The answer isn't Stockholm syndrome.

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Nov. 12 2010 5:13 PM

Why Didn't Elizabeth Smart Run Away?

The answer isn't Stockholm syndrome.

Elizabeth Smart. Click image to expand.
Elizabeth Smart.

Clad in pearls and a somber black dress, Elizabeth Smart completed her third and final day of testimony on Wednesday in the trial of former captor, Brian David Mitchell. In 2002, Mitchell, a Mormon fundamentalist, broke into the Smart family's Salt Lake City home, snatched 14-year-old Elizabeth from her bedroom, and kept her for more than nine months as one of his "celestial" wives. Despite her harrowing ordeal—which included being tethered to a tree for a month, raped daily, and cut off from all contact with the outside world—Smart, now 23, maintained her composure while testifying against Mitchell in federal court. She called Mitchell a "crude and vulgar, self-serving" man who used religion to justify his sexual assaults and drug use. She also testified about her failure to run away or reveal her true identity to passersby. Is it unusual for victims of extended abduction or sexual abuse to be so poised and articulate on the witness stand—and to pass up chances to escape?

Composure in court is fairly common. Typically, by the time a victim testifies, she has told the story many times, to police, friends, family members, lawyers, therapists, and the media. Smart sat for an interview on Dateline NBC several months after her rescue and spoke with legal correspondent Nancy Grace in 2006, though she declined to discuss the details of her captivity with Grace. While younger children and incest survivors have a tendency to become visibly distressed on the stand, that's less likely with victims like Smart, who have the support of their families and communities and have had years to process the trauma. With repetition, time, and therapy, victims can come to terms with their ordeal, develop a set way of understanding what happened to them, and discuss traumatic events without reliving the accompanying emotions. This has been the case for other high-profile rape/kidnapping victims, including Sabine Dardenne, who was abducted by a serial killer while riding her bike to school, and Katie Beers, who testified against her abuser with steely-eyed clarity at the age of 11. Withholding emotion in court also enables victims to deny their tormentors the satisfaction of causing them any more pain. (Mitchell crazied his way out of the courtroom long before Smart took the stand and watched the trial from another room.)

It's possible that in cases where the abuser's guilt is in dispute, such level-headed detachment can undermine a victim's credibility. According to University of California-Irvine psychologist Jodi Quas, jurors expect heart-wrenching, tear-soaked testimony and may be less inclined to believe a victim who remains calm while narrating such a hellish experience.

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What may be most puzzling about Smart's testimony is her anemic explanation for failing to escape during the numerous public outings she took with her captors. Unlike other kidnapping cases, Mitchell and his wife did not keep Smart locked away for long and began parading her around the community in a robe and heavy veil, giving her ample opportunity to run away. In one of the more baffling incidents she recounted at trial, Smart kept quiet about her identity at a public library even as a detective, who announced he was looking for Elizabeth Smart, asked to look under her veil before Mitchell rebuffed him. Was Smart suffering from Stockholm syndrome, developing some kind of bond with her captors or beginning to subscribe to their warped religious doctrines?

The disorder popularly called Stockholm syndrome has been described in only a handful of case studies over the last several decades. In fact, mental-health professionals do not recognize the syndrome as a distinct clinical disorder, and there is no international psychiatric classification for it. According to a 2008 review article, the term Stockholm syndrome has been mentioned in only 12 peer-reviewed health journal articles since the media invented it in 1973 following a sensational Swedish bank robbery. However, the general concept of bonding with a perpetrator, known as traumatic bonding, is accepted by psychiatrists.

In her testimony this week, Smart said she never believed Mitchell's religious ramblings or had any sympathy with him. She asserted that she was simply too afraid to speak up or run off. She played along and remained obedient, she said, out of self-preservation: Mitchell repeatedly threatened to kill her and her family if she tried to escape and convinced her she would not succeed. She believed him, probably because of the severe nature of the abuse, the length of captivity, her isolation from outside influence, her age, her personality, and the fact that the threats came from the man who plucked her from her own bed in the dead of night. According to University of Miami psychologist Anthony Castro, since Smart remained silent out of fear rather than affection, and rejected Mitchell's incoherent prophecies, her case is not about Stockholm syndrome.

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