Crimes of Violence

Analysis of high-profile crimes of violence of psychological significance

Personal Identity of Kidnap Victims Following Rescue: Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee Dugard: Identity issues of survivors of kidnapping

In my first post I want to make the case that Jaycee Dugard will make a surprisingly positive adjustment to life after her 18 years of living as a kidnapped victim. Other predictions in the media have been dire. Since information is scarce and only time will tell, these predictions are all speculative. Here I simply want to look at some others of these strange cases.

The sudden discovery of kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, who was living as a member of Phillip Garrido's family, was highlighted in media reports as a wonderful, breakthrough in a case that had baffled the police for almost two decades. Then the questions began to mount-how long had Jaycee lived in relative freedom? And why didn't she make any effort to escape?

For many of us, our minds flashed back to 2007. News reports in January of that year were of the search for a missing 13-year-old boy. This search led police to the home of his suspected kidnapper, Michael Devlin. There they found not one, but two, kidnap victims. Shawn Hornbeck had been abducted while riding his bicycle four years before. The 15-year-old Hornbeck was well-known to neighbors and friends. The story, as flashed out over the TV networks, left Americans stunned. Here was a boy who had surfed the Internet, owned a cell phone, ridden a bike, and even called the police to report that an earlier bicycle had been stolen. Here was a boy who had helped in the capture of a second, younger boy. Here was a kidnap victim who had every opportunity to escape, but who had failed to do so.

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And then we had to think of the young Elizabeth Smart, discovered by an alert police officer as she was sitting out on a street with her captors. At first, Elizabeth denied who she really was. For those of us who are older, our minds might have had flashbacks to the 1970s when former kidnap victim Patty Hearst was found by police engaging in robberies with the gang that had abducted her. Patty gave evidence that she had been thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult of the group.

Not only in the United States, but also in Austria such strange psychological phenomena as bonding with the captors have been reported. In 2006, much media coverage in Austria was devoted to the case of Natascha Kampusch, who disappeared at the age of 10. Kept in a basement cell and likely sexually abused for eight years, Natascha managed to escape the man she was forced to call "master" when she was trusted to wash his car. When the police went to arrest her captor, he threw himself in front of a commuter train to his death. Upon hearing of this, Kampusch reportedly wept inconsolably. She had a brief reunion with her family, but has chosen not to see them since. 

Police psychologists suggested Kampusch may have suffered from so-called "Stockholm Syndrome" a term that refers to a hostage situation in Sweden in which the seized individuals bonded with their captors to such an extent that they even testified on their behalf in later court proceedings. Today, this term often is used as an explanation for why people who are exposed to intermittent kindness by the captor, kindness that is experienced within the context of a life and death situation, become emotionally dependent on the captor.

Interestingly, these survivors of kidnapping shortly resumed their original identities upon their return to their families of society. This fact is indicative of the psychological reality that the mind can help us survive, physically and mentally, by allowing us to identify with someone who holds us in a life or death situation, and that there may be a delayed effect in bringing us back to normal when the chance to escape presents itself. 


Katherine van Wormer
Professor of Social Work 
University of Northern Iowa
Co-author of Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides, 2009

Katherine van Wormer, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., is the author or co-author of 14 books on various aspects of human behavior.

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