Elizabeth Smart, Jayme Closs, and Why Some Kidnapping Survivors Are More Resilient
Childhood trauma can ‘remodel’ the brain permanently, but scientists say there are some key ingredients that can allow survivors to go on and lead happy, healthy lives.
On Jan. 10, 2019, a disheveled 13-year-old girl stepped out of the woods near Eau Claire Acres, a small housing subdivision in rural Wisconsin. Dressed in a hoodie, leggings, and oversize men’s New Balance sneakers on the wrong feet, the teen approached Jeanne Nutter, a retired social worker who was walking her dog nearby.
“I’m Jayme Closs,” the blonde, green-eyed middle schooler reportedly said. “I don’t know where I am.”
This was the first time Closs had been seen since Oct. 15, 2018, when her mother and father were brutally murdered in their home 70 miles south. In the hours after Nutter brought Closs to a neighbor’s home and called 911, police arrested 21-year-old Jake Patterson, who was later charged with killing Jayme’s parents and holding the teen captive for 88 days in his remote cabin home.
On Saturday, the Lifetime channel will air a documentary about Closs’ abduction and escape. Smart Justice: The Jayme Closs Case features interviews with “key players” in the teen’s ordeal, as well as interviews with other high-profile kidnapping victims.
The documentary will be hosted by Elizabeth Smart, who faced a similar ordeal to Jayme’s—in 2002, at the age of 14, she was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home and held captive for nine months by Wanda Barzee and Brian David Mitchell.
It’s not clear what new information, if any, will be revealed in the documentary. Closs and her family reportedly did not participate, which caused concern online among those who believe that Closs should have full control over how her story is shared with the public. Smart did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
It’s also not clear how Closs is feeling now, 107 days since she fled her captor’s cabin and stepped out of the Wisconsin woods. Like many other kidnapping victims, she’s maintained a low profile, making it difficult to ascertain if she’s suffering from symptoms other victims have reported, like post-traumatic disorder, anxiety, depression, or nightmares.
Smart’s recovery offers a glimpse of Closs’s possible future—the 31-year-old and mother of three now works as a victim’s advocate, and has published books and narrated documentaries about her experience.
But Smart’s case is rare. She’s credited returning home to a loving, supportive family and a tight-knit religious community with helping her recover and facilitating her return to the public spotlight.
But trauma psychiatrists say it’s more complicated than that—and that an intricate web of genetics, circumstances, and demographics influence why some kidnapping victims fare better than others.
THE NEUROSCIENCE OF KIDNAPPING
“This is a very complicated question, and I don’t think we have the full answer yet,” Ryan Herringa, an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at The University of Wisconsin, told The Daily Beast.
When a victim experiences a traumatic event, the amygdala—a part of the brain that controls fear and emergency reactions—kicks in almost immediately, Herringa said. The amygdala first stimulates a fight-or-flight response, then communicates with the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex to develop a more nuanced plan, like calling 911 or screaming for help.
If the traumatic event ends quickly, or is relatively minor, the brain quickly returns to normal. But that doesn’t always happen—the stressor could be long-term (like Closs’ 88-day kidnapping), or so severe that it continues to trigger a trauma response (like the murder of her parents), that the brain continues to be flooded with the stress hormone cortisol.
If that cortisol spike lasts for a long time—Herringa suggested a few weeks, although he acknowledged that it’s a rough estimate—the brain can be permanently “remodeled.”
In some victims, the amygdala becomes hypersensitive to the possibility of future threats, causing an even bigger release of cortisol and sparking a vicious cycle that can lead to the hypervigilance, anxiety, and PTSD that many trauma survivors report.
The hippocampus is at risk, too. Normally, it grows larger as we age, but a 2015 study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that some trauma survivors’ hippocampuses actually shrink over time. That limits the hippocampus’ ability to help contextualize, and therefore reduce, fear responses.
These neurological changes can lead to a number of mental health symptoms. Bethany Brand, a professor of clinical psychology at Towson University, told The Daily Beast that the most common symptoms she’s seen among childhood trauma victims are nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal, and dissociation.
But this doesn’t happen to everyone equally. The most “resilient” survivors, Herringa said, are somehow able to strengthen the parts of their prefrontal cortex that regulate the amygdala, which allow them to shorten, or “dampen” the hyperactive responses. Survivors who develop mental health symptoms like PTSD, anxiety, and depression are less likely to have that ability.
It’s not clear why some people have this ability, and others don’t. Herringa said that genetics, prior life experience, and the particular details of the trauma all likely play a role, as does gender.“Girls do appear to be more vulnerable, neurologically speaking,” Herringa said.
In a 2013 study published in PNAS, Herringa and his team found that in both girls and boys, abuse experiences generally led to reduced connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. But in girls, abuse experiences also led to reduced connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala—making it more difficult for them to control the fear and anxiety that come from an overstimulated amygdala.
“It seems like girls who are victims of abuse are actually taking a hit on two really important brain circuits,” he said. “That’s probably a really pernicious combination.”
THERAPY AND MOVING FORWARD
Mental health symptoms aren’t the only problems survivors have to contend with, Tom Boyce, a pediatrics and psychiatry professor at the University of San Francisco, told The Daily Beast. Prolonged periods of intense stress, or “toxic stress” have been linked to physical consequences like immunosuppression and increased inflammation, putting survivors at a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life.
It’s not clear what this means for Closs. Herringa, Boyce, and Brand all emphasized that since they’ve never worked with the teen, they can’t diagnose her. But they said that given her alleged trauma—hearing her father’s murder, watching her mother’s, and being held in captivity by their killer for 88 days—she’s likely experiencing at least some of these consequences.
“Every child would be experiencing toxic stress under the experiences she sustained,” Boyle said.
Closs’ situation is especially difficult because her family’s murder and her subsequent kidnapping happened almost simultaneously, according to Terri Weaver, a professor of clinical psychology at St. Louis University.
“Witnessing homicide in general, and your parent’s homicide specifically, is very traumatic, and you have this confluence of grief as well as trauma,” Weaver told The Daily Beast, adding that “together those form what we call a traumatic grief reaction, where the PTSD complicates the grief response, and the grief complicates the PTSD response.”
Ideally, a healthy grieving process would allow the victim to remember the people they lost, and accustom themselves to the fact that they’re no longer alive. But when the memory of a loved one’s death is intertwined with a moment of violent, traumatic grief, “What people end up doing is they try to push away those memories, and avoid those experiences—and end up creating a vicious cycle of not being able to grieve,” Weaver said.
That doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Every psychologist interviewed emphasized that trauma-informed therapy and the presence of supportive family members can help a patient recover.
“The ideal recovery situation would be a situation where the person has a lot of support, with people who would be able to support the survivor in whatever emotions they’re experiencing,” Weaver said.
Rebecca Bailey, a California-based psychologist who helped treat 18-year kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, echoed that sentiment. Although she wanted to keep the details of her sessions with Dugard under wraps, she emphasized that one of the most important parts of recovery is creating a “welcoming, soothing connection” with the survivor where they feel comfortable discussing their trauma.
Therapy is also key, Weaver said. One of the most common therapeutic techniques asks the survivor to retell their trauma in great detail, to help them process the emotions around it and incorporate it into the larger narrative of their life.
“It never becomes remembering a trip to Target,” she said, “but the raw, intense, gut-wrenching emotion is processed, so the memory has a place to go.”
And while the path is certainly difficult, Weaver said, it’s far from hopeless. “It’s absolutely a lot to process—but it’s also possible to do that processing, and have a life that’s worth living, happy, and productive.”