The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome” and other labels which are used to discredit and pathologize victims of abuse
[June 15, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
When I first read about “Stockholm Syndrome” I was delighted because it seemed to explain some of my feelings and thoughts towards my husband when I was married to him. And it seemed to explain why I found it so hard to identify that he was in fact abusing me — and how hard it was to decide to leave him with no going back. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” seemed to recognise and validate my desire to be loyal to my husband despite how badly he’d treated me.
I studied to learn a great deal more about the mentality and tactics of abusers and their allies. I saw how bystanders and professionals often disparage and belittle victims in the ways they talk about them, and to them.
Much later, when I learned from Dr Allan Wade how the term “Stockholm Syndrome” came about, I was astounded. Allan Wade had interviewed the female hostage of the Stockholm bank robber — the woman who supposedly had “Stockholm Syndrome” — and guess what? The psychiatrist who coined the term “Stockholm Syndrome” about that woman never even interviewed her after the hostage crisis or at any time later on.
“Stockholm Syndrome” was a term invented by a psychiatrist who never even interviewed the person about whom he coined the term!
Only a psychiatrist who lacked integrity would coin a term for a new ‘syndrome’ without even doing one legitimate case interview! That psychiatrist got lots of prestige for coining the term, but it was all based on his own imagination and assumptions.
We want victims of abuse and violence to learn the truth about the term “Stockholm Syndrome” and all the other terms which have sprung from that faulty cistern. If people know the unethical origin of those terms, they can be more discerning about how people in society pathologize victims in so many ways.
Why examine “Stockholm Syndrome”? It is both a cliché and an accepted “clinical” reality, a received truth. It reveals a style of theorizing the oppressed, as submissive and deficient, as in need of instruction, correction, as participants in their own oppression. It supports a host of related notions that are widely in use today…. — Dr Allan Wade (source)
In June 2015 we published a post about this. Since then, a video of Allan Wade’s presentation has been put up on YouTube.
To enhance your understanding of this video, I suggest you also look at the PowerPoint slides which Allan showed to his audience. Click here to see the PowerPoint (it will open in a new tab). The video opens with some light relief, but it soon gets into the meat of the subject.
The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome” and other Concepts Invented to Discredit Women Victims of Violence
Mind the Gap conference, April 2015, New Zealand.
Synopsis of the presentation1
“Stockholm Syndrome” was invented in 1973 by the Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot, after a botched robbery and hostage taking at a bank in central Stockholm, Sweden. One of the hostages, Kristin Enmark, criticized police and government responses as dangerous and disorganized. Each time the police intervened directly, she and the other hostages became less safe. Consequently, to protect herself and the other hostages, Kristin was forced to align tactically with one of the hostage takers. She tried to negotiate an end to the stand-off directly with Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, but was unsuccessful.
Nils Bejerot was in charge of the police response during the hostage-taking. After the hostage-taking ended, he dismissed Kristin’s criticisms by saying she had “Stockholm Syndrome”, a new label invented just for the occasion. Since then, “Stockholm Syndrome” has become a received truth, a concept that reflects and upholds the habit of creating pathologies in the minds of victims of violence, particularly women.
Oddly, Nils Bejerot never spoke with Kristin Enmark about the details of the hostage-taking. And neither have any of the current experts on “Stockholm Syndrome”.
In this presentation, Dr. Wade discusses his recent conversations with Kristin Enmark and presents original source material (e.g., from senior Swedish police) to develop a quite different and contextual view of the hostage-taking and the notion of “Stockholm Syndrome”. He shows how Kristin:
- prudently and courageously resisted the violence of the hostage takers
- protected and kept solidarity with other hostages
- worked through a disorganized response from authorities
- preserved and reasserted her basic human dignity, and
- carefully managed a highly fluid situation.
“Stockholm Syndrome” has become a ‘received truth’ in the mental health field. Like many similar notions, it shifts the focus away from actual events in context to invented pathologies in the minds of victims (particularly women). In this regard, “Stockholm syndrome” is one of many concepts that can be used to silence individuals who, as victims of violence, speak out publicly about negative social (i.e., institutional) responses.
Threads in a fabric
“Stockholm Syndrome” is one thread in a dense fabric of similar notions used to pathologize, blame, and discredit victims. Here is the list of similar notions given by Allan in this presentation:
- Stockholm Syndrome
- internalized oppression: “Uncle Tom”, “Self-hating Jew”
- traumatic bonding, re-enactment
- repetition compulsion
- lateral violence (e.g., applied to violence by Indigenous peoples against one another and in women’s organizations)
- women choose, or unconsciously attract, abusive men
- battered women’s syndrome
- the “Cycle Theory of Violence”
- learned helplessness
- cognitive distortions (e.g., the world is an unsafe place)
Theorizing by Mental Health Professionals and Other ‘Experts’
It’s not uncommon for mental health professionals (and clergy) to make up theories to ‘explain’ the behaviour, thoughts and feelings of victims of violence. They make assumptions about victim behaviour and the feelings and reasonings of victims. Not infrequently, they ignore empirical evidence when it does not ‘fit’ their theory. They make interpretations about victims and insist on fitting the story into their paradigm or their doctrine, even if — or especially if — it doesn’t fit. They even invent things that victims have supposedly done, and ascribe words or thoughts to victims which victims have not thought or said, and proclaim these inventions as if they were fact.
Some professionals have built their careers on this stuff. It would undermine their status and threaten their whole livelihood if they were to admit they were only theorizing and inventing, or repeating the theories and inventions of others.
People use these theories to silence and discredit victims of abuse and violence, especially those victims who are publicly expressing indignation about the unhelpful, negative responses which they’ve received from society and institutions.
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1 The synopsis of Allan Wade’s presentation is an adaptation of the abstract of Allan Wade’s paper which was given on the web prior to the conference. I wish to thank Allan Wade for his editorial input on this article.
The website of Allan Wade and his colleagues is Response Based Practice. On the media section of the website, there are several videos including the one on The Myth of Stockholm Syndrome. [Response Based Practice has changed their website. Click here and scroll part way down the page to watch the video Rethinking Stockholm Syndrome. Editors.]
If any diligent reader wants to edit the Wikipedia page on Stockholm Syndrome, please go ahead! At the moment Wikipedia says nothing about this.
Allan Wade recently co-edited Response Based Approaches to the Study of Interpersonal Violence. Here is the blurb.
Interpersonal violence has been the focus of research within the social sciences for some considerable time. Yet inquiries about the causes of interpersonal violence and the effects on the victims have dominated the field of research and clinical practice. Central to the contributions in this volume is the idea that interpersonal violence is a social action embedded in responses from various actors. These include actions, words and behaviour from friends and family, ordinary citizens, social workers and criminal justice professionals. These responses, as the contributors to this volume all show, make a difference in terms of how violence is understood, resisted and come to terms with in its immediate aftermath and over the longer term.
Bringing together an international network of scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines and fields of practice, this book maps and expands research on interpersonal violence. In doing so, it opens an important new terrain on which social responses to violence can be fully interrogated in terms of their intentions, meanings and outcomes.
[June 15, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to June 15, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to June 15, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to June 15, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (June 15, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
Honouring Resistance — From the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter, Alberta Canada. (That booklet was written by colleagues of Allan Wade.)