Looking at Stockholm Syndrome 46 Years Later
(Excerpted from See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill, 2019.)*
Nothing exposes the mythical thinking behind learned helplessness better than Stockholm syndrome: a diagnosis assigned to women who show affection for their captors, and a distrust of authority. It’s a classic throw-away line we use to describe the mental condition of domestic abuse victims, but it’s also a term that’s still taken seriously by some psychologists. ‘A classic example [of Stockholm syndrome] is domestic violence,’ says Oxford psychologist Jennifer Wild, ‘when someone – typically a woman – has a sense of dependency on her partner and stays with him.’
But Stockholm syndrome – a dubious pathology with no diagnostic criteria – is riddled with misogyny and founded on a lie. The psychiatrist who invented it, Nils Bejerot, never spoke to the woman he based it on, never bothered to ask her why she trusted her captors more than the authorities. More to the point, during the Swedish bank heist that inspired the syndrome, Bejerot was the psychiatrist leading the police response. He was the authority that Kristin Enmark – the first woman diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome – distrusted.
Enmark was twenty-three when, one morning in 1973, Jan Olsson walked into a bank in Norrmalmstorg and took her and three other clerks hostage. Over the next six days, the audacious heist became a blockbuster media event. Swedes had never seen anything like it, and neither had the police.
With no training in hostage negotiation, the police response was ham-fisted from the start. Early in the siege, they misidentified Olsson and, thinking they had found his younger brother, sent a teenage boy into the bank to negotiate, accompanied by Nils Bejerot, only to have Olsson shoot at him. As Olsson became more and more agitated, his accomplice, Clark Olofsson, whose release from jail was one of Olsson’s first demands, reassured the hostages. ‘[Clark] comforted me, he held my hand,’ Enmark recalled in 2016. ‘He said, “I want to see that Jan doesn’t hurt you.’ I can’t say I felt safe, because that’s not the word, but I chose to believe him. He meant very much to me, because I thought that somebody cared about me. But there was no affection in that way. In some way, he gave me hope that, this is going to end okay.’
There was no such reassurance from the police. Enmark asked to speak to Bejerot, but he refused. In a live radio interview from the bank, she blew up at the authorities. ‘[The police] are playing with…our lives. And then they don’t even want to talk to me, who is the one who will die if anything happens.’ Sensing that their likelihood of survival was getting slimmer by the hour, Enmark took matters into her own hands. She called the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, and begged him to let her and another hostage leave the bank with their captors. ‘I fully trust Clark and the robber,’ she told Palme. ‘I am not desperate. They haven’t done athing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But you know, Olof, what I’m scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.’ Palme refused to let her leave, saying they could not give in to the demands of criminals. At the end of the conversation, Enmark says Palme said ‘Well, Kristin, you can’t get out of the bank. You will have to content yourself that you will have died at your post.’ Enmark was appalled, telling Palme, ‘I don’t want to be a dead hero.’
Finally police teargassed the bank vault and paraded the captors up and down the street to cheers and jeers from the crowd. Enmark watched on, furious at the macho display. When she was told to lie on a stretcher, she refused: ‘I walked in here six and a half days ago, I’m walking out.’
On the radio, Enmark criticized the police, and singled out Bejerot. In response, and without once speaking to her, Bejerot dismissed her comments as the product of a syndrome he made up: ‘Norrmalmstorg syndrome’ (later renamed Stockholm syndrome). The fear Enmark felt towards the police was irrational, Bejerot explained, caused by the emotional or sexual attachment she had with her captors. Bejerot’s snap diagnosis suited the Swedish media; they were suspicious of Enmark, who ‘did not appear as traumatized as she ought to be.’ ‘It is hard to admit,’ wrote one journalist, ‘but the words that come to mind to describe her condition are: fresh and alert.’ Her clarity was, apparently proof that she was sick.
Four years later, when Enmark was asked to explain her actions, she was indignant. ‘Yes, I was afraid of the police; what is so strange about that? Is it strange that one is afraid of those who are all around, in parks, on roofs, behind corners, in armoured vests, helmets and weapons, ready to shoot?’
In 2008, a review of the literature on Stockholm syndrome found that most diagnoses were made by the media, not psychologists or psychiatrists; that it was poorly researched, and the scant academic research on it could not even agree of what the syndrome was, let alone how to diagnose it. Allan Wade, who has consulted closely with Enmark, says Stockholm syndrome is ‘a myth invented to discredit women victims of violence’ by a psychiatrist with an obvious conflict of interest, whose first instinct was to silence the woman questioning his authority.
*Footnote numbers removed. Please see the book for full documentation. “See What You Made Me Do” by Jess Hill, 2019.
Dr. Allan Wade describes his meeting with Kristin Enmark in a 2015 talk at the Center for Response-Based Practice. The second half of the video describes her version of the original Stockholm syndrome event summarized above.