had access to TV or cell phones. A lot has changed.”

For this reason, it’s clear what the Cleveland victims need first, starting with distance from the media. The TV interviews and magazine profiles may be inevitable, but it will be a whole different kind of grotesquerie if the cameras and reporters don’t stay away for a good long while. “Everyone is fascinated, frightened and wants to know what happened,” says Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. “But after a spokesperson comes out with some statements and these kids are debriefed, one of the most important things is for the family to have time to recover on their own and establish relationships.”

That recovery is not helped much by the fact that most victims like this are so young when they’re taken. As a rule, children’s emotional resiliency matches their physical resiliency, which means they heal faster than adults. But there’s a terrible toll on children who grow up in a state of captivity; confinement stunts them at the very moment in their lives they’re supposed to be maturing emotionally and intellectually. “They spent 10 years growing up,” says Hilfer. “That has left an imprint on them. As they have gotten older, it will be harder for them than if they were still children.”

(MOREJaycee Dugard’s Therapist: Tips for Warning Children About Abductions)

The first step in easing that passage will likely be working with counselors who can help the Cleveland women regain some sense of safety and autonomy—a very hard thing after years of wholesale submission and vulnerability. They must be allowed to talk and talk and talk through the trauma, and to reintegrate into the outside world at whatever pace they choose. It helps that, as far as we know at this point, the Cleveland victims had access to one another throughout their time in confinement. That’s a level of camaraderie and comfort Dugard and Smart never had.

What prevented these women from crying out or breaking free whenever they had the chance? It’s too glib simply to invoke the go-to  “Stockholm Syndrome,” the phenomenon of captives eventually identifying with their captors, and leave it at that. But it’s nonetheless a big part of things. Walch speaks of a “learned helplessness” that quickly follows a kidnapping. At first there is indeed the scratching and fighting and hollering that we all imagine we’d be able to keep up indefinitely. But slowly, victims surrender to powerlessness, something that is accelerated if the kidnapper shows a willingness to inflict pain, but also to withhold it.

“Instead of being tortured, you [receive] kindness,” says Walch.”You are given a drop of water, you’re not beaten. You begin to develop feelings of gratitude. Over time it wears on even the strongest person.” The human need for affiliation asserts itself too. Being in the physical company of someone—anyone—is better than being utterly alone. “If this is your only contact, you come to value that contact, so that even when given the opportunity to run away or get help, you don’t.” That fact is important for the victims themselves to remember as they recover, in case they ever—as they well might—blame themselves even a little for the years they lost.

It is a small comfort yet fine irony that the Cleveland case appears headed for the same end as the Dugard and Smart abductions: with the power balance switching again, this time leaving the victims free and the perpetrators caged and helpless. The victims, of course, did nothing to deserve their confinement, while the kidnappers richly deserve theirs. In the long arc of the years to come, that one act of just punishment duly administered might make a small contribution to the young women’s recovery.

—Reported by Alexandra Sifferlin

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