Aug. 15, 2013 at 9:34 AM ET
On Monday evening, kidnapping survivor Hannah Anderson appeared to do something that took many by surprise: Just two days after being rescued, she logged onto a social media site and shared the experience of her abduction with strangers and friends.
“So ur just chillin (answering) questions,” one user wrote. “Pretty much,” Anderson replied.
While authorities and Anderson’s family have not confirmed that she participated in the ask.fm chat, the postings appear on the account for "Hannahbanana722" of Lakeside, the San Diego County community where the teen lived with her mother and brother. The user posted a smiling “selfie” photo that resembled the 16-year-old.
The late-night chat became less than friendly at moments as a few participants criticized Anderson’s decision to share her ordeal online. Yet, mental health experts say her impulse to connect with others, even strangers, is normal for trauma survivors. They also acknowledge that a generational gap makes it difficult for older adults to understand how a teenager might find it therapeutic to engage with both strangers and friends publicly about something so intimate.
The controversy over Anderson’s Internet chat has raised questions about the nature of publicity around high-profile abductions, and how those survivors should address their experiences in the public realm. The three kidnapped women recently freed from captivity in Cleveland, for example, released brief personal videos and asked for privacy as they resumed their lives. Jaycee Dugard, who had been abducted as a child and held for 18 years, wrote a memoir about her experience that was published last summer.
Jaine Darwin, a psychologist and clinical supervisor of the Victims of Violence Program at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts, told TODAY.com that the public’s interest in these tragedies often makes survivors “famous” for horrifying reasons. Yet, it’s natural for them to want to tell their story. “Some of it is a way of convincing yourself it really happened,” Darwin said.
Indeed, when one concerned participant in Anderson’s chat mentioned managing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, she said, “I'm just still shocked and this (whole) thing seems unreal.”
Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist and former chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department, said that Anderson is “having normal reactions to an abnormal event” and that it shouldn’t be surprising that a 16-year-old would turn to social media to process her experience. Nearly a third of teenagers exchange messages daily on social media sites, according to a Pew Internet survey released last year.
“She goes through a trauma and as a normal 16-year-old, she returns to a normal method of social communication,” Mantell said.
Anderson was abducted Aug. 4 by James Lee DiMaggio, 40, her father's best friend who was like an uncle to her and her brother, Ethan. DiMaggio had invited the children and their mother, Christina Anderson, 44, to his house in Boulevard, Calif., a rural town 65 miles east of San Diego. DiMaggio then tortured Christina and Ethan before killing them, according to court documents unsealed late Wednesday. Their bodies were found after a fire destroyed the home.
Anderson said in the online chat that she didn't know of their deaths until Saturday when she was rescued in the Idaho wilderness. DiMaggio died in a shootout with authorities with Anderson present.
The teenager, who said her father knew about the chat and that she’d spoken to a therapist since returning home, wanted to set the record straight about the tragic course of events. “I only know the truth so when it does come out it will be from me,” she wrote.
“Why are you talking about this on social media?” someone asked. “Are you sure (you're) a victim? You seem completely fine about it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Anderson replied. “I'm answering these questions so people know the truth. So [expletive] like you don't assume things like that.”
Mantell, who reviewed the transcript of Anderson’s chat but has not treated her, said he noticed expected signs of grief in her comments. In one photo posted to the forum, she showed off her newly painted fingernails, decorated in pink and blue in honor of her mother and brother. “That’s a sign of health,” he said of the photo. It acknowledges that Anderson’s world has just been “totally upended” but that she remains a teenager with age-appropriate interests.
Anderson also answered mundane questions common to teenagers’ conversations. Does she tweeze or wax her perfect-looking eyebrows, one user wanted to know. “Haha both,” she replied.
Many people effusively remarked on and complimented Anderson’s appearance. But Darwin said those messages might be cause for concern as they “reinforce the notion of looking unharmed." Survivors of psychological trauma who bear no physical marks of their experience often struggle with perceptions that they’re fine.
Many praised Anderson for her bravery and strength. While that might seem like a kind gesture, Darwin said that trauma survivors feel often feel pressure to always have their “chin up” and may feel guilty if they experience an intense wave of grief.
Other comments were darker, and clearly upsetting. One person wanted to know how DiMaggio separated Anderson from her mom and brother. “He tied them up in the garage, I'm done answering questions about it. So don't bother asking,” she wrote.
Mantell said that Anderson demonstrated impressive self-control in declining to answer certain questions and in handling criticism.
“The problem isn’t what she’s doing,” Mantell said. “I think the problem is what everyone else is doing. It’s no one’s business to be judging [Anderson]. Why would you need to criticize a girl who just lost her mother and her brother?”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.