Stockholm syndrome: why victims love their tormentors

Olena Makovets

Five days spent by Swedish bank employees as hostages of a robber in 1973 gave a name to psychological anomaly. From then on, cases of victims sympathizing with criminals have been recorded regularly.

On the morning of August 23, 1973, a man with an assault rifle entered the Kreditbanken in the center of Stockholm. He was wearing sunglasses, and hiding his hair under a wig imitating lush African hairstyle. There were no visitors in the branch, only employees: Birgitta Lundblad, Kristin Ehnmark, Elisabeth Oldgren, and Sven Säfström. Someone managed to press the panic button, but the attacker wounded the police officer who arrived at the scene and locked himself and his hostages in the money vault. From there, he demanded 3 million kronor, two guns, bulletproof vests, helmets, a fast car, and freedom for the experienced bank robber, Clark Olofsson.

The attacker’s name was Jan-Erik Olsson, and he was 32 years old. He had not returned to prison from a leave given to petty criminals and was now trying to help his former cellmate.

In a few hours, Olofsson was brought out of prison, the money was collected and a Ford Mustang found. But no one was in a hurry to provide the robbers with an escape route. The police demanded that the hostages be released, but the criminals refused to let them go because they were afraid of police bullets.

Kreditbanken building in Stockholm where the hostages were taken. Photo: Tage Olsin / CC BY-SA 2.0

The negotiations have stalled. Bank employees spent five days in the 10×46-feet vault with the robbers. Swedish television managed to announce a contest for the best way to rescue the hostages and get the results. For example, viewers suggested letting a swarm of bees inside. The police did not dare to storm the building. Elections were to be held in three weeks, so a bloodless outcome to the operation was very important to the authorities.

The criminals and the victims quickly developed a bond. They told each other about their lives and played tic-tac-toe. When Kristin Ehnmark started to get cold, Olofsson gave her his jacket. Birgitta Lundblad couldn’t reach her home over the phone, and Olofsson comforted her. Elisabeth Oldgren had a claustrophobic attack and was let out for a walk on a 30-feet rope.

Later, the victims admitted that they were most afraid of dying during the police assault. Ehnmark even called the Prime Minister of Sweden to ask him to let everyone go, expressing her willingness to go with the robbers.

Clark Olofsson (to the right) with the hostages. August 27, 1973. Photo: AP / FOTOLINK / EastNews

131 hours later, the police pumped tear gas into the vault. The robbers were the first to come out. On their way out, they kissed the hostages and shook hands. The freed bank employees hired lawyers for Olsson and Olofsson and advocated for them in court. Two girls admitted that they had voluntarily had sex with the robbers.

Jan-Erik Olsson was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Birgitta Lundblad often visited him. Thousands of other fans wrote letters, and one of them married him after his release. All charges were dropped against Clark Olofsson. He has later maintained a relationship with Kristin Ehnmark. She became a psychologist, works in a drug rehabilitation center and wrote the book I am a Victim of Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm syndrome is not included in the international classification of mental disorders. However, the abnormal condition, when victims feel sympathy for their tormentors, has been observed repeatedly since 1973.

Jan-Erik Olsson's arrest. Photo by Swedish Police /
Jan-Erik Olsson's arrest. Photo by Swedish Police /

1. 1974, California, USA

Members of the left-wing radical organization Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) captured the 19-year-old granddaughter of a billionaire, Patricia Hearst, to exchange her for imprisoned associates. For two months, the girl was kept locked up, raped, starved, and forced to record messages to the public. Gradually, the rhetoric of the messages changed: Patricia began to support the actions of the terrorists. Later, she joined the SLA, changed her name to Tania, and participated in bank and store robberies. After Hearst’s arrest, defense lawyers tried to make her look like a victim of brainwashing.

Patricia Hearst's photos from FBI case records, 1971-1974. Source: FBI /
Patricia Hearst carrying an assault rifle during a bank robbery in San Francisco, April 15, 1974. Source: FBI /
Patricia Hearst's mugshot. San Francisco, September 18, 1975. Source: FBI /

2. 1991, California, USA

11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped on her way to the school bus stop. Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy kept the girl prisoner for 18 years. At the age of 14, Jaycee gave birth to a daughter from her tormentor, and to another one three years later. When the maniac was arrested, Jaycee Lee sought to prevent the arrest, hiding her real name and making up stories about her daughters’ origins. Phillip was sentenced to 431 years in prison, and his wife to 36 years. From the house where she lived in captivity, Dugard took five cats, two dogs, three parrots, a pigeon, and a mouse.

Childhood photographs of Jaycee Lee Dugard at the press conference on her release, August 3, 2009. Photo: AFP PHOTO / FAMILY HANDOUT

3. 1996, Lima, Peru

Dressed as waiters, members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement  (MRTA) took hostage more than 600 guests of the Japanese ambassador. The residence was hosting a reception in honor of the emperor’s birthday.

Two weeks later, 220 hostages returned home. In total, during the siege, the negotiators managed to free 549 people. From then on, the situation when criminals make concessions out of sympathy for the victims has been called the Lima Syndrome. The released hostages reciprocated and publicly supported the MRTA.

The last hostages were held in captivity for four months. The Peruvian authorities were accused of criminal inaction, but all this time, a tunnel was being built under the residence. Through it, the special forces broke into the premises. One of the 14 extremists resisted and was killed in a firefight, while the rest surrendered and were shot on the spot.

4. 2002, Salt Lake City, USA

14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bed. Nine months later, the girl was found in the home of street preacher Brian Mitchell, who planned to make her one of his seven wives. Mitchell put a veil on Elizabeth and walked the streets with her. She made no attempts to escape, hiding her face and her real name from others.

President Bush welcomes Elizabeth Smart, April 30, 2003. Photo: Eric Draper / The White House /

5. 2007, St. Louis, USA

Shawn Hornbeck was 11 years old when he was kidnapped by Michael Devlin. The boy was beaten, raped, and forced to participate in home porn. The torture lasted for four years until the maniac kidnapped another child. This crime had a witness, and the police raided the pedophile’s house. During the investigation, it turned out that Shawn had relative freedom and access to the Internet, but made no attempts to escape or contact his family.

The term Stockholm syndrome was coined by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, who advised the police during the seizure of Kreditbanken. According to his theory, hostages feel defenseless both before the criminals and the police, but they hope for a tolerant attitude from the former and achieve this by showing solidarity with them. Over time, in the victims’ subconscious, sympathy replaces fear and hatred of the attackers. The hostages find excuses for the criminals’ actions and even act in concert with them.

Nils Bejerot, psychiatrist and criminologist who coined the term 'Stockholm syndrome'. Source: