On Natascha Kampusch and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’

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One of the biggest news stories the past couple of weeks has been the reappearance of a young woman called Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped on her way to school, aged 10, in March 1998. For most of the time she was kept in a windowless underground cell measuring 3m x 4m (9ft x 13ft), being allowed out for the first time in May of this year according to some accounts (some photos linked off this German news article where it says “Bilderschau” halfway down), though not others. As you might expect, it’s a sensational story with the media somewhat frustrated by the refusal of the young lady and those around her to furnish them with salacious details. This has led to a lot of column inches being spent on speculation and commentary.

The thing that irks me about much of this is the continual mention of “Stockholm Syndrome”, meaning hostages identifying with their captors sometimes to the point of helping them, as with Patty Hearst. The reason for this is that Ms Kampusch showed some affection for him and cried when she learned that he had committed suicide within hours of her escape. One newspaper - the Murdoch Sun - wrote of her suffering from a severe case of the “syndrome”. I’m sure most of us can think of another reason why she might feel this way about him, quite apart from the fact that her escape prompted his suicide: because he has been her only human companion for eight years - nearly half of her life - and no doubt saw his good side as well as his bad, and will not talk of him in the simplistic terms they use for any such person: “evil”, “sick”, “monster”.

We learn that, knowing what happened to Natascha Kampusch, parents have been super-careful with their school-age children as the new school year begins, with extra police and crossing guards on duty and children being told to walk to school in groups. It has also encouraged feelings of suspicion and the notion that one never really knows one’s neighbours. One newspaper, the Standard, said in its leader that the case “is about becoming more sensitive to the almost normal insanity of our everyday life, and if necessary being more, rather than less, mistrustful” (see here).

Both these reports suggest that there is some sort of trend towards people thinking they can know everything, and that they can do anything and beat everything. I’m not familiar with legislative trends in Austria, but certainly both here and in the USA, major cases of harm to children lead to reactive legislation: the handgun ban following the Dunblane massacre, “three strikes” in California, “Megan’s law” which our tabloids want us to copy, the Dangerous Dogs Act which followed a number of savagings of children by dogs of well-known fighting breeds (described as a “right dog’s dinner of a piece of legislation” by one politician), and so on. The same is true of terrorism, with politicians and some commentators pushing the line that “there is no greater civil liberty than security” (as with Alan Dershowitz in the present edition of the Spectator); the fact that 9/11 and the July 2005 bombings “were allowed to happen” represents the fact that we were failing at something and that something needs to be done. The fact that what might need to be done, or what is seen to need to be done, is not worth it for the loss of general liberty and the harrassment it causes to innocent people (and usually the people calling for it aren’t the people who will suffer) is generally not taken into account. Taking extra care of your children now that the well-known menace has jumped in front of a train is an understandable, but pointless reaction. Cases like this happen once in a blue moon.

There is speculation that the kidnapping is a copycat of a book called The Collector by John Fowles, “about a butterfly collector who remodels his basement into a prison, acquires a van, spies upon and kidnaps an unhappy girl and tries to make her love him”. Die Presse quotes an FBI psychologist as saying that a kidnapping lasting eight years is not comparable with anything which happened in the USA, which is simply bunk. I immediately thought of the awful case of Colleen Stan, a young woman kidnapped while hitch-hiking in 1979 and held for seven years, initially not in a cell but in a box in which she could not even sit up. Her sadist captor, Cameron Hooker, tortured and raped her but gradually allowed her more freedom, telling her that he belonged to a network of slavers which would return her if she escaped. There was also the well-known case of Stephen Stayner, held for several years by a paedophile until he escaped after seeing him bring home another boy about the same age he was when he was taken. There are other literary antecedents (such as Flowers in the Attic). None of these cases has been raised in any of the stories about the Priklopil-Kampusch case.

What motivated Priklopil will never really be known as he is dead. For the same reason, Natascha Kampusch will never have to tell the whole story in court, so much of the detail may well remain buried, as she indicated. I suspect that coverage of the case may, in the coming weeks, become more prurient and less sympathetic to her, which might lead to her having to give interviews to save her own reputation and those of people in her family. I just hope her minders will make her well aware that newspapers mostly exist not to help people but to help themselves.

(Update 3rd Sept: Jenny McCartney has written for today’s Sunday Telegraph commenting on Ms Kampusch’s remarkable maturity and her refusal to play along with the “pre-written role” they had in mind for her. Also, the Danish news source Ekstra Bladet has published this video of her room and the way into it. The cell looks much smaller and less cosy in this video than some of the still photos published make it look.)

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