The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome” and other labels which are used to discredit and pathologize victims of abuse
Why examine “Stockholm Syndrome”? It is both a cliché and an accepted “clinical” reality, a received truth. It reveals a style of theorizing the oppressed, as submissive and deficient, as in need of instruction, correction, as participants in their own oppression. It supports a host of related notions that are widely in use today. — Dr Allan Wade (source)
In June 2015 we published a post about this. Since then, a video of Allan Wade’s presentation has been put up on YouTube.
To enhance your understanding of this video, I suggest you also look at the powerpoint slides which Allan showed to his audience. Click here to see the powerpoint (it will open in a new tab). The video opens with some light relief, but it soon gets into the meat of the subject.
The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome” and other Concepts Invented to Discredit Women Victims of Violence
Mind the Gap conference, April 2015, New Zealand.
Synopsis of the presentation*
“Stockholm Syndrome” was invented in 1973 by the Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot, after a botched robbery and hostage taking at a bank in central Stockholm, Sweden. One of the hostages, Kristin Enmark, criticized police and government responses as dangerous and disorganized. Each time the police intervened directly, she and the other hostages became less safe. Consequently, to protect herself and the other hostages, Kristin was forced to align tactically with one of the hostage takers. She tried to negotiate an end to the stand-off directly with Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, but was unsuccessful.
Nils Bejerot was in charge of the police response during the hostage-taking. After the hostage-taking ended, he dismissed Kristin’s criticisms by saying she had “Stockholm Syndrome”, a new label invented just for the occasion. Since then, “Stockholm Syndrome” has become a received truth, a concept that reflects and upholds the habit of creating pathologies in the minds of victims of violence, particularly women.
Oddly, Nils Bejerot never spoke with Kristin Enmark about the details of the hostage-taking. And neither have any of the current experts on “Stockholm Syndrome”.
In this presentation, Dr. Wade discusses his recent conversations with Kristin Enmark and presents original source material (e.g., from senior Swedish police) to develop a quite different and contextual view of the hostage-taking and the notion of “Stockholm Syndrome”. He shows how Kristin:
- prudently and courageously resisted the violence of the hostage takers
- protected and kept solidarity with other hostages
- worked through a disorganized response from authorities
- preserved and reasserted her basic human dignity, and
- carefully managed a highly fluid situation.
“Stockholm Syndrome” has become a ‘received truth’ in the mental health field. Like many similar notions, it shifts the focus away from actual events in context to invented pathologies in the minds of victims (particularly women). In this regard, “Stockholm syndrome” is one of many concepts that can be used to silence individuals who, as victims of violence, speak out publicly about negative social (i.e., institutional) responses.
Threads in a fabric
“Stockholm Syndrome” is one thread in a dense fabric of similar notions used to pathologize, blame, and discredit victims. Here is the list of similar notions given by Allan in this presentation:
- Stockholm Syndrome
- internalized oppression: “Uncle Tom”, “Self-hating Jew”
- traumatic bonding, re-enactment
- repetition compulsion
- lateral violence (e.g., applied to violence by Indigenous peoples against one another and in women’s organizations)
- women choose, or unconsciously attract, abusive men
- battered women’s syndrome
- the “Cycle Theory of Violence”
- learned helplessness
- cognitive distortions (e.g., the world is an unsafe place)
Theorizing by Mental Health Professionals and Other ‘Experts’
It’s not uncommon for mental health professionals (and clergy) to make up theories to ‘explain’ the behavior, thoughts and feelings of victims of violence. They make assumptions about victim behavior and the feelings and reasonings of victims. Not infrequently, they ignore empirical evidence when it does not ‘fit’ their theory. They make interpretations about victims and insist on fitting the story into their paradigm or their doctrine, even if — or especially if — it doesn’t fit. They even invent things that victims have supposedly done, and ascribe words or thoughts to victims which victims have not thought or said, and proclaim these inventions as if they were fact.
Some professionals have built their careers on this stuff. It would undermine their status and threaten their whole livelihood if they were to admit they were only theorizing and inventing, or repeating the theories and inventions of others.
People use these theories to silence and discredit victims of abuse and violence, especially those victims who are publicly expressing indignation about the unhelpful, negative responses which they’ve received from society and institutions.
*** *** ***
* The synopsis of Allan Wade’s presentation is an adaptation of the abstract of Allan Wade’s paper which was given on the web prior to the conference.
I wish to thank Allan Wade for his editorial input on this article.
Allan Wade recently co-edited Response Based Approaches to the Study of Interpersonal Violence. Here is the blurb.
Interpersonal violence has been the focus of research within the social sciences for some considerable time. Yet inquiries about the causes of interpersonal violence and the effects on the victims have dominated the field of research and clinical practice. Central to the contributions in this volume is the idea that interpersonal violence is a social action embedded in responses from various actors. These include actions, words and behaviour from friends and family, ordinary citizens, social workers and criminal justice professionals. These responses, as the contributors to this volume all show, make a difference in terms of how violence is understood, resisted and come to terms with in its immediate aftermath and over the longer term.
Bringing together an international network of scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines and fields of practice, this book maps and expands research on interpersonal violence. In doing so, it opens an important new terrain on which social responses to violence can be fully interrogated in terms of their intentions, meanings and outcomes.