Nothing can prepare us in advance for the suffering we will experience in this life. But even knowing this, we often remember with guilt the moments of blissful ignorance we had before suffering hit us.
Staring at the moon through the opening left by the towel her captor had hung over the window, little Jaycee could only think of her mother. They used to sit on the porch in the evening, look at the moon, and bicker: Jaycee would say that the full moon was more beautiful; her mother would say that the crescent moon was more beautiful. Hands cuffed behind her back, locked in a squalid room, Jaycee would have given anything to see her mother’s face instead of the full moon. But it was no longer possible.
A child stolen off the street
On June 10, 1991, in South Lake Tahoe, in the American state of California, Jaycee Lee Dugard, only 11 years old at the time, was kidnapped from a street while she was walking to the school bus stop. The authorities searched frantically for her immediately after her disappearance, but no leads helped in finding her. Jaycee had been missing for 18 years when she was found in August 2009, after her abductor made a wrong move. The kidnapper was sentenced to 431 years in prison.
The dubious missionary
Phillip Craig Garrido (58 years old), released on parole after being convicted of rape, was handing out religious leaflets on the UC Berkeley campus, accompanied by two teenage girls. His strange behaviour attracted the attention of the faculty staff, who alerted the police. In tracking him down, the cops learned that Phillip Garrido was not allowed to be around minors due to a sex offence conviction, so they informed his parole officer, who subpoenaed him for investigation.
Saved by lies
Garrido “obediently” showed up at the parole officer’s office with his wife, who was his accomplice in the kidnapping, and Jaycee, whom he introduced as “Alyssa, the mother of the two girls”. The officer was suspicious of Garrido, who was making up explanations on the fly. He knew that the man had no children, although the two girls who had accompanied him to school had been heard calling him “daddy”.
“Alyssa” declared to the police that she was the girls’ mother and that she knew that Garrido had been convicted of rape, but he had changed radically and that he was no longer a danger to society. The police decided to interrogate the two separately. Barraged with questions, Garrido confessed that the girls came into the world as a result of two rapes to which he had subjected “Alyssa” after he kidnapped her from the street, when she was a child. Subsequently, the officers managed to obtain the same testimony from “Alyssa”, who revealed she was Jaycee Lee Dugard and told her gut-wrenching story.
A life of terror
The story is told in chilling detail in the book A Stolen Life, which Jaycee (now 42) wrote as part of the psychotherapy treatment she underwent after reuniting with her family. Invited to Diana Sawyer’s TV show, Jaycee recounted how she tried to give meaning to her existence which was limited to the few square metres that her captors kept her in. How she strived to raise her two little girls the best she could, teaching them to write, doing maths exercises together, and teaching them history (as much as she could with her 5th-grade knowledge).
With surprising calmness, the woman recounted during the show that, in the 18 years that followed the kidnapping, she lived in a shack hidden in the back of Garrido’s yard. Initially, she was tied and isolated in a soundproof room, then she was moved to a larger room, where she was tied to a bed for a long time.
The only human being she saw in the first months was Garrido, who was “merciful” enough to bring her fast food and tell her “funny stories” to gain her trust. After he raped her the first time, Garrido began to cry and apologised to her, telling her that he was a terrible man but that she needed to put up with him, because in this way she was saving other girls who he would have hurt if she didn’t have intercourse with him.
During the interview, Diane Sawyer asked Jaycee how she managed to stay sane after such an ordeal. And although the producer’s question was inappropriate for the young woman who had already come a long way in therapy, Jaycee calmly answered “I don’t know” and then, with tears in her eyes, she said that her girls helped her not to feel alone.
Loving “bad people”
In the interview filmed more than a year after she was found, the young woman told in childish terms that Garrido and his wife “were mean to her”. Surprisingly, however, when she was found and questioned by the police, she had a completely different attitude. Eighteen years after the kidnapping, she had freedom of movement and independence, had access to a phone and email, and was working with Garrido at his company. However, not only did she not contact her family, but she also lied to the police to protect Garrido.
Although surprising to public opinion, Jaycee’s attitude is no surprise to psychologists. Her reaction is a manifestation of the “Stockholm syndrome”, which explains why the victim came to empathise with her kidnapper and even became strongly attached to him, to the point of defending him. The psychologists’ explanation is that, by gradually reducing her references to the oppressor’s actions, the victim may come to consider the lack of abuse or breaks in violence as a sign of kindness and become emotionally attached to him.
This paradoxical psychological phenomenon takes its name from the history of the armed robbery at the Kreditbanken in Norrmalmstorg (Sweden). The bank employees were held hostage from August 23 to 28, 1973 by several men who wanted to rob the institution. Surprisingly, at the end of the six days of mental torture, the victims had become emotionally attached to the kidnappers and even defended them in front of the police.
Jaycee’s case fits the pattern of the Stockholm robbery extremely well. For the mind of the 11-year-old child, the kidnapping was a huge shock, a trauma, to which were added sexual abuses, immobilisation, isolation, deprivation of decent living conditions, and manipulation.
In addition, the kidnapper suffered from a form of schizophrenia with religious delusions—he thought he heard voices of angels and demons—and often forced Jaycee to listen to the “voices” as well. Under these circumstances, Jaycee’s mind was forced to leave behind the old reference points and distort reality, tailoring it according to the kidnapper’s own reference points. Her thinking slowly adapted to the conditions in which she had to live, and the result was as frightening as the circumstances that generated it.
Living against the mind
The mental imbalance caused by exposure to harm is directly proportional to the intensity of the trauma suffered. The survivors of the Utøya (Norway) massacre offer, in this sense, a distressing example. Many of those who survived the attack committed by Anders Breivik can barely cope today with the guilt constantly brought by the question, “Why me? How come I made it out alive?” Again, a surprising reaction. People traumatised by the horror of what they saw cannot be happy for their own survival, because they are practically fighting to regain their lives.
One of the survivors, Khalid Taleb Ahmed (32 years old), is forced to take medication to remove from his mind the image of his brother, Ismail, lying dead at the foot of a cliff, in a pool of blood. However, the psychologist taught him to see his trauma as a door through which he can pass, Der Spiegel says. The therapist taught him that a movie is playing in his head and that he is the one who has the remote control to stop this movie.
Marte Fevang Smith continues to fight for her life too. The 18-year-old survived after being shot, only because the bullet missed her brain by two millimetres. But Marte cannot enjoy this miracle. Since the tragedy, she only feels good at home, surrounded by her clothes and other objects, which give her a sense of security.
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She no longer travels by bus, because she feels that she is not in control in crowded places. She never went dancing again after the event, because that’s exactly what she did the night before the massacre, when the Labor youth camp she attended had organised a concert by the Norwegian band Datarock. Every time she hears this band on the radio, Marte turns it off. The last time she listened to the band, she was with her friend Maria, who was shot dead by Breivik.
Marta’s life was so shaken by what happened on the small heart-shaped island that going to school became impossible—although, according to psychologists, it would have given structure to her time and would have helped her cope better with the situation. She could no longer concentrate in class, she began to shake and cry when she heard loud noises, and violent images appeared uncontrollably in her mind.
The evil we experience (whether it happens to us or we witness it happening to others) can rewire our thinking. Analysing objectively, without condemning the reaction of either party, we easily notice surprising alterations at the level of thinking both in the case of Jaycee, who defended her abuser, and in the case of the Norwegians who, although they made it out alive, struggle to legitimize their survival. Both situations show how difficult it is for the human mind to internalise a tragic experience.
Tragedy always comes as a surprise and the emotions associated with it are often overwhelming. After a tragedy, humans see themselves uprooted, deprived of the meaning they nurtured daily, and thrown into an existence in which they no longer have credible and stable reference points.
In addition to pain, humans also have to face a paralysing confusion, generated by the fact that they cannot dissociate from their need for meaning when they do not understand their circumstances. In fact, the human mind cannot really conceive of meaninglessness. This is a paradox, because the very statement that something “makes no sense” is a bias. Therefore, even something that “is meaningless” points to a meaning.
Purpose in suffering
Fortunately, the same need for meaning is what can help us regain our lives after trauma. An eloquent opinion on this opportunity is offered by Jewish psychiatrist from Austria, Viktor Frankl. After surviving the ordeal of four Nazi concentration camps, he came to the conclusion that all suffering has a meaning. This does not mean that to find meaning in life we need to suffer. It is preferable to do everything we can to avoid suffering, Frankl said. It is not suffering that gives meaning to life. However, even when it is unavoidable, suffering has meaning.
Frankl believed so much in the therapeutic power of meaning that he founded a school of psychiatry focused on restoring meaning to patients’ lives and is rightfully called the “father of logotherapy.”
Looking at religion as the framework in which humans achieve their ultimate meaning, Frankl used to say (paraphrasing Nietzsche) that whoever understands why they go through certain circumstances and why they suffer, can endure any suffering. Therefore, he concentrated on vision. His perspective has a strong biblical echo.
Scripture calls for a continuous transformation of the mind: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world…” (Romans 12:2). In a broader sense, we could interpret the verse as saying, “If the world is evil and if only misfortunes happen around us, do not shape your mind after these things. Even though suffering is a constant, pain is not the landmark.” Instead, this is the solution: “…but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.” As a true motto of mental health for Christians, the passage points to the ultimate reference point of inner change: God’s will.
The luxury of knowing “why”
As one who saw and experienced the unparalleled horrors of Nazism, Frankl knew that, during a prolonged crisis, meaning is a luxury. But it is a luxury that, in lucidity, any human can assume. When we do not find the explanation for a situation, we can give it a meaning, working on our only inalienable possession: “the last of human freedoms—the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
In a hopeless situation, said Frankl, humans have a unique, specific potential to “transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.” When faced with circumstances they cannot change (an incurable disease, a disability, a tragic life situation), then they are challenged to change themselves.
It is true that suffering is not equally distributed among people (and even if it were, this would not affect its intensity). However, one thing is valid for all people, regardless of their situation: God’s love, which does not change. It is this God that the Bible teaches about, the One who knows even the number of hairs on your head and for Whom nothing happens on this earth without His knowing and caring, not even the death of a sparrow (Luke 12:6-7).
The meaning that such a God offers breaks the boundaries of the present and promises that the future with Him will avenge any pain. The blessing for Christians is that, by faith, this future can be real in their hearts, even before their eyes see it.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.