Stockholm Syndrome in the Literature: A Technique of Questioning Our Own Morality

As you may know from life experience, people can bond over stressful situations: from being in a hard class to being on the same sports team, shared struggles often serve as a catalyst for the formation of stronger relationships. The two situations I have mentioned are examples of eustress, or stress with positive effects, however bonds can also be formed by more damaging forms of stress coined as distress. A well-known example of the latter is the infamous Stockholm syndrome, which I will begin to explore later in this post. In Octavia Butler’s novel, Clay’s Ark, the experiences of characters seem to parallel that of Stockholm syndrome. However, as Butler often does with her work, we come to notice that this may only taking place at the surface level; upon deeper examination of the what Stockholm syndrome is and comparing it to the experience of the novel’s characters, we begin to realize that perhaps their captors, and their ideals, are not as evil as we may originally think. This makes us as readers question both the morals of those in the book and in our own society, as well as how we can approach changing this.

Stockholm syndrome, or “trauma bonding”, is a phenomenon in which a person being held hostage in some sort of dangerous situation forms bonds to their captor or abuser in order to survive (Synan).  This phenomenon was made mainstream to the public when Jan-Erik Olsson in Stockholm, Sweden took several hostages as part of a bank robbery; despite holding these people against their will, Olsson still expressed some small forms of kindness towards the people he held hostage: such as offering blankets when they were cold (Klein). As police negotiations continued, the people being held hostage began to sympathize with their captor and beg for the safety of the person who once (and still) threatened their lives (Klein). After the fact, one person noted that Olsson served as a sort of “emergency god” (Klein). This relationship dynamic is now synonymous with Stockholm syndrome: which can be more formally defined as when people have “positive regard towards perpetrators of abuse or captors” and a “belief in the goodness of the perpetrators or kidnappers” (Stines). The typical set of conditions for this to occur includes people being held in isolation from others, people believing that their abuser will carry out their threats, and an abuser who either simply allows the people they hold hostage to live or offers some small forms of kindness; this last requirement is what is often viewed as a sign of goodness in the abuser (Stines). It should be noted, however, that the criteria mentioned above are general experiences that those with Stockholm syndrome have in common. These should simply serve as guidelines, not requirements, for recognizing the causes of Stockholm syndrome in individuals.

The abduction and experiences of Keira and Rane in Clay’s Ark undoubtedly meet the common criteria for Stockholm syndrome mentioned above. In the story both girls were isolated and separated from each other on the compound, and their captors made it very clear that the girls would be hurt or killed for their noncompliance. In Clay’s Ark, Eli and his community members also offered support, clear descriptions of the disease the girls were exposed to, and respect of Keira’s needs related to her medical condition. This juxtaposition of the menacing abduction and scattered acts of kindness surely makes readers question if Eli and the others are truly bad people. This confusion also draws us to the conclusion that the girls may be experiencing feelings like that of Stockholm syndrome. In the text the thoughts of the girls only make us believe this conclusion more, such as when Rane: “actually found herself looking for help from the man who had held a gun to her head” (521). Keira also experiences feelings in the book that make us think Stockholm syndrome may be occurring such as when: “she obeyed, never thinking there might be anything else she could do. She caught herself feeling grateful to him for not hurting her, not even forcing the disease on her” (551). In the story Keira ends up allowing herself to be infected by Eli despite his best intentions, has a sexual relationship with him, and hesitates to leave him when her family is escaping the compound. As a reader I, and possibly others, were confused on what to feel towards characters like Eli as well. On the surface of the story Eli forced the abduction, isolation, and infection of the girls; on the other hand, Eli also acted with empathy towards the girls. The actions of Eli and the thought processes of Keira begin to make us question ourselves if Eli and the others are completely evil.

After we have been set up to question the morality of those on the compound, several things in the book make us think that perhaps Stockholm syndrome is not occurring. Keira’s experiences make us question this in particular. Although Keira’s thoughts, actions, and feelings toward Eli in the novel certainly point us to believe she is experiencing Stockholm syndrome at first glance, we must come to realize that her life is already threatened by cancer. Keira is almost certainly going to die, so although the abduction is a menacing situation that could surely impose feelings related to Stockholm syndrome, in terms of both her life ending and being ailed with a disease, Keira is experiencing both of these things. Rane’s situation also makes us question whether Stockholm syndrome is occurring in the book, as she feels almost zero feelings of positive regard towards her captors compared to her sister and makes her disgust at them (and their children) very apparent. Although in the novel Rane desires mercy from Ingraham (as quoted above) and later on ends up having sex with a different man holding her hostage, she experiences disgust unlike Keira, making us further question if Keira’s positive feelings towards Eli and the community members were due to Stockholm syndrome or not.  

The contrast between the feelings of the twin girls put in the same situation makes us further analyze the reality of what is happening. In the beginning of the novel, we had no reference group to compare Eli and the other people on the compound with; all we knew was that they abducted the girls out of compulsion and were trying their best to offer support and restrain from forcing themselves upon the girls. Once the girls are abducted by the car gang in the novel and once again held in isolation, we come to realize that these people are much worse: they are members of the outside world the girls were trying to escape to, and their daily practices include the robbery, rape, mutilation, and killing of others. This makes us question the justness of the society in which the girls were trying to escape to, in which it is mentioned that people are separated by class and most of the society is treated as figurative human sewage. This situation of social stratification reminds us as readers of a similar situation in our own society, such as the unfair access to housing due to practices such as redlining. Both Keira and Rane have very different reactions to their exposure to the alternate society of the compound. In the story Keira accepts the world she was introduced to and takes it as an experience to grow, heal, and escape the hell and anguish of her old society. Rane, on the other hand, remains more close minded through the story and her sights are set on escape; she literally must be decapitated to end her resistance to change. These two sisters and their schools of thought represent the way we can approach making changes in our own society: we can attempt to grow and strengthen ourselves from change or stay the same and meet an untimely demise.

From the situation and thoughts of Keira and her sister Rane it is easy for readers to assume that they are experiencing Stockholm syndrome, however upon closer inspection of the difference between the sisters’ reactions, we come to realize that this may not be what is happening. The people who originally abducted the girls have undoubted flaws, however as we learn of the ideals of those in the outside world, we come to think that they may be the lesser of two evils. The reactions of the girls, either of open-mindedness or resistance, to this change makes us as readers analyze the justness of policy in our own society, and how we would like to approach reformation.

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