Ann Widdecombe, writing in The Independent today, highlighted the horror of the house fire in which six children died, the fire we now know was started by their parents. “Mairead Philpott is so completely sunk in the hideous morass of self-indulgence, irresponsibility and immorality to which (Mick) Philpott has led her that not even the deaths of all her children can lead her to re-appraise her relationship,nor has the enforced separation resulting from a remand in custody led her to a more detached view of the man…the shock of the tragedy indicates emotional and moral destitution.” All of this is true but one can perhaps feel a grain of sympathy for Mairead Philpott who could quite conceivably have been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome is more commonly used in hostage situations and is a psychological condition in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, to the point of even defending them. These irrational feelings are considered to be essentially a mistaken sense, by the victims, that a lack of abuse is an act of kindness. The term was coined in 1973 after a bank robbery at Norrmalmstorg in Stockhom. During the five days they were being held hostage the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials and defended thier captors when they were released. But Stockholm Syndrome can also be applied in other scenarios; it can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding which describes strong emotional ties which develop between two people where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses or intimidates the other. Freudian theory suggests that bonding can be an individual’s approach to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself- when the victim has the same values as the aggressor, they no longer become a threat. Battered-person syndrome is a similar psychological condition which can lead to cycles of violence and reconciliation as seen in so many cases of domestic abuse. It is an example of the ‘capture-bonding psychological mechanism’ similar to the sort used in basic military training and fraternity bonding by ‘hazing.’

Mairead met Mick Philpott when she was a 19 year old single parent who had already had an abusive relationship. Philpott was predatory, manipulative, domineering and controlling. Coupled with his habitual violence, and selfish lifestyle, a doctor has diagnosed Philpott a psychopath with narcissistic features. It is easy to see how Mairead fell under his spell and became unable to see the massive defects in this man. There are evolutionary explanations to the psychology behind Stockholm Syndrome; one of the adaptive problems faced by our (usually) female ancestors was being abducted by another tribe. Deadly violence was activated in competition over women. Those who resisted capture in such a situation risked being killed and it was probably survival instinct which caused them instead to befriend and become beholden to the enemy. The distressing case of Mick and Mairead Philpott is a modern example of the slave/master relationship,  where the slave, sadly, is an all too willing victim.

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