Cases like the Cleveland long-time abductions are rare, shocking and raise many questions. They also fascinate us because we can’t “get it,” we don’t understand why someone would commit such acts. There is some research literature on kidnappers and abductions, but little or no empirical studies that can really give us clear answers.
I think that neglect played a psychological role — they might have felt like objects, things for their parents’ use. It is not a far leap to feeling like a slave, and this crime may represent an attempt to master what was done to them.
- Dr. Patricia Saunders
There are psychological parallels in aggressive, dominant rapists, pedophiles and sadistic killers, where the predominant theme is power and control over the victims. Some researchers believe that this dimension adds secondary pleasure to the sexual assaults and clearly the act of keeping women as slaves speaks to domination as an overriding need.
The Cleveland victims were adolescents when they were initially kidnapped and enslaved, which may have had an element of pedophilia in it. However, as these women were kept as “slaves,” the theme changed to power and control.
A more subtle psychological element is that this man (or men) may have felt entitled to his acts for a variety of reasons: life had been unfair to them so “they deserve this,” a complete lack of empathy for the victims, families and community; and a personality structure where their fantasies and sexual and aggressive impulses overrode any normal inhibition.
I am not saying this man is mentally ill ― legally or psychologically. I am saying that they have a different psychological organization which is close to what psychopaths are like.
Current empirical research on serial sexual homicides suggests that such offenders have very clear and detailed fantasies or “scripts” in their heads which they yearn to act on. The constellation of anger, poor impulse control, lack of conscience, and opportunity allows them to act on these scripts and play them out in real life.
Such men often have histories of previous crimes of domestic violence, sexual assaults and stalking.
These men are developmentally arrested and perhaps just very different than the average human being. Some psychologists have gone as far as saying that psychopaths are an evolutionary offshoot of Homo sapiens; that is, they are fundamentally a different kind of human being and we know that psychotherapy and medication rarely change their behavior.
Some studies suggest that men who commit acts like these have themselves been subject to physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children. For those offenders who have this history, I think that neglect played a psychological role — they might have felt like objects, things for their parents’ use. It is not a far leap to feeling like a slave, and this crime may represent an attempt to master what was done to them.
The last thing we need to do is to blame the victims! Why didn’t they try harder to escape? Why didn’t they fight back? Because they couldn’t physically and psychologically. The well-known Stockholm Syndrome describes the psychology of people held captive by violent offenders.
One of the worst things any of us can feel is utter helplessness so, over time, the victims either sympathize or identify with their captors (like Patty Hearst) and have a myriad of ways of rationalizing it. It is a normal response to grossly abnormal circumstances. The captors are usually very pleased by this kind of response. Additionally it can feed into their sense of power, if not grandiosity, by having these women as “slaves” to gratify their every need.
The three women will need careful treatment and support to help them re-integrate into society as well as deal with their unthinkable trauma. Elizabeth Smart is a good example of someone who was kidnapped and enslaved who was able to use her experiences by giving talks/lectures about her understanding of being a victim and what inner resiliency she was able to access to survive and escape.
The perpetrator or perpetrators deserve nothing less than multiple life sentences without a chance for parole. Men like these cannot be treated and they present a high risk to any community. Even if they had a history of childhood abuse or neglect, so have hundreds of thousands and they do not commit such acts. It may be a partial explanation, but it is not a viable excuse or defense in a court of law.
Patricia Saunders, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and forensic psychologist.