I grew up in the 1970s, when watching TV was a family affair. We had all of three channels on our single TV and the news was an absolute. Depending on what time dinner was served, we either gathered in the living room to watch or, if mom’s meatloaf timing was off, listened to it blaring background music-style from the kitchen table in the next room. On a particularly riveting news night, we might be able to eat out of pre-portioned foil trays right in the living room. We had special folding tables stowed next to the sofa for this very purpose. They called them TV dinners for a reason, people!  

The headline stories I remember most vividly were the bicentennial celebration (my mom sewed me my very own bonnet for the occasion, which I wore to school; Why It Would Be Another Decade Before I Had a Boyfriend will be another post), Elvis Presley’s untimely death, that test tube baby craziness and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

That last one mesmerized me. According to the newscaster’s disembodied but still booming voice from the other room, the Symbionese Liberation Army (that was a thing?) had burst into the Berkeley student’s apartment, beat up her boyfriend and dragged the 19-year-old heiress off, kicking and screaming. The whole saga was terrifying, and her release was right up there with a pet monkey and an in-ground pool on my daily prayer list. Then one night, probably over Shake ‘N Bake pork chops and tater tots, I watched the heiress-turned-terrorist rob a bank right there on our shitty, rabbit ear-topped console TV. The news had already played audio clips of Hearst announcing she’d joined the SLA and changed her name to Tania. Now here she was on camera, not at gunpoint and not even trying to escape her kidnappers. In fact, she’d become a machine gun-toting criminal herself.

Whose turn is it to make the popcorn? 

Patty Hearst, the beautiful, bank robbing heiress

It’s called Stockholm Syndrome; the psychological phenomenon whereby a victim not only warms to his or her abusers but actively joins Team Terrible. It’s a defense mechanism; a survival strategy. “Once they don’t kill you, you start to think they’re nice,” Hearst later explained in an interview with Larry King. “They get nicer every day they don’t kill you.” As bar-setting goes, it’s pretty much rock bottom.

Stockholm Syndrome can develop when someone:

  • Is in an emotionally charged situation for an extended period

  • Suffers physical, mental, or emotional discomfort

  • Is isolated from friends, family, or the outside world

  • Is dependent on their abuser for basic needs

  • Is threatened by abusers but ultimately spared

  • Is treated with the appearance of humanity by abusers

[*At this point, the author of this post downs a healthy shot of Fireball]

Characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome include:

  • Positive regard for his or her abusers

  • An unwillingness to hold abusers accountable for their crimes

  • Little to no effort to escape

  • Belief in the goodness of abusers

  • Appeasement of abusers

  • Greater loyalty to abusers than to self

Can I get anyone else a glass?

I realize I’m not the first to draw a parallel between our current political climate and an abusive relationship, but daily I’m fascinated by the fact that so many people not only don’t see or won’t acknowledge the abuse, but actively defend it. They condone our elected officials’ illegal, unconstitutional actions, excuse their blatant, repeated lies, accept the censorship these officials don’t just allow but demand, and find ways to justify their repeated, heinous, deadly crimes. They label everyone who stands up to them or their abusers “conspiracy theorists,” because their abusers gave them that arrow and taught them how to shoot it. 

Stockholm Syndrome is why women stay in abusive relationships, how cults form and thrive, and the reason disciples worship repulsive, virtue signaling gurus. It’s also why, I believe, half of our neighbors in the Land of the Formerly Free are right this minute openly championing the removal of their own liberties, dismissing blaring warning signals from around the world and allowing their children to be used as experimental lab rats. Telling yourself that your abuser cares deeply for you is easier than accepting the fact you’re being abused. Or as Mark Twain is credited with saying, it’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.

The sad/scary bit is there’s no recognized treatment for Stockholm Syndrome. It’s considered an emotional trauma (you think?) and is often linked with PTSD, anxiety and depression.

If you want to help someone with Stockholm Syndrome, the internet suggests you:

  • Avoid attacking the abusers they’ve been conditioned to defend (I KNOW IT’S SO HARD but see vicious cycle in your dictionary).

  • Ask thoughtful, nonthreatening questions (How do you see this situation? What do you think should happen next? Which hoodie do you like better, Let’s Go Brandon, Think While It’s Still Legal or FUCK YOUR VACCINE?).

  • Lead by example. Be bold in your curiosity; question things openly; speak up when they don’t make sense. Bravery is even more contagious than COVID (and a clot shot won’t protect you from either, FWIW)!

  • Don’t play blame, shame or guilt games. People who are abused already feel like shit about it. Pointing out their weaknesses will make them retreat further.

  • Keep spreading light and love, even when you want to punch people in the throat. Abusers depend on the isolation of their victims to maintain loyalty and control. Divided we fall.

It took Patty Hearst years to recognize the abuse and trauma she suffered, and to understand that her captors were not in fact acting in her best interest. And she was an heiress, for crying out loud. Clearly, daddy could fork over for some therapy, is what I’m saying.

So, what do you guys want to do while we wait for everyone else to wake up? Play some card games? Paint each other’s toenails? Organize a militia?

I’m down for whatever.