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Why hostages fall for their captors: the bank robbery that gave us Stockholm Syndrome

Jan-Erik Olsson's captors during their 121-hour ordeal in 1973
Jan-Erik Olsson's captors during their 121-hour ordeal in 1973 Credit: AFP

We all know the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. These days it’s used ironically; rolled out by people stuck in a Post Office queue for too long, say, and subsequently being addled into a sort of warped loyalty, even attraction, to those keeping them there.

But while the Syndrome has irony at its heart, it’s a much heavier sort, albeit one that is so influential that it continues to inspire popular culture, from V For Vendetta to The Simpsons.

Now a new film, The Captor, starring Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong, tells the story of the 1973 bank robbery that led to the coining of one of the world's most widely understood psychiatric terms.

Dr Frank Ochberg is a trauma specialist and clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University. He is telling me about the reactions of people who have built up “ironic bonds” or trauma bonds with their captors (“Some of them describe to me a real feeling of loss, a sadness when this trauma bond, this Stockholm Syndrome, vanished. It was like they lost a friend.”) because Ochberg is the man who, 46 years ago, defined “the Stockholm Syndrome” in a memo to the FBI.

As he explains: “You can be captured, threatened with death, seriously abused in captivity, and instead of ending up with anger, you have a very strange attachment.

First of all, you are so traumatised and terrified. These people don’t say ‘I thought I was going to die, they say ‘I knew I was going to die’. And they’re not allowed to use a toilet, to eat, to talk, to move without permission. So what are they reexperiencing? Infancy. When that’s how we were! We humans are endowed with a marvellous feeling of attachment to our mothers, and our mothers reciprocate that. So here we are in a state where we’re terrified but we’re attached – and then we have to account for this.”

In 1973, convicted criminal Jan-Erik Olsson, 32, walked into a bank in central Stockholm wearing sunglasses and a wig, and fired gunshots into the air, yelling, “The party has only just started!” He took four of the young bank tellers hostage in the vault – Birgitta Lundblad, 31, Elisabeth Oldgren, 21, and Sven Safstrom, 25, and Kristin Enmark, 23 – and thus began a six-day siege that would even involve the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme.

Olsson demanded that the police bring him three million krona and two guns, and to release his friend, the gangster Clark Olofsson, from prison and bring him to the bank to use as an intermediary. Over the course of their incarceration - as Olsson paced the vault singing Killing Me Softly - they bonded with their hostages, who protected their captors despite threats.

Kristin Enmark would become the poster child for trauma bonds. During a phone call with Palme, she begged him to let her leave the vault with her captors, saying, “I’m not one bit afraid of those two. I trust them completely. Can’t you just let us go with them?”

Enmark’s next move was particularly disturbing: she begged her fellow hostage Sven Safstrom to let Olsson shoot him in the legs so the police would take his demands more seriously. Enmark, who eventually retrained as a psychologist and no longer conducts interview, later told Swedish Radio that she had no idea why she had acted in such a way.

 Jan-Erik Olsson following his arrest Credit: AFP

“I said, ‘but Sven – it’s just the legs!’ How could you say something like that to someone who is going to be shot? Something strange happens to your morals and values and your sense of right and wrong when you’re locked up like that.” 

I asked Ochberg what that is. “Trauma has a profound impact. It can change your sense of justice, and question your sensitivities, sensibilities.”

Elisabeth Oldgren later claimed that Olsson cared for her in the vault, giving her his jacket to wear when when she woke up cold.

Ochberg highlights the concept of “moral injury”, usually seen in extreme breaches of trust. “It’s very hard for people to put that into words. They understand that something has been violated.”

The situation in Stockholm was particularly extraordinary because it was a media circus like no other. It was the first event of its kind for Swedish police, and interviews were conducted regularly – Olofsson even contributed from inside the bank, after he and Olsson had listened to the live radio coverage.

According to Ochberg, our fascination with psychiatric anomalies is something we are raised to have from birth.

Stockholm hostages hostages Sven Safstrom and Kristin Enmark Credit: amazon

“In journalism, you’re giving the facts when something violent and terrible happened, and the reader responds by saying, ‘Isn’t this awful, tell me more’. We’re raised with fairy tales and myths and tells of ogres eating children. It’s in every culture! There is something in our species that in a Darwinian sense has been selected for; a paradoxical pleasure in enjoying horrible things in a particular setting. Once they’re in our minds it means that we’re not unfamiliar with it when, god forbid, it actually happens.”

Those six days was long enough for Kristin Enmark to develop feelings for her captors, and also, the other way around. Fond feelings from captor to hostage are far more useful for negotiators. In fact, Olsson said later: “They made it hard to kill.” It’s so weird, and so utterly twisted that it makes me shiver.

“Your shivers are appropriate, and one ought to feel that way,” says Ochberg. “We have to protect ourselves. This is an irrational attraction to somebody who is lethal, who doesn’t kill us, and so we become bonded to them. There’s stuff happening all over the world that is irrational, with heads of state who are immoral and authoritation, and who scare and disgust some of us – but not all of us.”

How well would the trauma specialist cope with this sort of situation? “I’d probably do a little better than most. I’ve had a couple of tragedies in my life, and I don’t want to say that I handled them all that well. My wife and I suffered the death of a young child at nine months. It’s a long time ago now, and I believe that in some ways it helped me understand, and it didn’t put me on a downward course. There are some people who in a glib way say you get stronger in the broken places, and I don’t think that’s true in general. But I do think some of us have a better than average ability.”

This might explain why Kristin Enmark responded in such a particular way to her captors. Ochberg finds that some people are genetically more resilient than others, which is why some people develop Stockholm Syndrome and others don't, and men and women in the Special Forces can cope in extreme circumstances (“Their alarm systems, their mental and physical changes at a time of physical danger go way up and then way down to baseline levels much faster than the average person.”)

Certainly, this ironic bonding can happen in wider situations. And while Ochberg is gently confident in his own capabilities, he had his own experience after open heart surgery to put a cow valve in his aorta.

“I ended up having a terrific relationship with all the nurses and the doctors! One nurse spent the better part of an hour telling me all that was wrong with her life and her supervisor, and came in the next day saying, ‘Oh my god why did I do that!’ But I could have died. I had pain. I had all that stuff. But I think I ended up bonding positively.”