Patty Hearst & Stockholm Syndrome: When Victims form a bond with their perpetrators

Patty Hearst & Stockholm Syndrome: When Victims Form a Bond With Their Perpetrators

  • A syndrome named after a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden.
  • The hostages are certain they are going to die and experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor – in their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.

Stockholm Syndrome got its name after a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. Jan-Erik Olsson, a 32-year-old career-criminal on parole, held bank employees hostage in a bank vault and was later joined by a former prison mate Clark Olofsson. The four bank employees became emotionally attached to their captors. In a form of traumatic bonding, the hostages rejected assistance from government officials. When the six-day ordeal ended, it becomes apparent that the victims had established a controversial, positive relationship with their captors.

The phenomenon was documented by the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, who called it “Norrmalmstorgssyndromet”, but later became known abroad simply as the Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome: Clark Olofsson
Three of the four hostages in the 1973 Stockholm bank robbery - Clark Olofsson standing on the right.
Stockholm Syndrome: Jan-Erik Olsson
Police officers wearing gas masks escort Jan-Erik Olsson from the bank after six days of standoff.

In 1970’s, psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg defined the syndrome for the FBI and Scotland Yard:

“First people would experience something terrifying that just comes at them out of the blue. They are certain they are going to die.”

“Then they experience a type of infantilisation - where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission. Small acts of kindness – such as being given food – prompts a primitive gratitude for the gift of life.”

“The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”

Patty Hearst & Symbionese Liberation Army

A little-known urban guerrilla terrorist group named Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), who stood for the unity of all left-wing struggles – feminism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism – kidnapped Patty from her apartment in Berkeley, California. In the beginning, the main purpose of the organization was the tutelage of black inmates, but over time, the ideas became increasingly radicalized. Eventually, the emphasis was black convicts viewed as political martyrs.

Patty was only nineteen at the time, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley and was targeted deliberately because of her social status to leverage the family’s political influence to free two imprisoned SLA members. Joseph Remiro and Russell Little were serving a prison sentence for killing school superintendent Marcus Foster and severely wounding his deputy. The SLA had condemned the plan to introduce identification cards into Oakland schools, calling it “fascist.” Remiro and Little killed Marcus Foster with hollow-point bullets packed with a fatally poisonous chemical called cyanide.

Marcus Aurelius Foster
American educator Marcus Aurelius Fosterwas assassinated in 1973 by Symbionese Liberation Army for of his alleged support of a plan to create a student identification card system that would help keep non-student drug-dealers off campus. In reality, Foster had opposed the identification cards. He was shot eight times with hollow-point bullets packed with deadly poison cyanide.
Young Patty Hearst with her parents Catherine and Randolph Hearst
Patty Hearst reunited with her parents, Catherine and Randolph Hearst in their San Francisco home on November 20, 1976.

The abduction of Patty was violent – the shots were fired, she was beaten and lost consciousness because of the struggle. In the hideout, she was held in a closet for a week, blindfolded and tied up, repeatedly threatened with death. Despite not getting enough food, Patty joined the political discussions and eventually told its captors she wanted to stay and fight for the ideas. The blindfold was removed, allowing her to see her captors for the first time. She learned weapons drills and the male members taught her what “sexual freedom” was – apparently, being repeatably raped by the SLA members William Wolfe and Donald DeFreeze.


Two months after the abduction, Patty stated on an audiotape that she had joined the SLA under the name of “Tania” – inspired by the East-German revolutionary communist and spy Tamara Bunke, who played a prominent role in the Cuban government after the Revolution by Che Guevara.

Patty Hearst posing with a gun
Patty Hearst posing under the name of ‘Tania in front of the group’s symbol – a seven-headed cobra, based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

What happened next, made the small unknown organization front-page national news.

Confronted with the reality of being failed to free the imprisoned men, the SLA demanded Patty’s parents to distribute $70 worth of food to every Californian in need – an operation that would cost an astonishing $400 million. Patty’s father took out a loan worth of $2 million which he used to distribute food to the needy in the Bay area. The distribution of donated food descended into chaos, and the SLA withdrew from their promise to release the prisoner.

The food distribution that descended into chaos.
The food distribution was chaotic and disorganized and eventually plunged into chaos.

Three months after her abduction, Patty was photographed wielding an M1 carbine while robbing the Hibernia’s Bank in San Francisco. She was actively participating in the SLA-led criminal activity in California, including robbery and extortion. Jim Jones, the mastermind of the biggest mass murder-suicide in history, expressed admiration for the SLA when the news spread that Patricia Hearst was involved in shootings, and asked his church distribute the SLA Declaration among its members.

After more than 19 months with the SLA, on September 18, 1975, FBI captured Patty and other members of the organization. She was sentenced for bank robbery and was convicted to 7 years in prison. After serving her sentence for less than two years, President Jimmy Carter himself commuted her prison term to 22 months, and she was freed in 1979, eight months before she would have had a parole hearing.

Patty Hearst’s transition from victim to supporter and her transition to having positive feelings toward her captors sparked interest for countless psychological studies, and she became a Poster Child for Stockholm Syndrome. She published a memoir in 1981 about her experiences with SLA, labeled Every Secret Thing and was a subject to numerous of documentaries.

Patty Hearst and Nancy Ling Perry flee the Hibernia Bank, 15 April 1974.
Patty Hearst and Nancy Ling Perry flee the Hibernia Bank, 15 April 1974.
Patty Hearst: Time Magazine
Hearst holding a rifle on the security camera footage became an iconic image.
Patty Hearst FBI Wanted Poster
Wanted by the FBI: Patricia Campbell Hearst.
Patty Hearst: Xxx
Patty Hearst: Xxx
Patty Hearst: Xxx
Patty Hearst at the trial.
Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison but her sentence was later commuted by Jimmy Carter and eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton.
Symbionese Liberation Army now/today
The former Symbionese Liberation Army members. From left: Michael Bortin, William Harris, Sara Jane Olson and Emily Montague. The former members received a prison term of six to eight years in the plea agreement for the deadly 1975 bank robbery.
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