Unthinkable Abuse — A Reality

kidnap victimsAs details continue to come in regarding the three young women abducted and kept prisoner in Cleveland, some people are questioning how Ariel Castro, the accused kidnapper, could commit such a crime, but also why it was that the women did not try to escape prior to being found in early May.  It is hard to believe that three young women did not try to climb out a window, outsmart or overpower their captor (after all, it would have been three against one), or call for help. 

As we learn more about Mr. Castro, evidence is mounting that he was physically abusive to his former common-law wife, and reports indicate that he, at least some of the time, kept the women shackled, naked, or otherwise unable to escape, but the bigger issue is one of psychological control where captives lose all hope of escape due to what psychologists call “learned helplessness.”

Decades ago the American psychologist Martin Seligman studied dogs and coined the term “learned helplessness.”  In the experiment, dogs were put in cages and painful stimuli such as shocks were presented, from which the dogs could not escape.  Even when escape routes were provided, for example, opening the door of the cage, the dogs remained in the cages, stopped trying to avoid the painful stimuli, and acted as if they were utterly helpless to avoid or change their fate; they were described as even appearing depressed.  It was then proposed that perhaps depression and other forms of mental illness might stem from such a feeling in humans, that when a person becomes depressed he throws up his hands and accepts that he can do nothing to make his life better, whether or not this is true.

I believe that when we hear stories about people kept, whether truly as prisoners or, more commonly, staying in bad, controlling relationships, unsatisfying jobs, working with abusive coworkers, etc, that we are looking at the same kind of learned helplessness.  When the three young women were initially abducted they were often kept locked up –even chained up –to avoid escape.  Over time the idea of escaping became foreign to them, as they had learned to accept their situation.  In addition, being kidnapped separately meant that each new girl, who may have had the fortitude to try to escape, was met with previously kidnapped girls who had already given up.  Not only would the other girls not encourage escape, but were likely to discourage it on the grounds that they felt that trying was futile.  Of course, threats are often used as well, so that If you try to escape I will kill you. or If you run away I will kill your family. are very powerful in keeping someone obedient and in place.

Based on what I have read so far, Mr. Castro is accused by his former in-laws of being a brutal abuser who threw his wife down the stairs and broke her nose and dislocated her shoulder.  They reported that he tormented her psychologically as well, putting her in a cardboard box and closing the flaps.  Obviously a grown woman can break out of a cardboard box, but a family member reported that he insisted that his wife stay there until he instructed her to get out.  Other reports indicate that he spied on her, creeping quietly to another floor of the house, then showing up where she was without warning, trying to see to whom she was talking on the phone or what she was doing.  He reportedly did similar things to his son, and in an ironic twist, his daughter was close friends with one of the abductees, Gina DeJesus, and was interviewed on television, as she was the last to see her before the kidnapping.  How sinister and creepy it seems to kidnap your daughter’s best friend.

While abductions such as this don’t happen every day, it is not uncommon for people to live for many years in abusive, controlling relationships, and due to what is most likely learned helplessness, they may feel they have no choice.  I have worked with patients whose spouses track them on the GPS on their cell phones or cars, who insist that they ask permission before making plans with friends (not the courtesy of checking with your partner regarding the convenience of going out with friends vis a vis child care or other plans, but asking permission like a child to go out to dinner with a friend).  I have seen people who say things like, “So, what will I do, leave him and date a bunch of jerks?  This is where I am right now.” Meanwhile her partner might be reading her mail or otherwise controlling her life.

I have heard people excuse abusive behavior, explaining that the abuser might only be like this after drinking, or when provoked.  I have seen this type of behavior in friends, patients, read about it in the media, and in popular fiction.  Many of us experienced a dramatic, controlling, somewhat abusive relationship in our teen years, where we may have thought that a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s jealous rages signified love that led to possessiveness.  But most of us learn better and grow out of that.  At the extreme we have people who do things that Mr. Castro has been accused of such as tormenting his wife in bizarre ways that included scaring her with a mannequin that he would prop up in corners, drive with in his car, and jump out of corners with to scare her.  A nephew reported that if he misbehaved in Mr. Castro’s home, he would be threatened with being put in the room with the mannequin.

So, why didn’t these three young women escape?  Because it didn’t take that long to convince them that they couldn’t.  Perhaps they were told that their families were no longer looking for them and were glad they were gone.  Perhaps they were threatened that if they tried to escape they would be harmed.  Certainly a captor might try to convince his
prisoners that he alone cares about them, to the point where they become dependent on the captor. In extreme cases you may see what is called the Stockholm syndrome, where the prisoner believes she is in love with her captor and will do anything to please him.  If this is all you believe you have in your life, then imagine how desperate you might be to keep it, even if what you are asked to do is bizarre or abusive. One woman has reported to police that Mr. Castro impregnated her several times, then starved and beat her until she miscarried. When another captive became pregnant he allegedly forced her to be midwife to the birth and threatened to kill her if the baby did not survive.  Anyone who felt at least moderately effective in her own life, who felt a sense of independence and control would have fought Mr. Castro until she became free, especially if there were more than one prisoner.  However, after years of being walked around the house in chains, naked, threatened, not allowed to see the outside world, much like the dogs in Seligman’s experiment, even if an escape route was presented, the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness prevented such an escape.  The women have also
reported that Mr. Castro would often pretend to leave the house but actually stay home, presumably to see if they would try to escape once he left. One of the women reported being terrified of calling for help on the day they were found, even though the door was left unlocked, because she feared he was testing them yet again, and would suffer the
consequences if he came back and they had tried to escape and had not been rescued.

Most of us can’t imagine being in the minds of any of these people—perpetrators or victims—but these situations and people exist.  Seligman argued, over 45 years ago, that we were not that much different than puppies whose spirits had been broken, and that put in the same type of situation we would also become helpless and unable to escape what we saw as our cruel fate.

For every person who leaves a controlling spouse or quits a job due to an abusive boss, there is another who feels that escape is impossible.  I can’t imagine what these women are feeling now, after being held captive for a decade, and I hope that they find the peace and closure that will help them.

[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D, practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow. [/blockquote]

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