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Q&A: The origin of “stockholm syndrome”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking stock…

Q: Hi AWC, are you familiar with “Stockholm Syndrome”?

A: Yes of course. It’s when you spend so long walking around IKEA that you just give up and decide to live out your days in one of the displays.

Q: Haha, very funny.

A: But seriously, it’s a condition wherein someone who has been taken captive ends up forming a sympathetic bond with their captor(s).

Q: Yes, that’s the one. Why is it named after Stockholm? Surely it isn’t actually related to flat pack furniture?

A: No. It got its name from a hostage situation that took place in that Swedish capital city, back in 1973.

Q: So, pre ABBA?

A: Well, technically no – they formed in 1972, but didn’t become world famous until 1974. Let’s just call it early ABBA.

Q: What was the situation?

A: It was a bank robbery.

Q: “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! All your money, money, money!”

A: Yes, very cute. That is of course what all Swedish bank robbers sing. Anyway, in this particular incident, at Stockholm’s Kreditbanken, they took four hostages.

Q: But surely this wasn’t the first ever bank robbery. Why did this city get the honour of naming the syndrome?

A: Firstly, we should all be grateful it was named after the city and not after Norrmalmstorg Square, where the bank was located. The Swedish DID originally name the term “Norrmalmstorgssyndromet” but it was later renamed “Stockholm Syndrome” by criminologist Nils Bejerot.

Q: I think I have a shelving system named “Norrmalmstorg” – it goes really well with my Liatorp, Fjalkinge and Billy bookcase.

A: Another notable factor about this particular robbery was that it was the first criminal event to be televised in Stockholm.

Q: Kind of like the OJ Simpson “white Ford Bronco” chase… although I guess it would probably be a Volvo…

A: Yes, something like that – although in this case, it was JO, not OJ. A man named Jan-Erik Olsson took over the bank, negotiated for another friend from jail to join him and they held four hostages in the bank vault for five days.

Q: So, based on the syndrome that was eventually named after them, I’m guessing the hostages ended up on the robbers side?

A: They actually were NEVER on their side – just reportedly unimpressed by the efforts of police and their disregard for their safety. Olsson threatened violence when talking to negotiators, but the hostages said they felt safer with them than the options police and officials provided.

Q: How did the siege end?

A: The police stormed the bank vault with tear gas and the two robbers gave themselves up without harming the hostages – who would later refuse to testify against their captors. Although this was later revealed to be more to do with the way the siege was handled by police than any feeling of sympathy.

Q: Oh. So, how did the whole “sympathy” thing take hold?

A: The media hype was already very high, and this fascinating turn of events whipped up a frenzy from academics about such a condition. Remember that criminologist Nils Bejerot? He took many liberties in describing this case (without even interviewing the hostages). As such, Stockholm Syndrome has never been fully recognised as a psychological condition, but is still used – mostly by the media – to describe any situation where the victim displays sympathy.

Q: So you don’t have to have been kidnapped in Sweden?

A: No, any country! And more importantly, while it originally referred to situations where one didn’t previously know the captor, today it is often used controversially in relation to domestic violence between spouses or other abusive situations. Much has been written on the subject.

Q: Are there any other city syndromes I should know about?

A: Actually yes. The term “London Syndrome” is where hostages show anger rather than sympathy. It was coined in 1980 at a situation in London’s Iranian Embassy when one of the hostages refused for many days to cooperate, and was killed. And finally, “Lima Syndrome” is where the captors themselves feel sympathy for the hostages, as happened in an embassy in Lima in 1996, when the militants couldn’t bring themselves to kill hostages as planned.

Q: I’m steering clear of embassies from now on.

A: Good idea.

Q: What about “Helsinki Syndrome” – referred to in the classic 1988 Christmas film, Die Hard?

A: Nope, that’s not a thing. The writers were just having some fun.

Q: Okay then, so what’s the most famous case of Stockholm Syndrome?

A: Not counting those seen on TV-show Money Heist, it would likely be the 1974 case of Patty Hearst. Part of a wealthy family, she was kidnapped in San Francisco by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, yet months later emerged robbing banks with that same group and resisting rescue or arrest. Again, this was a nuanced and disputed case that resulted in her pardon by President Clinton two decades later, but is still used to roughly describe this so-called “syndrome”.

Q: Okay. All this talk of Stockholm Syndrome has me hungry for some Swedish meatballs.

A: We’re sympathetic to your cause…

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