Patty Hearst grew up in one of Americas richest families. The Hearst’s made a killing in the news and media business. So imagine the dismay when the story on the front page was one of their own. On February 4th of 1974 while a 19 year old Patty Hearst was studying at UC Berkley when she was violently kidnapped by the home grown terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. While this might already sound the like the start of a Hollywood thriller things get much weirder.

Two months later Hearst reached out in a series of audio tapes but not for rescue but to proclaim that she was now a member of the SLA and here new name was Tania. She then in April 15th of 1974 she was caught on a security camera armed with an assault rifle and helping the SLA to rob a San Francisco Bank. People wondered how a well-educated and well to do college girl suddenly could become a violent terrorist. Many speculate that Hearst was suffering from a case of Stockholm syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome as crime shows love to point out is when the victim of a kidnapping forms a strong bound with captors going so far as to avoid getting help and even aiding them in avoiding the police. It got its name when after 4 people were rescued from a 6 day hostage crisis in a bank in Stockholm the victims all told authorities they felt their kidnapper was good man and even that they were more afraid of the police storming in to save them. Psychologists theorize that Stockholm syndrome is the result of when the brain’s survival response over powers the fear or hate they have for their captors and they subconsciously believe that compliance is the best road to survival.

Dr Frank Ochberg was fascinated with what could cause a reasonable people to ally with the people obviously causing them harm. He believes Stockholm syndrome occurs when three things happen. First the captor is made to believe that their life is at extreme risk but the captor is allowing them to live. Second they are controlled very closely they aren’t allowed to eat or do anything without permission from the captor. Finally their captors show them some form of kindness. Ochburg says that these three things create a primal connection between the hostage and the kidnapper, the hostage fells the kidnapper is both the powerful enough to keep them alive and also kind enough to actually want to and thus they link their survival to being subservient to the kidnapper. Eventually they believe they actually like them.

So, did Patty Hearst have Stockholm Syndrome?  Well maybe. She claims she was held in a closet blind folded for a long time. Her captors told her that higher ups wanted here dead but if she joined with them and learned their philosophy of anarchism they wound let her live. This certainly links up with Ochburg’s first premise that the kidnappers had power over Hearst’s life. The captors also kept a close eye on her often abusing her so they hand control over actions. Since Hearst was held for several months she must have been provided food and shelter by the terrorists. She defiantly avoided capture by the police even getting into a shootout with two FBI agents on the 16th of May. All these seem support that Hearst did in fact have Stockholm syndrome.

So then she had it right? Well not so fast. Many aren’t sure Stockholm syndrome exists. The DSM the leading work on American psychiatry diagnoses doesn’t recognize it as its own mental disorder preferring to leave as an example of PTSD.  There is also no accepted way of sure diagnosing a person with Stockholm syndrome.  Hugh McGowan who worked for New York City police as a hostage negotiator in several high profile hostage incidents says he isn’t sure he buys it. He quoted as saying “Stockholm was a unique situation. It occurred at around the time when we were starting to see more hostage situations and maybe people didn’t want to take away something that we might see again.” Many even supposed suffers claim they were fully in control of their actions and where making solid choices they felt they needed to make in order to survive. In any account examples of possible Stockholm syndrome are rare. So modern psychology hasn’t quite decided on if the disorder is real. So if Stockholm syndrome exists then Hearst certainly is a good example of it but that’s still an IF.

In the end the courts didn’t buy Hearst psychiatric defense and sentenced her in 1975 to 7 years for her aiding in the bank robbery. After severing 2 years she was released early in 1979 when Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. Hearst wrote her account of the events in 1982 in a biography giving what she felt where her thoughts at the time. So while we might not know if her mind subconsciously turned her from college kid to homegrown terrorist but it’s still very true that trauma can have a powerful effect on the brain and maybe it can make us do things we never thought we ever would.



Patty Hearst Profile

What is Stockholm syndrome?