The pair of therapists — one Swedish, one Canadian, and both sporting shocks of white hair — met for the first time several years ago in a Stockholm café, at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance. Allan Wade, who runs a family practice on Vancouver Island and has a particular interest in victim resistance and responses, was extremely curious to hear his Swedish counterpart’s thoughts on Stockholm Syndrome. After a while, it was clear there was more to be said. They headed across the alley to Kristin Enmark’s office for a wide-ranging, three-hour conversation.
But Enmark wasn’t speaking in her capacity as a couples therapist. She was speaking instead as a hostage in the 1973 Swedish bank heist ordeal that sparked the term “Stockholm Syndrome” in the first place – an ordeal marking its 50th anniversary this week.
And Enmark’s story suggests that everything we think we know about Stockholm Syndrome is essentially a lie.
Mr Wade was there to “look at the circumstances and see if this idea that she had somehow bonded with her captors and wrongly criticized authorities and therefore suffered from this syndrome — if that, in fact, made any sense at all,” he tells The Independent. “And quite quickly, once we are looking at the events in question, you could see that the analysis – or the lack of analysis – that had been presented as truth really began to fall apart like a house of cards.”
Stockholm Syndrome is high up there on the list of psychological terms familiar to members of the public. Just like with “OCD” or “manic,” the average person throws around the phrase with no real understanding of its meaning. Indeed, even among psychologists, it’s unclear what the definition of Stockholm Syndrome should actually be.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Stockholm Syndrome as “the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.” But the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) doesn’t define Stockholm Syndrome at all. It’s never met the strict review requirements to be included; in fact, it seems that no one ever submitted it for inclusion in the first place. That means there are no identified diagnostic criteria at all for the alleged condition.
“I think, in part, it has become a meme that people use to describe all kinds of situations which wouldn’t technically fit the original description,” Dr Paul Applebaum, chair of DSM Steering Committee and Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at Columbia University, tells The Independent.
Given the term’s cultural prevalence, it’s suprising that there’s not a widespread knowledge of the eyebrow-raising tale behind it. It is a true story that feels unbelievable, complete with criminals with movie-star good looks, bungled police responses and the personal involvement of a head of state. The story’s well known in Sweden — as is Ms Enmark’s name — and various Swedish-language productions, such as Netflix’s 2022 Clark, have explored it. But it’s far lesser known among more international audiences.
Yet understanding what happened is key to understanding what we all do when we use the term “Stockholm Syndrome”.
Convicted criminal Jan-Erik Olsson, while on furlough from prison, walked into a bank in Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm on 23 August 1973, fired into the ceiling and tried to rob it. When police quickly arrived, he took three hostages inside the bank — a number later increased by one, after another bank employee was found in a storeroom — and demanded the equivalent of $700,000 in Swedish and foreign currency, as well as the release of an infamously charismatic and handsome criminal he knew from prison, Clark Olofsson.
This type of armed hostage crisis was unheard of in Sweden. Certainly the police had no blueprint for such a situation.
“I believed a maniac had come into my life,” Ms Enmark, who was 23 years old and a bank employee, told the New Yorker in 1974. “I believed I was seeing something that could happen only in America.”
Jan-Erik had disguised his appearance and voice, speaking English with an American accent, and police did not accurately identify him for days. They did, however, bring his old prison friend Clark to the bank. But they did it “in a very particular kind of way, as a double agent, in effect,” Mr Wade says. “Jan-Erik suddenly found himself in a hostage-taking [situation.] He intended a quick getaway bank robbery, and now he was in a situation; he knew he was stuck. So he demanded that Clark Olofsson be allowed to come in.
“And of course, Clark Olofsson was not an original bank robber or hostage taker, and before the police let Clark Olofsson go into the bank, they had made an agreement with him that his job was to help the situation be resolved properly and to make sure people didn’t get hurt, and then they might look at commuting his sentence.”
Things did calm down temporarily when Clark arrived, and Ms Enmark was allowed to make phone calls, along with fellow hostages Birgitta Lundbland, Elisabeth Oldgren and Sven Safstrom. Then police made a surprising mistake. They believed that they had positively identified who the bank robber was — except they hadn’t. Believing him to be another infamous bank robber who had previously escaped from prison, they sent in that bank robber’s civilian brother, along with an accompanying cop, in an effort to talk their hostage-taker down.
Immediately, confusion reined. Jan-Erik fired towards the strangers, who made a hasty retreat. The bank robber who Swedish authorities believed was inside was actually on the lam in Hawaii. Incensed by the accusation that he was behind the heist, he called Swedish police to protest that he was not the hostage-taker — a move that got him arrested, extradited and put back in prison.
None of this inspired confidence in the hostages that the situation was going to end peacefully. And as they watched police flounder with increasing concern, so did the rest of Sweden: The crisis was the first televised crime in the country, with nearly three-quarters of the population tuning in at the height of viewing.
Inside, both Jan-Erik and Ms Enmark rang the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palmme, who personally took the calls. He spent nearly an hour on the phone with Ms Enmark, who shared her fears of dying at the hands of police in a bungled rescue operation. She later claimed he told her that, should she be killed during a police attempt to squelch the standoff, she should be content to have died at her post.
“It really is extraordinary,” Mr Wade tells The Independent. “There you see a determined, intelligent, desperate young woman trying to reason with the prime minister of Sweden and trying to bring some kind of safe closure to these events and to protect the other hostages.”
In the end, six and a half days into the crisis, police stormed the bank with tear gas — even though Jan-Erik had threatened to kill the hostages upon a gas attack — and took him into custody. Not only were Swedes watching on television, but they had also gathered in the streets by that point. Authorities paraded Jan-Erik before the crowds in a show of triumph.
The hostages, however — particularly Ms Enmark — did not behave in the way police expected. As they appeared critical of police and friendly towards the hostage-taker, consultant psychiatrist Nils Bejerot — who never met or treated Ms Enmark — explained it away as “Norrmalmstorg syndrome,” which came to be known outside of Sweden as “Stockholm Syndrome.” The application of the term to the experience of Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped the year after the Stockholm heist and appeared to have a similar reaction toward her situation, further cemented Stockholm Syndrome in the American and international psyche.
Without proper examination of the August 1973 events, it seems inconceivable that someone would identify with a captor over authorities. Upon taking a closer look at the Norrmalmstorg maelstrom, however, it’s not hard to see why two Swedish criminals may have seemed a safer option for the hostages.
“When you begin to focus on in such detail, often events begin to take on a very different appearance,” Mr Wade tells The Independent. “The problematic police responses, the disorganized police responses, mistaken identity ... Here’s a 23-year-old young woman, one of four hostages, from the north of Sweden, who hadn’t been in Stockholm very long, and all of this is happening.
“She’s watching the police bungle the early stages of this and noticing that she becomes less safe rather than more safe, and she’s also been managing Jan-Erik.”
After hearing Ms Enmark recount the events decades later, Mr Wade says, he noticed she was “very emotional ... in two senses.
“One, sometimes there was a certain sense of wonderment and even indignation at: How could things have been so horribly misunderstood? How could things not really have been looked at?” he says. “”And at other times, there were strong emotions about the events themselves that she was recalling.”
There was certainly a strong emotional response earlier this year when one Twitter user highlighted the real circumstances that birthed “Stockholm Syndrome,” paraphrasing portions of a 2019 book (See What You Made Me Do: Power Control and Domestic Abuse) in a thread that promoted huge interest. It wasn’t the first time that the author of that book, Jess Hill, had seen her work go viral.
“It does shock people ... and there’s so many people who have not heard this story,” Ms Hill tells The Independent. “And it seems like, as each person finds out about it, what’s amazing is that, once they read the story, it’s immediately persuasive. It’s immediate — that this is bulls**t. And that’s what’s so powerful about the story.
“I could talk for hours about why victims behave in certain ways, and why we shouldn’t just presume that they’re crazy. But instead, just by telling that story and showing how authority can just literally make something up on the spot to excuse itself, it’s like a shorthand for people to undestand how so many other things that we’ve come to believe could be wrong.”
Mr Wade calls Stockholm Syndrome “one of a whole network of concepts that ... shift focus away from the powerful role of ... institutional responses”. He adds that such concepts “also tend to protect offenders because, instead of looking at strategies used by perpetrators to suppress victims, resistance theories such as Stockholm Syndrome and others (there’s a long list of them: identification with the aggressor, infantilization, traumatic bonding, learned helplessness, internalization, false consciousness, it goes on and on) don’t evolve focus on how victimized people have responded to and resisted violence. Rather, they assume that they did not.”
It’s “part of a family of notions that stem from hyper-individual, problematic notions in psychology and psychiatry, rather than careful analysis of circumstances on the ground.”
While Stockholm Syndrome may be familiar as a term to many, the condition rarely comes up in medical circles, Dr Applebaum says.
“If you ask what most clinicians, mental health professionals think about, I would say: They don’t think about it,” he says. “It’s not an issue that is on their minds day to day ... Most of them have never seen and will never see a case like this and know relatively little about it.”
He adds that, just because “a rare syndrome is not embodied in the DSM, [it] doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist, that it’s not a real thing.
“It may simply mean that the fairly rigorous criteria for inclusion haven’t been met and and perhaps can’t be met,” he says. “So Stockholm Syndrome is not recognized as a as a discrete mental disorder. In the DSM, there’s been, for almost the last decade, a process that has existed whereby people who have evidence or have accumulated evidence of the validity of a proposed disorder can submit it to the review process. We’ve never received such a submission for Stockholm Syndrome. So there hasn’t even been an effort to assemble the existing data, develop diagnostic criteria, and submit it for review.”
He says that “Stockholm Syndrome, as classically described, appears to represent something of an unconscious reaction by the person who’s being held captive in which they slowly begin to adjust their frame of reference and identify with their captors”. The identification can be so extreme that “in some of these cases, given opportunities to escape, they don’t take them.”
But forging a relationship with a captor could be seen as a clear and conscious survival strategy, as well — and Dr Applebaum acknowledges “there are several possible complexities here.”
“We may not be able to create or recognize a clear dichotomy between conscious and unconscious strategies,” he says. “Conscious strategies may lead to unconscious identification, right? You’re nice enough to somebody for so long and because you want to propitiate them, and they, at least, are non-abusive in their responses to your behavior... You may come over time to unconsciously identify with them. So one can morph into the other. And it’s also possible for both both sets of motivations to exist simultaneously, both the conscious and unconscious reaction that may complement each other.
“The human mind is complex.”
The world was quick to embrace without question an “explanation” that the Swedish hostages had essentially fallen under the spell of their attackers. There was little mention of the days spent under siege by inept police, the hostages’ firsthand experiences of authorities’ mistakes, or the fact that Nils Bejerot never even treated Ms Enmark. Nor was there a discussion about whether Ms Enmark’s reactions were simply nuanced, when others expected a black-and-white response to a hero-and-villain story that wasn’t as simplistic as it seemed. Women have historically been diagnosed from afar by male psychiatrists with a number of bogus disorders. It’s hard to believe that sexism didn’t affect the claims of Stockholm Syndrome.
Mr Wade believes that Stockholm Syndrome is rooted in institutionalized attitudes and inequalities that have persisted for centuries.
“These practices of implanting pathologies in the minds, brains and bodies of oppressed people, they’re inherent to what we might call colonialism, patriatchy, different forms of racism, different forms of violence and oppression,” he says. “So this is not sort of an accidental or uncommon problematic way of thinking; rather, it is endemic.”
And he adds, concerningly, that he believes “it’s larger-scale now than it ever has been.”
The veritable hijacking of the heist history, Ms Hill says, is “a straightforward story that shows so clearly how this process can be manipulated by people in power to make victims look like they are crazy”. It also proves, she adds, “just how easy it is to just establish a syndrome based on no diagnostic criteria at all — and to never even have diagnostic criteria developed. Ever.”
She’d like to think the world has progressed a long way in the last 50 years, but as she continues to witness and write about “systems to excuse the perpetrator and to blame the victim,” it’s difficult.
“Honestly, sometimes I feel like we can have these really high times where we really get to a point where it’s like: Surely now it’s going to turn, we’re moving to a better place,” she says. “And then the backlash comes through, and you feel like you’ve gone five steps backwards.”