National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Hornbeck Case

Law enforcement officials, the press and too many psychologists remain puzzled by the evidence that the 15-year-old boy discovered last weekend, who was apparently kidnapped four years earlier, did not try to run from his captor even though he had ample opportunities.

Many questions still remain unanswered, at least to the public, at this point. But the chances are that the plight of the Missouri boy, Shawn Hornbeck, could be just as it appears. He was abducted at age 11, and by the time he was found by law enforcement four years later, he was living openly and freely with his kidnapper, albeit with a false identity.

Among other things, it remains to be seen if there was any serious, systematic abuse involved in the clearly odd relationship between an adult kidnapper and his victim. If not, it would distinguish the case from the tragic one involving one Stephen Stayner in California in the 1980s. In that case, Stayner was abducted when he was seven, and lived with his captor until he was 14.

In an eerie parallel, the Hornbeck and Stayner situations were both ended when the captor kidnapped a second, younger boy. Evidence from a second kidnapping led to the discovery of Hornbeck, while when Stayner’s captor kidnapped a much younger boy, Stayner took the boy to a police station.

The facts of the repeated pattern of the sexual abuse of Stayner did not surface right away. He was not talking at first, and for, as it turned out, good reasons. His father, according to a vivid 1989 made-for-TV movie portrayal of the case entitled, “I Know My First Name is Steven,” became very upset when he presumed that Stayner consented to the abuse and did not attempt to flee.

The outcome was a soft prison sentence for the kidnapper and an estranged family situation for Stayner, who soon left home, became a young drifter and died in his early 20s in a motorcycle accident.

The fact is that our society and its laws are so geared to the notion that the individual is fully responsible for his or her behavior, that there is no understanding or appreciation of how the imposition of mental coercion by one person over another works, and what it looks like.

This problem became very clear in the 1974 abduction and brutal confinement of Patty Hearst, daughter of a publishing mogul, by members of the violent Symbionese Liberation Army in San Francisco. After being locked in a closet and deprived of almost everything, Hearst emerged after a month or so with a machine gun in hand apparently collaborating with her captors in a bank robbery.

When she was eventually found, she was tried for her role in the bank robbery and found guilty. The court simply had no laws or mechanisms to take into account her, for want of a better word, brainwashing.

There are some explanations in the world of psychology. It is a phenomenon known as the Stockholm or the Bettelheim Syndrome. It is a form of mental transference whereby the victim of mental and other forms of coercion adopts the point of view of his or her oppressor and parrots it.

Psychologists have suggested that this can happen to anyone under the right conditions, and the fault definitely does not lie with the victim.

Another attempt to describe the phenomenon refers to it as “co-dependency,” usually as associated with the particular, gritty realities of systematic marital abuse. Abused women are too often unwilling to fault their husbands, but blame other things, including themselves, for their husbands’ behavior, and defend them.

Then, of course, there is the phenomenon of mind-controlling cults that are far more prolific in our society than most will admit. Again, there is a real societal problem with recognizing the reality and the danger of mind-control.

Cults create the same reality for their victims experienced by the two abducted boys, Hornbeck and Stayner. Cults cut the victims off from their family, friends and any financial independence. They exercise control over almost all their victims’ time and drum into them that this is the right way for things to be.

The cult members, whether selling flowers at an intersection, quoting scriptures, or singing in front the National Press Club, all appear to be coherent, even bright, and in charge of their own lives. Characteristically, they think they are, too. But akin to the boys described above, even as mostly adults, they’ve been mentally abducted and systematically abused by someone who has not their own best interests, but his own self-serving ulterior motives in play.