Natascha‘s ‘Different Voice’

Harvard Psychologist Carol Gilligan May Hold the Key to the Surprising Empathy of a Captive

From everything we know, Natasch Kampusch worries a lot about other people. In the many times she was in public places during the years of her captivity, she was reluctant to speak openly or cry out for fear of putting others in danger.

In a now famous incident, a sales clerk asked innocently, “Can I help you?” Yet she only smiled, hoping to be recognized from her child’s photograph and knowing how easily Wolfgang Proklopil could be provoked to violence. She worried about his mother, who she said knew nothing of her existence all these years.

There has also been much talk of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which a kidnapping victim establishes a bond with the captor.  It’s a survival strategy, say psychiatrists. But with shop keepers? And relatives of the kidnapper that you’ve never met?

It dawned on me that the explanation lay perhaps in the work of a Harvard psychologist named Carol Gilligan.  So I pulled out a file compiled some 20 years  ago, and started to read.

I first heard about Carol Gilligan in the fall of 1981 when I got a call from an old friend of mine, an American writer named Paul Lamar who taught English at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, U.S.A.  The entire school was getting involved in a study under the guidance of Harvard Psychologist Carol Gilligan, an innovative scholar studying the development of adolescent girls.

I immediately borrowed his copy of A Different Voice, Gilligan’s astonishing and pioneering re-examination of the basic tenets of development psychology. Until then, formal ideas about development had been based exclusively on the life stages of boys and men.

To the extent that girls differed from these norms, they were presumed by leading scholars Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson or Lawrence Kohlberg to be deficient. In the cases of Piaget and Erikson, this presumption had stood unchallenged for half a century.

Gilligan began by reinterpreting some earlier research of Kohlberg, her advisor at Harvard, with 11 and 12 year old boys and girls. Kohlberg had presented these children with a puzzle  called Heinz’s dilemma, intended to determine their ability to judge right from wrong.

The problem was as follows: Heinz was a man whose wife was ill. She needed medicine without which she might die. Heinz’s local druggist carried the needed drug, but it was expensive and Heinz didn’t have the money. What should he do?

A representative answer from the boys in the study tended to go something like this: Heiny shoud steal the drug because life is worth more than money. Anyway, the druggist will still make money selling other drugs to rich people and Heinz has only one wife. Also, the judge will probably understand that he did the right thing and be lenient.

The girls, however, seemed less clear: Well, they would say hesitantly, Heinz shouldn’t steal the drug… but he shouldn’t let his wife die either. Maybe there is some other way to get the money. Because if he stole the drug and got caught, there would be nobody to take care of his wife.

So maybe the best thing is for him to go and talk it over with the druggist and try to work something out.

The girls in Kohlberg’s study had refused to accept the choice on the terms he had presented, leading him to conclude they were less mature in their moral decision making than the boys.

Gilligan determined, however, that the girls simply had something else in mind. Rather than and ethic of justice, girls as a group tended to see their lives in issues of caring.

They didn’t see the choice as between right and wrong according to a set of rules, but as a problem of how best to maintain the relationships essential to their world. Gilligan identified the justice ethic as a “mode of rights” and the caring ethic as a “mode of  responsibility.”

As I closed the file, I wondered. Was it really possible that, even after eight years of captivity, exiled from her family, her peers or any kind of normal life, Natascha Kampusch still saw her restricted life from an ethic of caring? Did she, all those years, still believe as Gilligan suggested that on some level, it was up to her to protect others and make the relationships work?

If so, it may have been this, above all, that saved her life.

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