Many people when they first heard of the unbelievable miracle that three women, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight so far unnamed woman who all went missing in three separate incidents were found alive and well, at least physically, 10 years later, asked themselves the same questions:
1) How could this happen in the middle of a neighborhood in a big city? and;
2) Did this women, years later as adults, have chances to escape their captors and if so, why didn’t they?
From a psychological point I understood some of the damage these women went through. Systematic abuse for long periods of times at the hands of someone who basically has your life in their hands, can create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, especially when the abuse is taking place in a confined space where you are isolated or severely limited to contact with the outside world.
They most likely had no idea if they would live, die or survive the trauma they faced and struggled to make sense of it.
As human beings we always try to find meaning in things, our survival is based on placing meaning on situations and thus I am sure these women struggled with trying to find a meaning to why this was happening to them. It’s likely one of many reasons they were resilient enough to survive and to not be completely mentally broken, although I am sure their captors did their best bo break them.
Physical, sexual and psychological abuse were all most likely used repeatedly to make these young women feel devalued and worthless.
Jaycee Duggard, who was kidnapped in 1991 when she was 11 and held captive for 18 years before she was rescued, said that once she was raped, she felt defiled and as like she was worthless. As a Christian she held her virginity deeply precious and thought she was practically worthless once the sexual abuse begun.
Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped in 2002 when she was 14 and abused repeatedly by her abductor for 9 months before she was rescued, spoke at a human trafficking forum last week and said that her abductor broke her down to the point that she felt like:
“a chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? … Your life still has no value.”
What Elizabeth is describing to some degree is what is called learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is a psychological condition that happens to both people and animals when they believe that a condition they are in will never get better and that they have no control over it. They will stop trying to get out of the situation and will miss opportunities to escape it. They may not run when the door is unlocked for example.
Another possible, but less likely answer is what is sometimes called Stockholm Syndrome, where victims bond and even start defending their captors. It’s a psychological defense aimed at trying to survive by taking on the views of your captor and making yourself seem less as a threat to hurt them or escape.
It’s similar to what is called called traumatic bonding: “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” (Dutton & Painter, 1981).
In traumatic bonding, their is an imbalance of power, the abuse is sporadic, and the victim will start to deny that the abuse is existing or is as bad as it seems as a way to mentally protect themselves. They may even start to disassociate and distance themselves from the physical trauma in what is called cognitive dissonance.
I’m not saying either of these things in part or in whole is what kept these three young women alive and resilient for so long, but it is likely that mentally they had to do some cognitive dissonance in order to keep their sanity.
I was glad to hear today that all of these women had been released from the hospital, but their psychological healing has just begun. They will need time, understanding, patience, their families and privacy to heal their psychological and emotional wounds.
Hopefully they will begin to put this tragedy behind them. Their captors and torturers have stolen so much of their lives, they don’t need to allow them to still any more of their present and future. Their future is still bright and they are still people of much worth and value. They have to believe that in order to not just be survivors of this tragedy, but thrivers.