ENSLAVED for almost a decade, beaten, raped, starved and subjected to unthinkable abuse, Gina DeJesus finally had the chance to escape.
But when cops broke down the door of the squalid house of horrors she’d been chained inside since the age of 14, after being imprisoned alongside two other girls by 53-year-old Ariel Castro, she stayed in her room.
Shutting the door, Gina continued watching a Hilary Duff movie. Conditioned by fear and intimidation, she had lost the ability to make rational decisions.
“I was scared,” admits Gina, now 29. “Even though I knew the police could protect us, I was still fearful of what Castro would do if he turned up.”
As news of the girls’ rescue hit, the case was quickly dubbed the Cleveland House of Horrors, one of the most harrowing kidnapping cases ever uncovered.
Only a handful of people can ever comprehend the true effect of all those years of abuse and coercion, which is why some experts assumed Gina’s reluctance to leave was due to her suffering from Stockholm syndrome, characterised by a positive emotional bond that develops between victim and kidnapper.
It’s a term that was coined 46 years ago, following the ordeal of six Swedish hostages who befriended their captors during a six-day-long bank heist.
The syndrome was also in the news this February following the controversy surrounding British ISIS bride Shamima Begum, as she tried to return to the UK. After she showed little remorse for joining the terrorist group, the 19 year old’s family declared she had developed the condition after fleeing to Syria with two friends in 2015 and being groomed by the so-called Islamic State.
However, with still very little academic research into Stockholm syndrome – which is not an officially recognised psychological condition – a growing number of experts and victims are now questioning its validity.
One of those doubters is Gina, whose own prosecution team brought in a psychiatrist specialising in Stockholm syndrome as a witness after Castro was put on trial in 2013. The psychiatrist suggested the young women were so badly mistreated and manipulated that they had slowly bonded with their captor in gratitude for “rare small favours he would grant them”.
For Gina, nothing was further from the truth.
“I’ve heard of Stockholm syndrome, but I didn’t suffer from it,” she says.
“That house had been my life for over nine years. It, and the people in it, were all I knew each day, every day. The only human contact I had was with Castro and the other girls. I was scared constantly. He was a cruel monster who kept me chained and fed me when he wanted. I ate once a day and bathed once a week. There were no bonds, just fear.”
Gina is far from the only kidnap victim to have had the idea of Stockholm syndrome forced upon them.
In June 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom in Utah and spent the next nine months roaming the streets with homeless preacher Brian Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, while being repeatedly raped.
The fact that she never tried to escape until a member of the public spotted her led some experts to believe the teen must have grown fond of her kidnappers. However, Elizabeth, now 31, has always denied she had the syndrome and in 2017 she set the record straight in a documentary.
“I never had Stockholm syndrome,” she insisted. “Just because I physically stopped resisting doesn’t mean I hated it any less. I wasn’t sympathetic towards them, I despised them.”
In another shocking case, 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped while on her way to the school bus stop in 1991 and spent 18 years with her captors Phillip and Nancy Garrido – even having children by Phillip. She was eventually rescued by the police after being seen out with her captors and has since revealed that she is outraged that the diagnosis is so often used in cases like hers.
“The phrase implies that hostages cracked by terror and abuse become affectionate towards their captors,” she said in a TV interview in 2016. “It’s degrading having my family believe that I was in love with this captor and wanted to stay with him. That is so far from the truth that it makes me want to throw up. I adapted to survive.”
Then there’s the case of Austrian kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch, who was just 10 when Wolfgang Priklopil snatched her from a street in 1998. He kept her locked in a cellar for eight years, during which time she was raped and beaten.
After she escaped from his clutches in 2006, Priklopil killed himself. Natascha was reported to have mourned his death, lighting a candle for him and revisiting the house she was imprisoned in. Even so, she too disputes the suggestion she had Stockholm syndrome, telling Fabulous in 2016: “There is nothing I miss about him, but he was there and it was part of my life. It is a kind of justice he’s dead and I am alive.”
Despite such denials, why do so many victims get labelled in this way?
“It’s appealing, so it gets written about and included in TV and movies,” explains hostage negotiator and consultant psychologist, Dr James Alvarez. → “People think it exists more than it does. I’ve met lots of hostages and frankly not one of them had it. Every single one wanted to choke the life out of the guys who kidnapped them. A huge majority of people labelled as suffering from it do not have it.”
Dr Sohom Das, a consultant forensic psychiatrist who works part-time for the NHS and has treated many victims of abuse, agrees. “Some people believe the victims of the Rochdale grooming gang [where nine men were convicted of sex trafficking and other offences involving underage girls in 2012] had Stockholm syndrome, as they stayed in relationships with such abusive men,” he explains. “However, a victim might be in fear of being killed or hurt, so any basic mercy is accepted with gratitude. It doesn’t mean they are suffering from Stockholm syndrome, it’s just a matter of survival.”
It’s degrading my family believing I loved my captor.
Gina was just a regular schoolgirl who loved skating and hanging out with friends when she was taken in 2004 by school bus driver Castro. Already in his house were Michelle Knight, kidnapped in 2002, and Amanda Berry, taken in 2003.
Castro often kept his victims shackled and controlled them with violence, psychological manipulation and sexual assault, and in December 2006 Amanda gave birth to Castro’s baby daughter, Jocelyn. Castro would take the child out in public, but never revealed his victims’ real names to her, in case she repeated them to others.
“I was terrified, but the terror became my normal,” remembers Gina. “I was kept in the basement for weeks, but eventually I was given a room in the house where he would chain me up. I tried to keep busy. I drew, I wrote. I was allowed to watch TV and videos from the news of my family looking for me. Castro lied and manipulated us against each other. He brainwashed all three of us and made sure we wouldn’t gang up with each other.
“There were times when I thought about killing myself,” admits Gina. “But the memory of my mum and dad kept me going every day. I had faith that I’d make it back home to them, even when things were really hard.”
The chance came on May 6, 2013, when Castro let his guard slip and went out without locking the girls in their rooms. Amanda made a bid for freedom and summoned help by screaming at passers-by through a gap in the front door. Gina and Michelle stayed cowering behind a closed door.
“I heard noises downstairs and felt terrified,” remembers Gina. “We opened the door, but couldn’t see Amanda, then we heard footsteps.”
When Michelle spotted two police officers on the landing, she made her bolt for freedom, however Gina had to be coaxed from her hiding place. Even when she was taken from the house to the hospital she was still fearful that Castro would find her and only accepted the ordeal was over when she was reunited with her family. Gina admits she struggled to cope with the changed world she emerged into.
“I had been gone for nearly a decade,” she explains. “Everything was different. Everyone had touchscreen phones, cars were different… I was confused at first. I constantly asked for permission to do things like eating or showering because I had been controlled and needed permission for everything. If I was asleep and someone opened the door to look in on me, I jumped out of my sleep because Castro would come into my room at night.”
During Castro’s trial he told police that he was surprised at how “compliant” the girls had been. “I gained their trust, they were surprisingly willing to do what I asked,” he said.
However, Gina says she only ever felt repulsed and fearful of Castro, who, in July 2013 pleaded guilty to 937 charges including kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder. He was sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years. However, one month into his sentence, he was found hanged in his cell.
According to Dr Das, it’s hard to pinpoint whether a kidnap victim truly suffers from Stockholm syndrome. “It’s not a classified psychological diagnosis and there’s barely any academic research to back it up,” he explains. “When the FBI did a study into it in 1999, talking to victims of kidnap, less than 10% displayed signs.”
Interestingly, even one of the kidnap victims of the 1973 Stockholm bank heist – where abductees were reluctant to leave for fear of them or their captors getting hurt in a police stand-off – doubts she suffered from it herself.
“The ideal hostage keeps her mouth shut and thinks society and the police will protect her,” explained Kristin Enmark to a podcast in 2016. “When someone like me pops up and says the opposite, it’s labelled as unhealthy, as sickness, as a syndrome. It’s a way of blaming the victim. All the things I did were out of instinct for survival… I did what I had to, and I feel proud of myself.”
Other experts argue that victims refuse to believe they have it because they are in denial. “However, as there are no set boundaries for what constitutes the symptoms of the syndrome, it’s almost impossible to diagnose officially,” says Dr Das.
One kidnap victim who does believe she suffered from it is Patty Hearst, the Californian newspaper heiress who was kidnapped in 1974 and eventually joined her captors in an armed robbery. After Patty was caught in 1975, her defence team argued she’d been brainwashed to sympathise with the militants’ aims. Even so, Patty was jailed for seven years, before receiving a full pardon from President Bill Clinton in 2007.
Gina, who’s still receiving counselling, is determined to create something positive from her experience and, with her activist cousin Sylvia Colon, she’s set up The Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children & Adults.
MOST READ IN FABULOUS
“Following her abduction, Gina saw her parents suffer on TV year after year with little support,” explains Sylvia. “Now if someone goes missing, they can call us and come to our centre. We navigate them through the legal process, the police and facilitate media liaison.”
Gina admits she’s also found it in her heart to forgive Castro – but insists it’s not because she has any positive feelings towards him.
“There was a part of me that was sad when he died, but it was because I was mad that he wouldn’t suffer like we had,” she admits.
“But I don’t hate him for what he did – it’s just not worth my time and energy.”
- Visit Clevelandmissing.com, Sdas-author.com.