It has been the most teasing question of the week: not whether George Bush will get his surge of troops for Iraq, but why an ordinary American boy would let himself remain kidnapped for four years when he could easily have escaped. Even now Shawn Hornbeck would be living as Michael Devlin’s son in a dreary little block of flats in suburban St Louis if it were not for the fact that 41-year-old Devlin abducted another boy, Ben Ownby, last week and a witness gave police a description of his pickup truck.
Shawn was 11 years old when he disappeared in October 2002 while riding his bike to a friend’s house. There was a massive hunt for the boy and "missing" posters with age-progressed pictures of him were on display in neighbouring communities — including the one where Shawn was living, 60 miles from his home — long after his parents might reasonably have concluded that he was dead.
But Shawn was not dead. He was living a more or less normal life with his captor, calling him "Dad", playing outside with neighbouring kids, having friends in to play video games and sleep over, even going on outings with his best friend’s family. True, he did not go to school — Devlin is supposed to have home-schooled him between working days at a pizza parlour and moonlighting at a funeral home — but Shawn had access to the internet, where he seems to have posted cryptic messages about himself, and at some stage acquired a cellphone. According to one report, Devlin was about to teach him to drive.
So why did he not cut and run? There were even occasions when the police questioned him about truancy that provided perfect opportunities to tell all and go back to his real family. Why stay in a crummy flat with a 300-pound weirdo who sometimes got angry enough to alarm the other residents?
Psychological theories have not been wanting. Some experts stress the role of fear — of threats, possibly backed up by violence, to the boy and to his family — in keeping him cowed and silent, even when the captor was absent. Plucked suddenly from everything familiar, not going to school, the youngster was isolated and totally dependent on the adult captor’s power. Sex may have come into it. This sounds a likely initial scenario, but it hardly fits the facts of Shawn’s subsequent freedom and dealings with neighbours.
Then there is the possibility of Stockholm syndrome, a term that traces its origin to a 1970 bank robbery in Sweden in which the hostages bonded with their captors. Yet Dr Frank Ochberg, who helped coin the term, told Newsweek the boy would have to be badly traumatised at the outset, and have gone through a stage of infantilism where the hostage’s "infant needs for food and love are met and they began to feel a primitive …gratitude to the person taking care of them." One cannot help feeling, however, that this overstates the psychological impact of Shawn’s experience.
On a completely different tack, a London Telegraph writer says the whole episode goes to show how fragile the bonds between parents and children really are. Shawn, like the Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch who left the house of her abductor after eight years, showed a stronger instinct for survival than he did for belonging. It is nurture that counts with children, says Andrew O’Hagan, not the bonds of nature. Kids "are truly in a world of their own when it comes to the fickleness of their attachments and the satisfaction of their own needs."
This is a plausible theory, especially if you believe that human beings are just animals driven by their needs, but it is also an insidious one, dismissing natural bonds as the basis of the family. And, like other explanations of Shawn’s behaviour, it ignores one very significant fact about his background.
Shawn Hornbeck did not come from a normal family, where natural bonds were healthy. He came from a broken family. Shawn’s real dad, Mr Hornbeck, departed the scene some time since. His mother, Pam, then married Craig Akers. Mr Hornbeck has yet to make an appearance on the post-kidnap scene to say how glad he is that his son is safe and well.
So Michael Devlin wasn’t the first stranger to enter Shawn’s life and say, "Call me Dad." Having two other dads must have made it easier to go along with Devlin’s game. Shawn had already learned that dads are people who are here today, but possibly gone tomorrow. They perform certain functions — feed you, supply you with video games — and might oblige you by dispensing with school. But they are not necessarily people you feel close to, or particularly like.
But what about his poor mother? Wasn’t she always there for him? Did he not miss her and feel a pang now and then for the distress she must be suffering? It seems that Shawn did become emotional on at least one occasion when he was asked about his mum, but gave out the story that she had died in a car crash. His feeling for her was not strong enough at any stage to send him running home. It is not unknown for kids to resent their mother’s boyfriend or new husband, and this may have been the case with Shawn.
Although the main characters in this story seem unbalanced, the casualness of family ties is chilling: first disposable spouses, next disposable parents. A boy who stays away from his mum and dad for four years when he could easily reach them is a mystery for the psychiatrist to unravel. But one who prefers a stranger to his mum and stepfather could be saying something very obvious to them, and to the throw-away society at large.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.