Fathali Moghaddam, a psychologist and professor at Georgetown University, has researched and written extensively on the psychology of kidnapping, hostage taking and holding people captive. A&E True Crime spoke with Moghaddam to learn more about the motivations and personality traits of those who hold others in captivity.
Is there a typical profile for those who kidnap and hold others in captivity? And, on the other side, is there a typical victim profile?
There are a number of related terms for the action of holding others in captivity, including kidnapping, abduction and hostage taking. Is there a typical profile of a kidnapper? Well, it depends on the motivation we’re talking about. Is the kidnapping for money or political purposes? Or is it for sexual purposes?
I would say there are some general commonalities, but no standard profile for those who kidnap and hold others in captivity. [But] they are usually men. You don’t hear of many women who commit these types of crimes. These men are often white and, in their thirties, forties or fifties. Frequently, they’re a little younger than middle aged.
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At the surface level, some of them are withdrawn. Some of them are the types who don’t have social connections. Some of them are described by neighbors as nice guys, who have good relationships with their mothers, sisters, families and so on. So, it comes as a shock to the families when they discover these men have kidnapped and held others in captivity.
The female victims are often much younger than their captors, but I wouldn’t generalize a typical victim profile.
On a psychological level, what motivates some men to kidnap and take women and children prisoner?
With kidnapping and holding women in captivity, there’s usually not a psychological abnormality involved, not in terms of pathology. It’s not pathological, but typically the kidnapper has a need for relationships and power. Power is the main theme here.
These men are often narcissistic. They lack empathy and see the world only from their own perspective. Some of these captors feel a sense of inadequacy or that they’re not getting the attention they deserve. In order to get that attention, they decide they’re going to kidnap somebody and have complete control.
Do these offenders plan the kidnappings and know in advance that they’ll hold their victims in captivity?
Sometimes victims are chosen, stalked and targeted, especially when a captor acts alone. These are planned events, which are the most typical cases. In some instances, you’ll find a man who’s 35, 45 or 50, and he has a wife or partner. If she doesn’t satisfy him in a specific way, he manipulates and uses her to help him capture another woman. These are most often opportunity events, and they’re less common.
With some violent offenders, we often see a history of abuse, broken homes, troubled childhoods and some behaviors like fire starting and animal cruelty. Is it the same with those who kidnap and hold others in captivity?
We have to be careful here. We do find that some of these individuals have passed a childhood that is troubled, but often they are very methodical in their planning. They’re very careful in how they do the kidnapping. You can’t explain it by going back to childhood trauma, because often the kidnapper is very step by step, very logical, very focused on planning and doing things effectively and often may know the victim at a distance. They might have seen the victim around the neighborhood or at work, and they might have followed the victim for a number of days. But it’s not typically spontaneous. It’s not an act that comes out of nowhere. So, I’m reluctant to sort of go back to their childhood and say, ‘Oh, this is why it happens.’ I’m much more likely to say these are individuals, typically males, who have problems in relationships and with women in particular. They want to have relationships where they are in control and in order to achieve that control, they kidnap a young woman, or a girl, and they put her in confinement. They are now in absolute control.
Sometimes victims are held captive for years. Do these captors ever develop any feelings for their prisoners?
These types of kidnappers enjoy the power of manipulation. Do they develop feelings for those they kidnap? Well, feelings is a loose word. It’s not that the kidnapper falls in love with the person he’s kidnapped. What he enjoys is the power and he is invested in control. So, it’s not a relationship he’s developing.
But victims often develop some kind of emotional bond with the kidnapper simply because they’re normal. If the only person you see is your kidnapper, as a human being it’s going to be natural that you form some kind of relationship.
Is there a particular behavior or personality trait found in the captors that causes some victims to develop positive feelings or Stockholm syndrome?
Some kidnappers have been described by others as being normal, sociable and friendly. On that alone, you can see why there might be reasons for having emotional connections with these kidnappers. For other victims, survival instincts come into play. We know from a number of cases that these kidnappers sometimes terrorize. They terrify the victim so that she becomes passive.
There are cases where victims seem to have the opportunity to escape or tell somebody else what’s going on, but they don’t. In these cases, we have to understand the victim’s point of view. She has been terrorized by the captor. Those held in captivity are often told that if they don’t do exactly what [their captor] wants, he will kill a family member. We have to keep in mind the different aspects that are involved in kidnapping and holding others in captivity.