The puzzling case of Patty Hearst: Investigating the mystery behind Stockholm syndrome

Patty Hearst Mugshot
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On Feb. 4, 1974, about 9 p.m., two men and a woman broke into the Benvenue Avenue apartment that Patricia Hearst shared with her fiance Steven Weed and threatened them with firearms. Weed was violently beaten, while Hearst was blindfolded, gagged and thrown into the trunk of a car.

Hearst was kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA, a group that engaged in terrorist activities as forms of left-wing activism. Their aim was to “incite a war against the U.S. government” and destroy the “capitalist state.”

On April 15, 1974, security cameras inside the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco captured Hearst pointing a rifle at a bank employee, assisting SLA members in robbing the bank. Hearst worked under a new name: “Tania.”

In her trial for the bank robbery and other crimes Hearst committed while she was with the SLA, Hearst’s defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey provided photographs of SLA members pointing their guns at Hearst during the robbery, showing evidence of intimidation from her captors. He argued that the 19-year-old, then a sophomore at UC Berkeley, suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

Although Hearst’s case remains one of the most well-known examples of Stockholm syndrome, the incident which lead the coinage of this condition by experts occurred at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, Sweden.

Stockholm syndrome, also known as hostage identification syndrome, is defined as a “psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands” — in other words, a process of brainwashing the captive.

Although Hearst’s case remains one of the most well-known examples of Stockholm syndrome, the incident that led to the coinage of this condition by experts occurred at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, Sweden. On Aug. 23, 1973, 32-year-old Jan-Erik Olsson entered the Sveriges Kreditbank with a machine gun, announcing that “the party has just begun.” The robbery lasted for a period of six days, during which four employees were taken hostage inside the bankElisabeth Oldgren, Kristin Ehnmark, Birgitta Lundblad and Sven Safstrom.

Olsson was later joined by a former cellmate, Clark Olofsson. Olsson and Olofsson came from criminal backgrounds: Both served in correctional facilities for crimes of armed robberies and violence, yet the hostages in question reported that they were not mistreated by them; on a phone call with the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, Ehnmark expressed her “disappointment” in the lack of compliance from the authorities in response to Olsson’s demands, and said she was scared that the police, not her captors, would “cause us to die.” The captives felt protected by their captors and instead were suspicious of the police.

Similarly, Hearst announced her commitment to the SLA and their values two months after her kidnapping. In a tape played at a radio station, she denounced her biological family and announced that she would “never choose to live the rest of my life surrounded by pigs like the Hearsts.” In addition to castigating her roots, she was fearful of the authorities who were looking for her.

Hearst came from a notoriously wealthy background; she swam at the Burlingame Country Club, attended boarding schools and lead a routinized life filled with “studies, movies on weekends, laundromat and grocery runs.” On paper, Hearst did not share any common traits with a left-wing revolutionary; her attendance at UC Berkeley left no record of any involvements in protests or demonstrations.

The SLA on the other hand, was an organization lead by Berkeley radicals with anti-capitalist beliefs and a dangerous determination to incite urban guerrilla warfare. Hearst’s character completely opposed that of a SLA dissident; she was “dull.” The massive transformation she went through during the 19 months she spent in captivity gives an idea of the brainwashing and mental manipulation she endured.

Psychologist James T.Turner identifies the key factors which influence the development of hostage identification syndrome. These include everything from daily face-to-face interactions with guards to well-timed uses of violence and the duration of captivity. Captives are also more susceptible to the influence of their abductors if they lack a sense of established cultural values.

When she was kidnapped, Hearst spent the first 57 days bound and blindfolded in a closet, while members of the SLA — including its leader Donald DeFreezelectured her on the organization’s beliefs in revolutionary action, left-wing struggles and feminism as part of a brainwashing process. Methods of intimidation were also used; DeFreeze “threatened Patty with death if she tried to escape, and with being beaten or hung from the ceiling if she made noise.” In a videotape, as a ransom request, Hearst together with DeFreeze demanded the Hearst family to establish the food program People in Need to feed America’s poor. By this time, it was clear to the public and Hearst’s family that she had joined the very organization that abducted her.

Yet Hearst’s subjugation was forced. She later recounted how she was subjected to DeFreeze’s sexual violence, which she blamed on herself since she expressed concern to one of her guards. Self-blame is a common trait shared by victims who identify closely with their captors; many times, captives will hold themselves accountable for the affliction they suffer at the hands of their captors.

Hearst was arrested by the FBI in San Francisco on September 18, 1975, and she was tried for the crimes she committed with the SLA. The jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to seven years in prison, but her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter two years in. In 2001, Hearst was pardoned by President Bill Clinton, though not everyone agreed that she should be discharged from her crimes — some were convinced that she chose to participate out of her free will or that she sympathized with the radical activists’ agenda. On “Larry King Live,” she hesitated when Larry King asked if she participated in radical activities during her time at UC Berkeley, but confirmed that her family was “conservative.”

Some even speculated that Hearst had a secret love affair with one of her captors. When questioned by Dennis Murphy on “Dateline” whether her rape “turned into a seduction or romance,” Hearst answered in indignation, “To suggest that that could turn into a seduction and a love affair afterward is outrageous.”

This debate over the motivations behind Hearst’s compliance with the SLA suggests an unresolved ambiguity and lack of public awareness surrounding the possible psychological implications and traumas after experiencing captivity.

This debate over the motivations behind Hearst’s compliance with the SLA suggests an unresolved ambiguity and lack of public awareness surrounding the possible psychological implications and traumas after experiencing captivity.

And this is not the only shocking demonstration of compliance by a captive linked to Berkeley. The Jaycee Dugard case garnered national media attention, especially when it was revealed that, despite having the opportunity to flee her captor, Dugard did not reach out to the authorities for help. Her baffling case was resolved just 9 years ago on the UC Berkeley campus, when Phillip Garrido, her kidnapper, came into Sproul Hall and asked UCPD Officer Lisa Campbell for permission to hold an event for a group called “God’s Desire.”

It’s interesting that, despite the prominence of the Hearst family in Berkeley and the broad media coverage this case has received, there remains little published academic research on Stockholm syndrome as a psychological phenomenon.

When asked about the condition, several professors from the UC Berkeley psychology department admitted that they were not well-informed on the subject, and psychologists at the Tang Center were similarly unable to provide information on the condition and whether it could be treated.

More than 40 years after Hearst’s kidnapping, the story still circulates in the media, receiving continued interest from a largely confounded public. But few are compelled to understand the complex impetus behind her actions. As students wander through the many campus buildings tied to the Hearst name, this story seems to fester in these walls, raising critical questions about the complexity of the human mind and the internal psychological forces at play when an individual is put in a life-endangering situation.

Contact Kesh Wang at [email protected].

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