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Behavior: The Trauma of Captivity

5 minute read

Will the Tehran hostages recover from their ordeal?

Marine Sergeant William Quarles, one of the 13 blacks and women released from captivity in the American embassy in Tehran in November, picked up a phone this month and heard a stranger say: “I know you feel guilty. Don’t worry about it—it’s normal.” The man who impulsively made the call, Hank Siegel, should know. Siegel, a press officer for B’nai B’rith, was one of the 132 hostages taken by the fanatical Hanafi Muslims in 1977 when they occupied three buildings in Washington, D.C., for 38 hours. Because he had recently suffered a heart attack, Siegel was released early. But he was overcome by guilt for leaving his fellow hostages. Said he: “Quarles felt a lot better after talking to me.”

Psychologists know that ex-hostages need that kind of reassurance, sometimes for months or even years after their release. Most hostages suffer some degree of psychological damage, a mix of helplessness, fear, rage and a sense of abandonment. During the Hanafi incident, says Siegel, “some of us felt we had left our bodies and were watching the whole scene from up near the ceiling.” That kind of report raises fears for the stability of the American hostages in Iran, who have been under pressure six weeks longer than Siegel’s group of captives. One sign of stress is known as the “Stock-holm syndrome,” and on the basis of public comments by Quarles and Corporal William Gallegos, psychologists believe it has taken hold among the hostages. The syndrome is a kind of bonding between captors and captives, and is named for a Stockholm bank robbery in 1973 in which the hostages came to idolize their captors and ultimately refused to testify against them. In some cases, hostages have reportedly fallen in love with their jailers of the opposite sex, and the captors have become protective of their hostages. “When someone captures you, he places you in an infantile position,” says Dr. Frank Ochberg, director of the Michigan department of mental health. “It sets the stage for love as a response to infantile terror—he could kill you but he doesn’t and you are grateful.” The awful subtleties of such a relationship were chillingly explored in John Fowles’ bestselling 1963 novel The Collector.

According to psychologists, the syndrome has three stages: the hostages feel positive about their captors; the hostages develop negative feelings toward the authorities trying to rescue them; and finally the hostage takers develop positive feelings toward their victims. Both groups feel isolated and terrorized and come to believe, “We’re in this together.”

Stage 3 is unlikely to occur in Iran, because the hostage taking is a government-approved operation that does not psychologically isolate the terrorists from the general population. But some psychologists see evidence in the sketchy news emerging from Tehran that Stages 1 and 2 have occurred.

In his TV interview from Iran, Corporal Gallegos said: “Most of all, the students here have been really good to us.” He was struggling with the syndrome, says Ochberg. “He’s trying hard not to feel positive about the captors, who are giving him his life. Everyone should understand that this is natural. One of the hostages on a Dutch train taken by Moluccan terrorists told me, ‘You have to fight feelings of compassion for them all the time.’ ”

Though the Stockholm syndrome is different from brainwashing, the same principle is involved: identification with the aggressor. Says David G. Hubbard, a Dallas psychiatrist who has handled many terrorist incidents: “It’s brainwashing if an enemy does it to you. If a sergeant does it to a Marine recruit, it’s called good indoctrination. The Iranians didn’t maliciously set out to arrange the brains of the hostages. But you get something of the same effect just by the constant threat of death. The more primitive the threat, the more apt you are to induce a kind of brainwashing.”

Though the U.S. Government knows little about the state of the hostages, and is saying even less, there are fears that some of the Americans may have already been broken by the experience and could denounce the U.S. at a staged spy trial. Charles Fenyvesi, one of the Hanafi hostages in 1977, writes in the New Republic that “had the siege gone on much longer, some of us would have broken down, one way or another. I shudder to think what more than 30 days of captivity might have done to us.”

Some of the ex-hostages of 1977 still suffer from panic attacks and phobias connected with their relatively brief ordeal. Lillian Shevitz of B’nai B’rith says the Iranian crisis has triggered an overwhelming depression by bringing up painful memories of the Hanafi takeover. That pain, she says, “will be with us a long, long time.”

If the Americans in Tehran are rescued, says Dr. Hubbard, they will need a medical-psychiatric debriefing and months of care. “Six weeks after they’re back in the country, nobody will remember who they are or give them the time of day. That’s just about the time the psychological wound will show up, like an unrecognized broken bone.”

Most Americans support President Carter’s policy that Iran will suffer “grave consequences” if the hostages are harmed. But, psychologically, the damage for some may already be done. Says Dr. Bert Brown, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health: “The fact is, the hostages have already been harmed —some of them for life.”

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