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17 February 2021

Matthew Syed’s Sideways takes a second look at Stockholm Syndrome

Is it just a sexist trope?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

I’m wary of media promising to have “nuanced” conversations, or aiming to “unpack” our assumptions about a particular topic – especially on informal, conversational podcasts, which often come to conclusions that are deeply obvious, yet remain full of self-congratulating asides (“And that’s why it’s so important we’re talking about this…”). The journalist Matthew Syed’s new BBC Radio 4 series Sideways, themed around “seeing things differently”, does at times slip into this vocabulary (“Now let’s take another look at what happened,” Syed ponders, “and just shift our lens slightly. Is there another way of viewing this story?”). But, so far, the show is interesting and thoughtful enough to support its claims.

[See also: Reply All’s “The Test Kitchen” investigates a scandal at a US food magazine]

The first episode explores the term “Stockholm Syndrome” by re-examining the 1973 bank robbery in Sweden that led mental health professionals to first define the phenomenon of a hostage identifying with, defending or entering some kind of relationship with their captor. Syed explains Anna Freud’s psychoanalytic understanding of how children sympathise with violent parents, and Marxist theories that seek to explain why the proletariat doesn’t resist its capitalist oppressors more often. He demonstrates how the term has expanded to become not only a way of describing survivors of kidnappings, but a buzzword used to explain why victims of domestic violence don’t leave their abusers.

[See also: Who Cares: BBC Radio Four’s moving verbatim drama about young carers]

But it’s the voice of Kristin Enmark – the then 23-year-old hostage – that is most enlightening. During her six-day kidnapping, Enmark criticised the Swedish police’s erratic approach and begged them to allow the perpetrator Jan-Erik Olsson to go free. She explains that the biggest threat to her was, she felt, the risk of becoming a casualty in a confrontation between the police and her captors. It was her remarks about the police’s tactics that led to her being deemed psychologically unstable. Syed ventures that Stockholm Syndrome – similar to the related question, “Why didn’t she just leave?” – is a sexist trope, a convenient way of pathologising victims who can’t trust the patriarchal systems supposedly there to protect them. Enmark is more succinct. “It’s bullshit,” she says. “If you can say that on the BBC.” 

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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth