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QUESTION: A young girl is taken prisoner along with a number of her family members. The women are separated and sent to separate prisons from the men, and my character eventually ends up being held in isolation in a nunnery, though not outright treated cruelly. After eight years, after her father wins his rebellion, she is returned home. What would the emotional effects of this be?
ANSWER: I'll start with the isolation: The biggest thing that strikes me is that without a lot of contact with other people, especially kids her age, she would be emotionally and developmentally immature.  In other words, she would have essentially stopped aging emotionally in a lot of ways.  She would still be at the emotional maturity of a younger girl.

It doesn't sound like she'd be traumatized by the isolation, necessarily, since she wasn't treated poorly, but depending on what you want to do with her, she could be someone who lives very much in her head (ie in fantasy) and who kind of eschews contact with others, possibly because they're loud and unpredictable and therefore frightening.  If you wanted to take this to an extreme, she could be very closed off from others, even seeming cold and withdrawn.

Alternately, she could be very clingy with someone who was extremely kind to her once she's been freed, because she's terrified of being alone again. If she was taken care of primarily by women during her isolation, she would probably be freaked out a bit by men.

Finally, whether she's able to recover and live a normal life is going to depend a lot on what her life was like before her abduction.  If she had strong, healthy relationships, she's more likely to recover as an adult than
if she did not.

The writer then supplied me with a little additional information and asked for some clarification:  She had healthy relationships before but I think your comment about being fearful of men is a strong possibility. In what way would she be most likely show being freaked out by men do you think? She has grown up into a mature young woman with no interaction with men. This is so totally outside my experience I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around whether she would be more likely to try to please them or avoid them. Also how she would relate to her father who she might blame for years of imprisonment--or might be grateful that he finally managed to force her release. Before she was imprisoned, she witnessed/was part of a couple of horrendous battles thanks to his rebellion...

Since she saw some horrendous battles she could also have some lingering PTSD (nightmares, anxiety attacks, a tendency to withdraw from others, a tendency to startle easily:). If you wanted to, since she's been around women so much, you could make men a trigger for PTSD symptoms -- that is, they might remind her of the awful battles; she might see them as scary and brutish and dangerous. She might experience nightmares or panic attacks, or have trouble sleeping or be extremely watchful around them. She might drink when she had to be around them so she'd feel less anxious. Depending on what you want to do with your story (eg if there's any romance to it), that would give your hero a bit of an uphill battle to overcome her automatic fear reactions. He would have to be patient and kind (though nobody could blame him if he got frustrated sometimes)..

Those are all kind of extreme reactions, but in a lot of ways that's the nice thing about dealing with individual differences -- you can make the story go in the direction you need it to if you understand the basic psychological possibilities. That is, we can say "she could do x, y, or z depending on the temperament she was born with" and you can say, "Ah, y would work best for my story."

So having the reactions above toward men -- fear -- are one possibility.

Another would be to have her want to please them, but I see that being the least likely possibility. If she's mostly spent time around women, she's either going to see women as strong, capable creatures who don't necessarily need men, or as victims of men's behavior -- it depends on the messages she got as a captive. If she was constantly being told in some way that "this is the evil men do," then she will see women as victims and be more obsequeious with men. If men simply weren't a part of these women's lives, though, I think it's more likely she would just see men as strange and different and women as capable. I see her being very cautious around men. They're strange creatures, and how to understand strange creatures? You sit back and observe. I think she'd be a sponge, watching how other people react to men, how they react to each other, how they treat her. She might even respond to them the same way she has learned to respond to other women, and be confused when they don't always respond the way she expects. How analytical she is will depend some on how smart she is, and how curious.

You can go in whichever direction you want with her feelings about her father. It would probably depend on how she remembers him -- as distant and punishing or as kind and loving. It would also depend on the messages she was given about him. If the nuns constantly told her she was there because of her father and seemed angry or disapproving, she'd pick up that attitude.

Finally, given that she needs to get married and whatnot, she might also feel some resentment toward men for changing her life so profoundly. You and I might think of being isolated as horrible, but people adapt to the situations they're in and find ways to survive. Change is hard, and going from being isolated to being around lots of people would probably leave her wishing at times that she could just be left alone, or even that things hadn't changed. Because while being isolated might not have been fun, it was familiar.

You can combine several reactions as she re-integrates into society -- just make sure her changes aren't sudden flips, that they happen gradually and that we see enough of what's going on with her to get why maybe she went from being terrified of men to being willing to sleep with one. :)

Remember, if YOU have a psychology in fiction question you want to see answered here, use the Q&A form on the Archetype site or send me an email at w e b m a s t e r (AT) archetypewriting (DOT) com. (Take out the spaces in the first word and please use Q&A in your Subject Line!).  If you would prefer to have the question answered on the Blog, you can email your question to c k a u f m a n (AT) querytracker (DOT) net. Again, please use Q&A in your Subject Line!


  1. mand said...
    Well, this is interesting. Without the PTSD you have described my own upbringing. Apart from the vicar (whom we didn't know well) absolutely no men, or boys, figured regularly in my childhood. I 'learnt men' from the media – this was the 1970s and 80s – and from fiction!

    Of course i entered adulthood with unrealistic ideas – especially not understanding the differences in the ways men communicate, and having no idea about 'letting him feel he solved it himself' as most women seem to, however feminist their inclination. I also found that in an all-girls' school, competitiveness both academically and in the playground was far more accepted than i gather it used to be in mixed schools.

    The message i got was never overtly anti-male but of course i saw my mother going up ladders to fix the roof, being breadwinner, etc, so the lack of men didn't feel like a lack and it still takes me by surprise when one offers to lift something heavy for me or something like that.

    I did have the response you say is least likely: wanting to please men, or rather have them approve of me. This screwed up my lovelife at the beginning, as the only thing i saw men approving of was short skirts and flirtatious behaviour. Combined with eat-what's-put-in-front of you 'politeness' indoctrination, you can imagine how un-fussy that made me about boyfriends.

    Sorry this is such a long comment, but i'm hoping it will add to your writer-questioner's ideas.

    I don't want to explain here in public how my attitude to my father developed – full of contradictions and really astonishing denial – but i will happily if you or s/he would like to contact me. My experience suggests that the message given by the nuns would have a different effect depending whether the nuns thought it mattered what message they gave.
    Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...
    I didn't even think about learning about men from the media -- it makes a lot of sense to me that someone would lean towards wanting to please men if that was their education. (Lots of cultural messages!)

    What a great comment, Mand, thanks SO much for taking the time to write it all out!!
    mand said...

    Hope it is helpful.
    Ripley said...
    Off topic: What about your book? Did you complete it on time?
    Suzette Saxton said...
    This entire post - and Mand's comments - were riveting. Thank you for broadening my horizons! I know it will help me make a better book when I revise a project in early 2010.
    Unknown said...
    Sounds like an intriguing story!
    Ripley said...
    If she suffers PTSD, wouldn't that mean she was traumatized by the isolation?
    mand said...
    As i read it, Ripley, the PTSD was from witnessing violence, wasn't it?

    Apart from that, complex PTSD comes from trauma repeated at intervals over time. Instead of one traumatic event, it begins in something long-term such as childhood sexual abuse - but emotional stress such as being imprisoned for years would do it too, i'd have thought. (This site mentions being kept captive, for example.) It wouldn't have to, but if the plot wants PTSD it could fit.

    Ripley said...
    Speaking as one who was held for an extended time in isolation, it can cause PTSD, with or without violence.
    Sharon K. Mayhew said...
    Very interesting post. This is my first visit to your blog...I will be back, as you seem full of great information.
    The Kid In The Front Row said...
    I am your 100th Follower :) Please post me my prize..
    Charity Bradford said...
    Wow, I just found your blog through
    Carolyn Kaufman's site Publishing Pulse. What a great idea for a blog! I need to sit and figure out what my question is so I can start picking your brain.

    Thanks for this amazing resource for writers.

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