When the Hostages Come Home, Their Problems Will Hardly Be Over, a Psychologist Warns
If and when they are finally released unharmed, the 53 Americans being held hostage in Tehran will—like the Vietnam War POWs before them—face a painful readjustment period. To deal with the reentry problems confronting the hostages and their families, the State Department commissioned a 12-member task force of psychologists and other health experts headed by Charles Figley, a 35-year-old psychology professor at Purdue University, to come up with guidelines and recommendations. Last month he handed over his group's 600-page report to the State Department. Figley grew up in small-town Ohio and after high school shipped out for Vietnam as a Marine. On his return in 1966, he enrolled at the University of Hawaii on the Gl Bill, joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War ("I was there during the good war, when we were rebuilding orphanages") and began researching the difficulties of veterans and their families. His 1978 book Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans helped establish him as an expert on coping with crisis. Figley earned his master's and Ph.D. in psychology at Penn State, and founded the Family Research Institute at Purdue in 1978. Predictably anxious about seesawing events in Iran, Figley, who lives with his wife, Vickie, near the campus, told Linda Witt of PEOPLE what is ahead for the hostages and their families.
Who is suffering more—the hostages or their families back home?
The families. The hostages were traumatized in the beginning. But we know from experience that the longer a hostage is held, the less likely he is to be killed—if no force is used. We think the hostages are being treated with at least a minimal civility; the major concern is for those who may be CIA. So the hostages settle into a routine. They become numb to the terror around them or they deny it. One way or another stress levels off. In fact, boredom is likely to be the greatest stress.
Why has it been rougher on the families?
Unlike the hostages—who are seeing the same people, eating the same food and pretty much know the routine—the families are constantly having their hopes raised and then dashed. Corporal William Gallegos, shown on TV in December, was concerned more about his family than himself. He said, "I just want my family to know I'm okay, especially my mom. I know she is pretty upset." In any disaster it's natural for the survivors to try to get back to the victims—to reassure them. The hostages obviously view their families as the victims.
What are the families going through?
Extreme traumatic stress reactions. Suppose a man bursts in and puts a gun to your head. How do you feel? Helpless. Physically, your heart would pound, your respiration increase. Your perspiration level would be way up. Then suddenly the gunman is captured and the emergency is over. Do you think everything is really over? Well, it's not. You've been traumatized, and that trauma has left tracks in your psyche. What families are experiencing is identical to this—the family unit itself is threatened—but with an added roller-coaster effect. While the hostages have settled down, their loved ones are in a constant state of emergency. That's why it is so important to get them together and allow them to talk it out. They need to know others are feeling the same.
What did your group's report recommend the State Department do for the families now, before the hostages are released?
Get the families together. The State Department has done a pretty good job of that, but the reason they brought them together was to say, "Here's what we know, see you later." The families need to be in constant touch with other families. Let them talk about what it's like for a mother to go to a shopping center and have people stare and point. They want to put it out of their minds, but they can't. The hostages don't have people going up to them all the time and saying, "What is it like to have a gun at your head?" Families, in effect, are being asked about the gun at their son's head.
What else should the State Department be doing for the families now?
They should arrange for them to be in contact with the hostages who have been released. This would provide firsthand information for the families on what their loved ones are going through. The State Department warned the released hostages not to say anything which might endanger the lives of those remaining, but they should have said, "For God's sake, talk to the other families—they won't endanger their own." Most important, the released hostages could provide families with immediate information—"Do you know if Johnnie is taking his vitamin C?" Mothers worry about those things. The hostages who did get out can overcome their "survivor's guilt" by doing something to help the families. I know they would jump at the chance.
Do you have any other recommendations regarding the families?
Yes. To the hometown—leave them alone. Delegate one person to talk to the family. Don't overwhelm them. It's a very negative thing to remind them constantly how terrible it is. The press, too, should back off. The families have a love-hate relationship going. They hate it when the doorbell rings, but they are terrified when nothing seems to be going on. Most of the press has realized this—they've seen the problem before and understand. The families could ease things by appointing one member to deal with outsiders. I think the State Department should provide an ombudsman for each family to deal with the press and to prepare them before any news-breaks.
What have you recommended to ease the hostages' return?
The government will fly the hostages to Germany for a week of isolation before they come back. We have endorsed some isolation. They need a decompression period. We know that from the experience of Vietnam veterans—they were out of the jungle and back on the streets in 24 hours. It was too much. The research shows the human mind needs a rest period between the time of trauma and business as usual. The mind has developed all these survival techniques, but survival isn't an issue back home.
How soon should they be reunited with their families?
I'd like to see it within 48 hours. If they can't be reunited in Germany—if the State Department feels it is too expensive—why can't the government isolate the hostages in the U.S. someplace where it can put a figurative moat around them? Why not bring them to Fort Knox, where there are 40,000 soldiers to guard their privacy? We recommend that the reunited families have two or three days of decompression to switch from a siege mentality. If the reunion cannot be in person, then we have suggested closed-circuit TV. It's better than the phone. The families could see then that, "Hey, John looks healthy. I don't like the beard, but..."
What preparations are being made?
The families are preparing a kind of return-home kit—I hope it's going to include not only a news synopsis of international events, but clippings from the hometown papers, kids' report cards, etc. The hostages should be sat down and asked, "Are you aware of what your family has gone through?"
Do the families have a say in plans for the reunion?
The reentry will be very structured, with the families involved from the beginning—and I do hope they get to critique the plans before they are set in concrete. What is convenient for the government isn't always convenient for the families—and the government is going to be nailed if they blow this.
Are we going to see any extreme reactions—breakdowns, broken marriages, violent behavior—as we did among returning POWs and Vietnam veterans?
I doubt it. A fear will linger even after the immediate danger is gone. But it won't mean the hostage is nuts. It's a normal response to stress. The families are worried—"Will he be okay?" Yes, once back home he'll get over the trauma. Families are their own best source of healing.
What will be the hardest thing for the returning hostages to cope with?
The Superstar Syndrome. Everyone is going to know them. Inevitably, some hostages will like it. But for some it will be very scary. They should be forewarned so they don't walk into a basketball game and suddenly get a standing ovation. They'll feel out of control again. But it won't hurt if the local eatery sends a card saying, "Come on down for some apple pie on the house—whenever you are ready."
Is there anything we should all do?
After 48 hours, let's hope the hostages are back in the arms of their families. Then in about four weeks all the hostages should get together again. We should treat them royally. This will help separate the trauma from real life and convince them it's really over. The rest of the country should then celebrate. The lives of 53 Americans hung in the balance. The nation was ready to go to war. But we didn't go to war and the hostages are home. All of us are survivors of this. We've been traumatized as a nation. We all have jumped at each turn of the news. We need a celebration, too.
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