Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping

Fears And Nightmares

Group photo of the victims
Group photo of the victims

The crime, while clearly not "perfect," was certainly unique in many ways and it would be difficult to tell what after-effects the victims would suffer from their "ordeal by terror."

Bay Area psychiatrist Lenore Terr went to Chowchilla for the first time less than six months after the crime, partially at the request of some of the hostages' parents who were eager to have a mental health specialist come in to help with a noted rise in nightmares and other fear-based problems being experienced by the children.

Book cover: Too Scared to Cry
Book cover: Too Scared to
Cry

Terr conducted in-depth interviews with all but one of the children and also performed follow up interviews 3-4 years later.  This study was the basis for Terr's publication in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1981 and was a key part of her later book "Too Scared to Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood."

Over the course of her study, Terr noted numerous traits and facts about the Chowchilla child victims, including that many of the children, upon recollection, did not name the time in the transport vans or the hours they were buried underground as the worst of the experience.  These children remembered the highest degree of terror occurred at any time when their location was changed: from the bus into the small vans, from those vans into the hole at the top of the buried moving van, and even their placement onto the supposedly safe busses taking them home after their ordeal was over.

Terr found that many of the children developed a strong fear of strangers even in relatively safe places such as public areas with numerous passersby.  Several children also admitted to taking extreme measures to a knock at the front door of their homes — ranging from refusing to answer the door to fleeing to a place in their house where they felt they could hide.

Interestingly, in her later round of interviews, Terr found that 73% of the children believed, on reflection, that they had received — but had either ignored or not fully recognized — some kind of warning sign preceding the kidnapping, which, Terr explains, was "a part-answer to the 'Why me?' question."  Some of these supposed warnings, Terr points out, probably occurred after the kidnapping, but had been subconsciously manipulated by the victim's memory in order to make some kind of sense of the acts made against them that ultimately made no sense at all.

Nearly all of the children told Terr in her final interviews with them in 1980-1 that they held little hope for a happy future, a long life, or a life free from similar major traumas.

Additionally, Terr found in her later contacts with the children that many were suffering from physical problems that Terr suspected were actually prolonged emotional reactions to the kidnapping; for example, bladder problems caused by the long captivity in the transport vans without a bathroom, obesity that might be tied to the child's fear that he or she was eventually going to be starved, and one girl in her early teens who had virtually not grown an inch since she experienced the ordeal at age nine.

Years after the crime and trial, the emotional scars of the crime still reverberated in the small Central Californian town.

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