How Three Women in London Succumbed to Slavery

A trauma psychologist explains how decades of captivity can shackle the mind as well as the body

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A Policeman stands guard in the garden of a block of flats in South London that are being investigated in connection with an alleged slavery case, on November 23, 2013 in London, England.

On Tuesday, Britain’s authorities vowed to crack down on human traffickers, after the case of three women forced into 30 years of servitude in a South London home swung a spotlight on the pervasiveness of modern-day slavery.

“We all know that there are countless more examples of this hidden crime at this very second, in this very country,” Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May told an international women’s rights conference. To underscore the ongoing challenge, she revealed that only last week police had rescued another 17 people from derelict housing in Northern England. The victims had been forced to work for little to no pay.

The Walk Free Foundation estimates that some 4,600 slaves reside in the U.K. It’s a small fraction of their global estimate of 30 million, but it also reveals that slavery can endure in the freest and most stable societies.

While Britain has some promising reforms to beef up investigations and pass harsher punishments on human traffickers, May worried that many captives would continue to slip through the cracks. The three women trapped in a south London home are a case in point. Their case went undetected for three decades, until one of the women made a call for help from inside the house.

The length of the captivity surprised Michael Burge, Director of the Australian College of Trauma Treatment, who has been treating POW’s and members of cults for 30 years. “I can’t recall any cases as extreme as this,” Burge said. “This might be out of the book, I think.”

But the nature of the imprisonment, which included access to a phone, a television, and “some controlled freedom” according to police, did not surprise him. Captivity, he explained, is not just a physical state of oppression. He has seen captives fall prey to a process of mental manipulation that saps the will to pick a lock or shout for help or do anything that would risk retribution from the captor. This subtler, more insidious form of slavery can take hold in an ordinary London suburb, undetected by neighbors or police.

“It doesn’t start off dramatically,” he said. “It doesn’t start off terrifyingly.” Rather the captors build trust and a level of intimacy with the prisoner by being honest, open and charming, showering them with praise over the smallest chores. “Once that trust starts to emerge,” said Burge, “they start to break that individual down.”

The affirmation tapers off, the effusive praise comes sporadically, and gradually the victim comes under a barrage of critiques. “If you’re constantly made to feel like you’re worth nothing, or you don’t mean much, what that individual tends to do is try somehow to please the captor to make them understand that they are better than they say they are.” But the degradation continues. “They get hit sometimes. Sometimes it’s verbal abuse,” says Burge.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the relationship is how well-attuned the captor is to the victim’s suffering. Burge says victims get pushed to the snapping point — “They’re almost catatonic, they start to ramble, they start to look emotionally numb, they may engage in self-cutting or self-burning,” he says.

That is precisely the moment when the captor offers relief, a compliment, a magazine the victim might enjoy, a modest reward that gives the victim a burst of euphoria. “It’s almost like Christmas,” Burge says. “It’s like their father brings them home this birthday present they’ve always wanted.”

The euphoria is not over the gift itself, but a much deeper hope that circumstances will change for the better, that the arbitrary system of punishment has a decipherable pattern. That burst of hope only reinforces the control of the persecutor, who proceeds to break the victim down again.

“It’s amazing that people could be so dark to perpetrate such dark, disturbing behavior,” Burge says. His patients have taken upwards of ten years to recover from the trauma. And having seen the lasting affects of this trauma, perhaps the most incredible fact of the shocking case in London is not how much time elapsed before the woman called for help, but that after so much time she could find the strength to make the call at all.