Women held for 30 years in slavery - the psychology behind the horror

29 November 2013

Dr Chris Cantor a psychiatrist based at the University of Queensland, talks to Dr Raj Persaud about his recently published study of traumatic entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder: evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and the Stockholm syndrome.

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 traumatised’.

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 survival.

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 captors.

Cantor and Price point to many examples in history; what happens in ‘traumatic entrapment’ is a repeatable, highly patterned, phenomenon.

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 reverted escape.

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 understand.

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
November 2013

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