* Amended version
It was the most teasing question of the week: not whether George Bush would 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, downplaying 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 does not have what most people would call a normal family background. Craig Akers is his stepfather. According to the most recent report, his natural father died in 2000 when Shawn was nine, and during those nine years Walter Hornbeck was far from being a regular dad.
Mr Hornbeck was 60 when Shawn was born, one of several children he fathered. By the time the boy was one year old his mother, Pamela, had given Mr Hornbeck his marching orders and the couple divorced in 1992. Soon after, while he was living with Shawn’s older sisters (aged 7 and 6), Hornbeck was arrested and charged with a sex crime. He later pleaded guilty to sodomy and other crimes and in 1994 was sentenced to seven years in prison. He got out in 1997 when Shawn was six, but the two had no further contact. Hornbeck died in 2000 while on parole. Meanwhile, in 1999, Pamela had married Craig Akers.
How much did Shawn know about this sad family history? How much did it impinge on his life and affect him emotionally? At what stage did Craig Akers enter his life? We don’t know. What we do know is that Shawn grew up bearing his own father’s name, a daily reminder of the ambiguity of that word, "dad", which could have prepared him for the time when Michael Devlin would come along and say, "Call me Dad."
That Shawn went along with this fiction may well have been the result of compulsion and terror. On the other hand, it could indicate a certain casualness towards the term arising from his experiences. In itself, this says nothing about how well Mr Akers has played the father role, let alone how good a mother Pam Akers has been. Both give every sign of strong attachment to the boy — something that comes through in photos of their reunion. They deserve a lot of credit for their efforts to find Shawn, which included running a website, and never giving up hope. Nor is it a question of blaming Shawn for not trying to get home.
The fact remains that broken family ties leave their mark on a child. To explain Shawn Hornbeck’s behaviour by asserting, as O’Hagan does, that it shows how fragile parent-child bonds in general really are, is reckless, and unbelievable. To blame it all on intimidation seems out of kilter with the facts. We might at least admit the possibility that having a second dad made it easier for Shawn to comply with Devlin’s game of being his third.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of mercatorNet
* An earlier version of this story suggested that Mr Hornbeck had taken no notice of his son’s return. It subsequently emerged that he had passed away in 2000.