The story of the hostage who comes by turns to identify with the captor is one of the oldest ever told. Tales of unsullied Puritan maidens kidnapped by Indians only to end up “going native” were staples of early American literature. The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, which describes the ordeal of a minister’s wife held for eleven weeks by Narragansett Indians during King Philip’s War in 1676, was among the first such narratives, and it was enormously popular when it was published in Boston in 1682. Three hundred years later, a similar story seized the West’s imagination: in Stockholm in 1973, after four customers were taken hostage in a holdup of the Sveriges Kreditbank, there were reports that one of them became affianced to one of the bank robbers. The archetype is of such sturdy provenance, in fact, that it surprised me to learn from William Graebner’s Patty’s Got a Gun that it wasn’t until six years after the Kreditbank incident that the term “Stockholm syndrome” appeared in the American mass media. The phrase first surfaced in 1979, Graebner explains, “when Time magazine suggested that the syndrome might have taken hold among those being held hostage by Iranian militants in Tehran.” Perhaps the obsession with the notion of a loss of self under conditions of duress is so primal, so elemental of modern anxieties, that people feared to give it a proper name. Until, that is, the 1970s–a time so drenched in the detritus of captivity that the culture suddenly could not do without the shorthand.
The captivity narrative at the center of Graebner’s book is the 1974 kidnapping of a modest and nondescript California heiress by a murderous ultra-left cult that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. A stranger story has hardly ever been told. Months after her kidnapping, Patty Hearst appeared on surveillance footage of a bank robbery brandishing an M-1 machine gun. Ten days later the SLA would release tapes of her calling her parents pigs and insisting that if she had been brainwashed, it was only via “the process whereby the people are conditioned to passively take their place in society as slaves of the ruling class.” When the police torched an SLA safe house with most of the group still inside, Patty watched it on live TV from a motel near Disneyland with the rest of her SLA “combat unit.” Thus began a flight during which, apparently as a full-fledged member of the gang, she never once tried to escape for more than a year. Then came her trial in 1976 for armed robbery, in which celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey tried and failed to convince a jury that Hearst bore no responsibility for her crime because she had been brainwashed.
Stockholm syndrome was everywhere in the 1970s. Hearst’s case was but the most notorious. The “brainwashing” of soul-searching youth by religious cults became the paramount obsession of the middle class (in Sunday school at my Reform temple in Milwaukee, we were trained to resist their wiles). “Between 1969 and 1977,” Graebner points out, “more than thirty zombie movies appeared in the United States and in other countries.” The most notorious of them all, Dawn of the Dead, came out in 1978–the same year that a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dramatized a “fear that human beings are vulnerable creatures, rather easily drained of the basic qualities of humanness,” in this case by aliens who arrive in the form of lovely flowers that turn the citizens of San Francisco into “a new race, identical in appearance to the old one but, like zombies, lacking emotive qualities.” Students of American culture will recognize the signposts of national anxiety: San Francisco, flowers, zombies. “If you’re going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went a 1967 hit song about the “Summer of Love.” The Bay Area was a national catchment for lost souls, a symbol of horror for parents who no longer considered their children their own. (Congress was worried enough about the problem to pass a Runaway Youth Act in 1974.) The fact that Hearst was kidnapped in no less a zombie reservoir than Berkeley would be central to the national discussion of her fate.