• History

How an American Heiress Became the Poster Child for Stockholm Syndrome

3 minute read

Less than three months after she was kidnapped at gunpoint, the tables had turned: Patty Hearst, the young heiress to the Hearst media empire, was holding the gun — and helping her captors rob a bank. When a now-iconic photo of Hearst armed with a machine gun made the cover of TIME (at right) and Newsweek in April 1974, it captivated the nation as her story blurred the line between victim and accomplice.

Where Hearst had once engendered sympathy, she now became suspect. One homeowner took down the sign in his front yard reading, “God Bless You, Patty,” per The Atlantic. Others felt similarly torn. Hearst had already publicly renounced her family and friends, declaring her allegiance to the ragtag revolutionary group—the Symbionese Liberation Army—that had abducted her. Law enforcement officials weren’t sure whether to approach her as someone in need of rescue or arrest. As TIME put it:

There was furious debate, despite the 1,200 photographs snapped by the bank’s cameras during the five-minute robbery, over whether Patty had willingly participated. In Washington, Attorney General William Saxbe… [offered his] view that the girl was “not a reluctant participant,” and labeled all bank robbers, including Patty, “common criminals.” Reacting angrily, [Randolph] Hearst called Saxbe’s statement “irresponsible.” Officially, at least, the FBI did not share Saxbe’s view.

The FBI came around to the criminal view eventually, however, and on this day, Sept. 18, forty years ago—19 months after her abduction—Hearst was captured again, this time by FBI agents. Her trial focused in large part on whether she should be held accountable for collaborating with the S.L.A., or whether she had been brainwashed by the group. Although Hearst had earlier called the latter suggestion “ridiculous to the point of being beyond belief,” her defense team argued that denial was a symptom in itself. Defense psychologists testified, per TIME, that her time in captivity had cost her roughly 20 IQ points and left her with a “childlike level of functioning,” low self-esteem and shattered pride.

While the jury that convicted her didn’t buy the brainwashing theory, many Americans did, and considered her seven-year prison sentence (later commuted to two years by President Carter) an injustice. She became widely seen as a victim of Stockholm syndrome — a term coined only two years before her arrest, when four Swedish bank workers were held hostage for six days and came to side with their captors.

But just as some were reluctant to believe Hearst had been brainwashed, not everyone agrees that Stockholm syndrome is real. There are no standard criteria by which to identify the disorder; it isn’t included in psychiatry’s main diagnostic manual. “[C]ritics insist it’s largely a figment of the media’s imagination,” TIME notes.

And while many psychologists can explain why it might happen, and crisis negotiators even encourage it to some extent, since it gives captives a better chance of surviving, Stockholm syndrome seems to be more the exception than the rule among kidnapping victims. A 2007 FBI report, per TIME, found that 73% of captives “display no affection for their abductors. “

Read more from 1975, here in the TIME archives: Patty’s Twisted Journey

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