After girl's rescue, questions on why she didn't run away

The Boston Globe/March 15, 2003
By Tatsha Robertson and Irene Sege

Salt Lake City -- Why didn't she run away? Why didn't she readily admit she was Elizabeth Smart when police found her with the couple who had allegedly held her captive for nine months? How could she walk by all those posters with her picture on them and not say anything?

These are the questions swirling since 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart was reunited with her parents in Salt Lake City and as evidence emerges that she stayed close to her captors even when they went to public places. Yet as perplexing as those questions seem, psychologists and other specialists are not surprised she didn't bolt.

''The bottom line is that there is an instinct for survival when you're subjected to frightening conditions,'' says Robert Prentky, a forensic psychologist in Bridgewater, Mass. ''Your instinct to survive is stronger than your instinct to hate your captor. It's a natural tendency.''

Elizabeth's ordeal is being compared to cases where hostages come to identify with their captors and cult leaders exercise psychological control over vulnerable, often young, recruits. Though little is known about what the girl endured after she was allegedly kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom, a body of research might offer insights into the girl's behavior and the emotional journey ahead for her.

Brian David Mitchell, the drifter and street preacher accused of abducting Elizabeth in June 2002, was a self-proclaimed polygamist who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church, but considered himself a prophet, police say. For months, Mitchell, who calls himself Emmanuel, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, allegedly held Elizabeth in the mountains near the Smart family's home. All together, the coercion, isolation, religious fervor, and Elizabeth's youth may well have led the girl to tell the police officers who found the trio in Sandy, Utah, that she was Mitchell's daughter Augustine.

''We took her aside,'' said Officer Bill O'Neal of the Sandy Police Department. ''She just kind of blurted out, `I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away.''' She didn't disclose her identity until her father arrived at the police station.

''There is clearly a psychological impact that occurred at some point,'' said Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse.

In what has come to be known as Stockholm syndrome, coined after a robbery at a Swedish bank in 1973, hostages can become emotionally attached to their captors. The first stage is terror; the second is isolation from the outside world. Gradually the victim shifts from trying to please the abductors for fear of being hurt to simply trying to please them. The people depriving the hostages of freedom are the same ones providing food and shelter. ''It's out of fear that you start obeying your abductor and through that process become dependent and attached,'' said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.

Perhaps the most famous case of a kidnap victim taking on the identity of her kidnappers is that of heiress Patty Hearst. She was abducted by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 and later jailed for participating with them in a bank heist. ''You have been so abused and robbed of your free will and so frightened that you believe any lie that your abductors have told you,'' Hearst told CNN's Larry King on Thursday night.

A similar dynamic is at work in cults, specialists say. Although Dwayne Baird, spokesman for the Salt Lake City police, declines to discuss reports that Mitchell kidnapped Elizabeth to make her his wife, he says investigators are poring over a 27-page document in which the suspect talks of assembling a harem. Authorities also say Mitchell may have tried to abduct Elizabeth's 18-year-old cousin, Jessica Wright, in July.

In ''The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah,'' seized Thursday in Montana from one of Mitchell's relatives, he describes polygamy as a lost ''blessing'' and refers to himself as a ''just and merciful'' God who can restore lost blessings to those who do not sin. One passage, in which he appears to address his wife by a biblical name, says, ''Thou wilt take into thy heart and home seven sisters, and thou wilt recognize them through the spirit as thy dearest and choicest friends from all eternity.''

When police urged Elizabeth to confirm her identity shortly after they found her, she replied with the words ''Thou sayest.'' Mitchell and Barzee chanted ''Things are in the hands of the Lord'' when they were arrested, police say. Police originally said Mitchell referred to himself as ''Emmanuel,'' but in a police report and in his so-called manifesto, he calls himself ''Immanuel.''

''What we're dealing with here is a systematic stripping of her identity and reprogramming her with a new identity,'' said Steven Hassan, a Somerville mental health counselor and specialist on cults.

''We're talking about a 14-year-old girl whose identity is being shaped,'' said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University who has done research on cults. ''She's malleable, easily manipulated, suggestible. She makes the perfect victim.''

Elizabeth was raised in the same religion her alleged abductor claims to represent. ''The culture comes to play because she was raised to be a very compliant child,'' said Doug Goldsmith, director of the Children's Center, a counseling service in Salt Lake City. ''We know now that she was not a street kid or worldly child.''

As vulnerable as a teenager is, studies suggest that adults held as prisoners of war or in hijackings exhibit some of the same behavior Elizabeth did. Specialists say her youth probably will figure in her psychological recovery.

At a time when most girls her age are focusing on school and friends as they establish identities separate from their parents, Elizabeth may well have been losing her identity in captivity.

''The emotional upheaval that is often attributed to adolescence may have been muted when she was put in a role where she had to be subservient,'' said Ann Burgess, a professor of psychiatric nursing at Boston College who has studied abducted children. ''A normal behavioral response following trauma is anger - to be rebellious.

''Girls aren't as prone to fighting and yelling. She may withdraw. She may be very sensitive to what people say to her,'' Burgess said. ''These are normal responses to this abnormal situation.''

''Traumatic events can have consequences over a life course,'' said Linda Williams, research director at the Stone Center at Wellesley College. ''It doesn't mean a person isn't doing well if they have to revisit it later on.''

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