Taking Stockholm

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Aug. 27 2009 4:59 PM

Taking Stockholm

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Jaycee Dugard has apparently defied the face-on-the-milk-carton narrative: On Wednesday, she walked into a police station and announced that she was the 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in 1991 while she walked to her school bus stop as her stepfather looked on. A DNA test confirming her identity is pending, but police and Dugard’s family are declaring that she is who she says she is. (Already this differs from a similar case from earlier this summer, when a man announced that he was the little boy from New York kidnapped as a 2-year-old in 1955; DNA tests demonstrated that his claim-based largely on the fact that he never felt like he fit in with his family-was false. ) A man and a woman have been charged in connection with the case.

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Unless Dugard was kept under lock and key for the entire 18 years of her captivity, over the next few days, certainly there will be an abundance of pieces about Stockholm syndrome and wondering why she didn't ask for help before. If Dugard’s captors gave her any freedom, locals will start piping up about how she went to the grocery store or to the park, suggesting that she could have fled at any time. That’s the pattern that emerged after kidnapped children Elizabeth Smart and Shawn Hornbeck reappeared after most had written them off for dead; Smart initially denied her identity when confronted by police, and Hornbeck apparently was allowed, after some time had passed, to socialize with kids his captor’s neighborhood and even have a girlfriend. Hornbeck’s story was even turned into an episode of Law & Order , in which the fictionalized version of Hornbeck not only chose to stay with his kidnapped but actually killed a young boy who threatened his place.

I have a difficult time conceptualizing the psychological torture that would lead a child to stay with her tormentor. Fear of the kidnapper hurting her if she’s caught in an escape attempt? Fear of reprisal to her true family? A defensive response to the sexual, physical, and emotional trauma of the most restrictive phase of captivity? Brainwashing that her family no longer wants her, that this is how life must be from now on? Might children’s natural ability to adapt, the same thing that allows them to remain cheerful in the face of more mundane family strife or even learn a new language rapidly, keep them tethered to an abuser? Unfairly, Dugard will be asked a lot of questions about her behavior in coming days; perhaps it will even be difficult for her family, including a 19-year-old sister she barely knew, to keep the suspicions from their minds. But at least they’ve been reunited.

Image is a screenshot from a video about Jaycee Dugard's disappearance.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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