Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Stockholm Syndrome's Obverse

If the Stockholm Syndrome is the paradoxical development by hostages of sympathetic sentiments toward their captors, then, turning that definition on its head, what would you call it when it is the captors who develop sympathies for their hostages?

If you don't have an answer to that question just yet, hang with me. I promise this will lead to an observation about genealogy.

Any hostage situation in which the violent captor, in spite of behaviors calculated to incur severe reactions of fear, comes to be seen, in the eye of his captives, in a more positive and even sympathetic light can be dubbed a case of Stockholm Syndrome. While this curious psychological dynamic was dubbed with its name after the resolution of a bank robbery gone bad, in which the perpetrator took four bank employees hostage and held them captive for six days. After their release, the hostages not only refused to testify against their former captors, but actually began raising money for their defense.

As you likely have surmised, that bank robbery occurred in Stockholm, Sweden.

The label, Stockholm Syndrome, has since come to be applied to similar relationships formed in spite of other types of abusive relationships: human trafficking, sexual abuse, terror, and other forms of oppression.

In mulling over the situation regarding the King Stockton story, and some oral reports reflecting on the relationship between King, his mother Hester, and my McClellan ancestors—indeed, of any other genealogically-uncovered story of inordinate connections between slaves and masters—I've struggled to ascertain exactly what the psychological dynamics were between those household members, and even, in some cases, relationships between slave and master which went beyond that to actual relationships of kinship.

Wouldn't there be some form of resentment? I've thought of slave-holding men's wives: how did they feel, knowing the child just borne by one of their slaves was actually their husband's son? Wouldn't it be akin to the feeling a wife experiences in our own times when she discovers her husband has been cheating on her?

Or take it from the perspective of siblings: how would the white children of a slave-holder see their half-sibling from an enslaved member of their household?

And from an entirely different perspective, how would the enslaved woman feel, having been so abused? How did, for example, a Sally Hemings receive the amorous advances of a man who, in reality, also held the supreme and final word about her well-being?

In thinking this over, as it related to what I'm beginning to uncover in the story of King Stockton, it is difficult to juxtapose what surely must have been the case during that era of separated "races" with the tender endearment expressed through gestures reported in oral traditions in our family. I have discussed this entanglement with other researchers who have also traced lines of the enslaved, particularly of mixed-race heritage, and others have found inferences of care taken to give preference to such individuals who, eventually, could be demonstrated to actually be blood relatives.

But how did such victims feel about what they were going through? I know there has been a genre of fiction that romanticized the pre-Civil War era of the old South; my mother's disdain at her mother for reading such books is a distinct memory I have of both women, though I couldn't tell you the title of any such stories. On the other hand, to read histories of egregious mistreatment of human beings on the basis of their position as slaves hardly leads me to think that any enslaved person could have truly developed warm and accepting feelings toward their captors.

The search is on—at least for me—to find any indication that there was any middle ground in relationships between the enslaved and their slave-holding masters. One possible resource, as was mentioned by reader Lisa in a comment yesterday, is to consult Civil War diaries. Of course, there are several books on this same subject which I am considering, including one I hope to review later this month.

That tenuous interpersonal relationship, though, reminds me of the Stockholm Syndrome. In a situation so radically opposite of warm human emotion, the paradox is that—sometimes—those very accepting emotions do develop.

And yet, the Stockholm Syndrome, while a handy moniker to depict such interpersonal psychology gone wrong, is exactly the opposite of what we'd see in an intimate (I'm putting it delicately, here) master-slave relationship. The captive is not warming to the captor; it's the captor who is experiencing a shift of perception. Not, necessarily, toward the victim, but more likely something developing as an outward manifestation of an inward shift: the slave owner seeing himself in a more benevolent light—perhaps even to assuage conscience.

While I am still experimenting with this exploration of just how an enslaved person would feel toward the person enslaving her, I realize that turning the definition of the Stockholm Syndrome on its head does turn out to have a name of its own: the Lima Syndrome. Just as the Stockholm Syndrome got its name from the place where its strange behavior first manifested itself, the Lima Syndrome was also named for a violent event occurring in a city—this time, in Lima, Peru.

The history of the Lima Syndrome involved an event in which a militant group took hostage hundreds of high level government officials at an occasion at the home of the Japanese ambassador to Peru. The definition for the Lima Syndrome, following at least the initial few days of its ultimately tragic outcome, is said to have been when the abductors develop sympathy for their hostages. Although the originating incident itself doesn't clearly represent the later definition applied to it, the concept may be usefully applied to the curious psychological contortions demonstrated in some stories of slave-holding families.

Whether psychological models built on the backs of violent episodes in modern life apply to the interpersonal dynamics experienced in even the most benevolent of slave-holding households of a bygone century, I can't say. I think a lot more needs to be explored on this topic. Of course, I'll keep reading—and gratefully accepting any suggestions for helpful material to explore. But rather than dismiss those oral histories out of hand, I need to first seek out any other family members' memories of the stories about the family during that era. That family memory, as we've already seen in the long-standing disdain for George McClellan's second wife Celestia, tenaciously will not forget past wrongs; let's hope that tenacious grip on memory will also serve us in the more positive of those remembrances as well.   


  1. There was a hierarchy among slaves with house slaves and personal slaves at the top. It doesn't surprise me that Sidney developed a fondness for Hester since they were together every day all the time. That was surely more time than Sidney had with other women, I would guess.

    1. From the first I had heard the King Stockton story, I had presumed he and his mother were in a privileged position, so what you say makes sense, Wendy. And considering the small size of the town close to their plantation, you are likely right about the sense of isolation that Sidney might have felt. The more I try to imagine what life was like for them, the more I wish Sidney had kept a diary.

  2. From what I have read, it was expected that slave owners would father children with their slaves, the wives just ignore it all ...at least that is my understanding:)

    1. This is where I am trying to get into the heads of people who lived back then, Far Side. I have a hard time seeing a woman just ignore that, but if that is a woman's only option, then I suppose that is what was done.

      From this, I guess it is pretty clear that I am just struggling with this whole way of life, very foreign to what we accept as normal nowadays, I suppose. Looks like it calls for delving much deeper into history before I can at least "understand" how people back then used to think.

  3. "Stockholm Syndrome" is an interesting comparison to how the slaves might have felt. I think, though, that what many historians say is true: the sympathetic sentiments (and cheerful behavior) we read about - is rather a well-honed and conscious survival technique on the part of the slaves. True sympathy with whites could not have run deep, even with the house slaves, or even with those who had "kind" masters.

    I remember the Lima hostage crisis. And I see the comparison you are making. Something like that was surely possible in the slave-holding south, as evidenced by stories like Sidney's. I think Wendy is right - close companionship for years could cause fondness. But it wasn't enough for a new societal awareness, or enough to move them to do the right thing.

    Your last paragraph is food for thought. I hope you will ponder on that more in the future.

    1. Lisa, thank you for dialoging with me on this--and for sharing information on some telling passages examining this same dynamic in other slave-holding families. Indeed, from some of the other examples you have mentioned, it seems as if that sense of fondness was indeed one way--though in this case, a fondness which has, curiously, been recalled for generations among our family members.

  4. Imho, there were many similarities in the lives of enslaved people who lived in American "slave culture;" but like life in general, each person's experience was different.

    There are books available about formerly enslaved people that include their thoughts on their plights in life, their "masters/owners," and God. Some are done as diaries and can be found in a google search. I recall reading about a slave girl mining salt in Bermuda in one diary and about a girl in New England in another one. Additionally, below is a reference to a project that has "Slave Narratives" from several states.

    A Federal Writers Project on Slave Narratives:


    I read some of the narratives several years ago, but do not remember which website I used access them. Although I'd like to believe the information that the
    formerly enslaved people gave to the interviewers, it seemed that the interviewees were giving safe rather than complete answers. Perhaps they knew that needed to keep peace in their neighborhoods.

    At this point in time we gather the facts and look at them with the knowledge of what happened and what we would have preferred to have happened. Above all, we don't want any kind of enslavement to happen again.

    1. Thank you for mentioning the Writers Project. The collection would indeed be a good place to soak up a sense of perspective on this issue.

      It is interesting that you bring up the possibility of interviewees hedging on being blunt about what the real experience of slavery was like. Looking at the history of how the collection was put together--and the time frame--would be key. While the Emancipation Proclamation happened during the time frame of my McClellan and Tison stories, we all know there were egregious violations of civil rights entrenched in the region--as well as the rest of the country--for a good century afterwards, until the civil rights movement began to call attention to this. And even that was a good half-century before our current times, and look at how far we have yet to go. With that in mind, it is indeed a challenging proposition to be able to understand the mindset of people living back then on either side of that divide. To see positive dialog move us closer to better understanding, and then positive changes, would be so encouraging. But yes, as the Japanese-Americans are also saying with their Day of Remembrance commemoration last month, "Never again..."


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