The crazy story of how ‘Stockholm syndrome’ got its name

“Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I hate them?”

In 1973, 21-year-old Elisabeth Oldgren posed this question to a psychiatrist in the wake of a robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in which she and three other bank workers had been held hostage from Aug. 23-28.

As the standoff neared an end, police were perplexed by the victims’ concern for their two captors: Despite cops’ orders that the hostages be the first to leave the bank vault in which they’d all been holed up, all four refused.

“Jan and Clark [the criminals] go first — you’ll gun them down if we do!” 23-year-old Kristin Ehnmark yelled back.

The nationwide spectacle led to the genesis of the term “Stockholm syndrome,” in which a person held against their will comes to sympathize deeply with their abductor.

‘They develop a reciprocal bond.’

In America, the phrase is more commonly associated with the 1974 case of Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress turned bank robber. It has since become shorthand for any occasion in which someone seems bizarrely accepting of unacceptable circumstances; it was in the ether, for example, when the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” was released two years ago.

But the phrase technically applies only to a very specific set of circumstances, according to experts. Profiled in an extensive 1974 New Yorker piece, the Swedish siege is the subject of a new movie, “Stockholm,” in which Ethan Hawke stars as the gun-toting ex-con who shuts down a bank.

Noomi Rapace co-stars as the staffer to whom Hawke’s bandit becomes the closest. Her character, Bianca, appears to be mainly based on Ehnmark, who worked in the loan department of the Sveriges Kreditbank and would become the favorite of criminal ringleader Jan-Erik Olsson (Hawke’s real-life counterpart), whom she would later visit in prison.

“I have a degree in psychology, so I had studied aspects of Stockholm syndrome. I had also done research on the Patty Hearst case,” says Robert Budreau, the film’s director. He says it was important to demonstrate the connection between captor and captive was real. “They weren’t pretending to like them in order to survive,” he says, “which often is a tool hostages use. In this case, it was a genuine bond.”

Dr. Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, was instrumental in defining (if not coining) the term. He breaks it down: “Somebody is held hostage and threatened with death. They are placed in such a situation that it returns them to infancy: They can’t eat, they can’t talk, they can’t move, and, what they admit when you get to know them better, is they can’t use the toilet without permission. They are like an infant. And, like an infant, they become totally dependent on another person,” says Ochberg, 79.

In this state, he says, anyone could become attached to their caretaker. “When they are given permission to use a bucket, to have a meal, to be able to walk and talk, they experience a very strange love for the person who allows this to happen,” he says. “They develop a reciprocal bond.” It’s different from brainwashing, he says, where “you have a very deliberate attempt on the part of an adversary to use torture and then relief to systematically change somebody’s thinking. In Stockholm syndrome, it isn’t all that deliberate.”

In the Stockholm case, varying accounts hold that this bond actually turned physical: “In the police report, they found semen all over the carpet,” Budreau says. “Obviously there was some type of sexual interaction, but exactly what, no one knows.” His spin on it in the film, between Hawke and Rapace, is fictionalized. Ochberg, who consulted with the Stockholm chief of police, says that the cop confirmed, “There was semen on the floor, but we weren’t sure if there was a sex act or not.” The New Yorker article concludes that Olsson masturbated on the floor next to a consenting Ehnmark.

More broadly, all of the hostages came to see Olsson and his buddy Clark Olofsson as closer allies than the police — even when the criminals arranged to shoot one hostage in the leg, so it would appear he’d been killed (he professed to have been grateful they’d only chosen the leg), and when they put nooses around the hostages’ necks to stop the police from pumping the bank vault full of tear gas, lest the victims collapse.

Seen from the outside, it appears insane that anyone would develop a liking for such people. But in Budreau’s film, Hawke’s character presents as the classic romantic bandit, which lines up with the truth, the director says. “The fact that these two guys were good-looking, rock-star gangsters did make it appealing, even to the men,” he says. “I think even the police were in awe of these guys, slightly.”

Meanwhile, stunned Swedes at home were following the incident via TV news. And as befits the term, Budreau says, “I think people in Stockholm were kind of rooting for the bad guys.”

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