Dr Chris Cantor
Three women rescued from horrific conditions
after allegedly being held as slaves for 30 years, are described by
the Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit as ‘highly
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
What these women must have gone through may appear unimaginable,
but psychiatrists refer to this as ‘traumatic entrapment’, defined
as repeated trauma arising from a state of captivity, where the
victim is unable to flee, under the prolonged and complete control
of a perpetrator.
Only through understanding the peculiar psychology of ‘traumatic
entrapment’ can the mystery of how victims can be captive for so
long in the middle of a modern city be unravelled.
Chris Cantor and John Price, psychiatrists based in Australia
and the UK have published an investigation into the phenomenon,
arguing the key to the enigma is an ‘appeasement’ reaction. This is
hard wired into our genes and biology, and kicks in during these
kinds of extraordinary circumstances. This peculiar and
counterintuitive appeasement reaction, fundamentally contributes to
Everyone focuses on the mystery of how long term captivity can
occur in the middle of London, and in so doing miss the other
enigma, how was survival possible for so long, without being
killed, when evading that possibility on a daily basis.
This appeasement reaction explains puzzling phenomena like the
so-called ‘Stockholm syndrome’. A 1973 bank robbery and siege in
Stockholm gave its name to the term. Following release, hostages
defended their captors, while condemning police rescuers. A female
hostage developed an intimate relationship with one of her
Cantor and Price point to many examples in history; what happens
in ‘traumatic entrapment’ is a repeatable, highly patterned,
For example in 1974 Patty Hearst, an heiress, was kidnapped by a
terrorist group keeping her blindfolded in two small closets,
subjecting her to sensory deprivation, repeated rape and threats of
death. In 2 months she was allowed out for two baths and on ‘lucky’
days her closet was left open for fresh air. She eventually
requested to join the terrorists. But then she took part in an
infamous bank robbery on behalf of the group, for which she was
convicted, but many years later, pardoned.
Cantor and Price point out in their study published in ‘The
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry’ that ‘traumatic
entrapment’ is in fact not that rare today, including sieges,
concentration camps, prisons, torture, kidnapping, abusive cults
and that it even arises in domestic abuse.
Captors cleverly cultivate psychologically hostile environments
involving total domination, so as to massively dis-empower victims.
Ambiguous and confusing threats will be involved which contribute
to the unpredictability of the experience, unpredictability being
one of the most potent inducers of chronic anxiety.
The psychology of the predicament emerges from a combination of
sensory deprivation, usually induced through blindfolding and
isolation, disgusting conditions, physical abuse, death threats,
powerlessness, dehumanization, general humiliation and the need to
avoid the further anger of captors.
Cantor and Price argue in their study entitled, ‘Traumatic
entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder:
evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and
the Stockholm syndrome’ that we switch into appeasement as a
survival mechanism when held in captivity. They suggest that this
basic response may be hardwired into our brains and therefore could
possibly be even beyond our control, so victims should not be
condemned for exhibiting this response.
Appeasement comprises pacification, conciliation and submission.
Appeasement serves a de-escalating function in dangerous
situations, subordinates using appeasement suspend efforts to win
conflicts, thereby decreasing the often fatal costs of losing.
After being attacked, monkeys and apes tend to turn to the
attacker for comfort and safety, which is referred to as ‘reverted
escape’, because after fleeing from the attack the attacked animal
returns, or reverts, to the attacker, rather than turning to
another member of the group for succour. Appeasement appears
widespread in the animal kingdom – for example dogs submit by
rolling on their backs like puppies.
Submission is so widespread as a strategy that it probably
promotes survival, so the transmission of genes for appeasement now
makes evolutionary sense.
Another dimension of the peculiar psychology of slavery is that
in a closed environment in which a hostage lives, there may be only
dominant oppressors to turn to for comfort - a kind of
reverted escape as seen in the animal kingdom. Under stress we are
genetically designed to seek bonding and affiliation with others
for comfort and protection.
Cantor and Price argue that this appeasement reaction now helps
unravel various mysteries, including the battered woman who
frequently undergoes reconciliation with her dominant abusing
partner, often by a tearful childlike flirtatious display of
inferiority, which Cantor and Price contend is behaviour remarkably
similar to that observed in appeasing chimpanzees.
Furthermore, the battered woman won’t turn to her friends for
comfort because any independent action is insubordination, which
carries the risk of dire punishment. Cantor and Price point out
that adult stalking victims may at times consent to sexual
intercourse with their stalkers, in desperate attempts to appease
them, which the psychiatrists believe is another manifestation of
For all these reasons traumatic entrapment produces possibly the
most difficult to treat form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as
it involves a deeper shame in victims, blaming themselves for what
happened. Treating survivors of sexual assault, it’s often the
shame sometimes experienced in rape victims who turn on themselves
for their humiliation, requiring the most deft psychological
handling to assist recovery.
But once victims understand the appeasement reaction, they can
begin better to understand psychologically what really happened,
and recover from the shame.
Patty Hearst described how during her captivity she consciously
decided to do whatever it took to survive. But she also found
herself led on by a deeper appeasing force, which she did not
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen