Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Impact of Long-term Abduction and Sexual Abuse: The Jaycee Dugard Story

I was recently interviewed by a reporter who was interested in my assessment of the case of the recently found Jaycee Dugard, the 29 year old woman who had been the victim of a kidnapping at 11 years old, and who was held for 18 years in captivity by her abductor, a registered sex offender.   The abductor's chronic sexual abuse of Jaycee, which began shortly after her abduction, eventually led to the birth of two daughters, now aged 15 and 11 years old. (Click here to read the newspaper article.)

This case is one of immense tragedy and trauma.  Not only did this young girl have to survive the terror of abduction and the immediate loss of family and anything that was previously familiar to her, but also with the trauma that was to follow in the form of chronic sexual violence.

Tragically, the 11 year old Jaycee, who was held in the minds of her loved ones for those 18 long years, is long gone.  In her place is a now 29 year old woman who, for most of her life, suffered unspeakable sexual abuse and exploitation, and lived in unusual social isolation which robbed her of any reference of what was normal.  In the place of normal social and family experiences was the experience of being raised by a severely psychologically disturbed parent couple with a bizarre world view which included a distorted view of physical, emotional and sexual boundaries, justified through a bizarre religious belief system into which she was indoctrinated.

By instinct, Jaycee would have, no doubt, immediately become aware of the significantly vulnerable position she was in and that her life and survival depended on these two highly disturbed people.  As would be expected in a situation like this, she would have tried to find any modicum of safety she could locate, even if it meant that such safety would be located in her perpetrators.  This combination of extreme terror and dependence are necessary ingredients for the development of the Stockholm Syndrome.

The Stockholm Syndrome term emerged after a 1973 bank robbery incident in Stockholm, in which  bank robbers held bank employees hostage for about 6 days.  In this case, the victims were observed to become emotionally attached to their captors, and even defended them after they were freed from their ordeal.  The term Stockholm Syndrome has come to refer to the particular psychological response, sometimes seen in abduction cases such as Jaycee's, in which the victim forms an attachment to their perpetrators.  The victim, needing to find security and safety in a terrifying situation, projects into and identifies in the perpetrator the safety and protection she desperately needs to feel exists in the outside world.  By so doing, the victim comes to feel that she has some external safety as she connects to the perceived protective parts of the perpetrator, even while at the same time as she might be the victim at the hands of the same perpetrator.  The victim ultimately develops a complete psychological dependence on her perpetrator.  Abuse becomes fused with care. Such appeared to be Jaycee's experience.

Jaycee's identity has been shaped by and she is now permanently linked to this sick man.  She has borne two children by him who, no doubt, bear the scars of the sick life he imposed on them and their mother.  They are, however, likely to be deeply attached to the only life that they have ever known, a life that includes their father and all of his ideology.

One of the consequences of this kind of attachment in these kinds of circumstances, is that one is likely to see what appears to be contradictory behavior by the victims towards their abuser.  For example, it is possible that Jaycee may have felt positive feelings towards the perpetrator, negative feelings towards authorities or others who may have seemed likely to rescue or support her, or may have displayed support for the perpetrator's disturbed reasoning and behaviors.  It is possible that she engaged in supportive behaviors towards the perpetrator, at times helping him, and may have found herself unable to engage in behaviors that would have assisted her release or disengagement from him.

Now on release, she is likely to have overwhelming feelings of confusion and may continue to display these contradictory feelings and behaviors.  She may also experience significant feelings of guilt for having depended on her abuser and for her attachment to him.  Yet, the attachment that she developed must be understood as a normal part of a helpless victim's attempt to survive. 

So what now?  Now that Jaycee has been found and reunited with her family, how does she begin to mend her life?  The answer is, 'Very slowly and very carefully.'  Jaycee is likely to demonstrate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Both she and her children are likely to demonstrate symptoms consistent with significant social isolation and extreme psychological dependence, as one often sees in those who have been long term members of a cult.  They will all need intensive, long term treatment and the family will need to be prepared for a long and complicated journey.  The joy of reunification will soon be followed by a range of emotions, not all of them pleasant.  The family would do best to protect these fragile, broken young people from the public's eye, so that they can commence their long road to healing. 


  1. I was sexually abused by my much older brother at age 5 or so, but physically and emotionally abused by him for all the years he lived in our home, about 15. He was my mother's favorite and she made me "agree" with her that he was a wonderful genius. I lived around him for thirty years, although he was never nice to me and I didn't get any joy out of seeing him at holidays, etc. In fact, I now realize most of my life I've suffered from profound dissociation. I had abusive relationships with older men in my youth, but now I have a supportive husband.

    I'm 57 now, but because I only discovered the abuse and confronted my past a few years ago, I feel I'll never be able to eradicate his influence. I think I took on some of his characteristics--I'm not a sexual abuser, but I feel I took on his antisocial attitudes.

    Do you think I can ever be free?

    1. Of course you can be free. Read books, adopt a religion, and create a checklist of good behaviors, the actions of a healthy person. You demonstrate in your post that you can distinguish healthy from unhealthy behaviors. Then you abide by your list of healthy behaviors religiously, continually and with no doubt. You must walk away from abusive relationships immediately and happily.