6 Of The Most Horrible Cases Of Sexual and Psychological Abuse in the USA

Elizabeth Smart

While it is difficult to admit, the sad reality is that humans are capable of doing truly horrendous things to each other. Hidden away in basements, back yards, and even in our universities, terrible acts of abuse sometimes occur without the general population ever catching on. The following examples were selected for this article due to their staggering cruelty, severity and prominence.

Elizabeth Smart

In 2002, at the age of fourteen, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her own bedroom in her family’s home in Utah. Brian David Mitchell, a drifter who had once been hired to do some odd jobs around the Smart household, cut open a window screen, made his way to Elizabeth’s bedroom, and kidnapped her at knife point. Threatening to kill her and her entire family if she made a noise, Mitchell then lead her out of the home to a remote campsite where his wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee was awaiting them. After Barzee had washed and dressed Elizabeth in robes, Mitchell performed a “wedding ceremony” and raped Elizabeth for the first of what was to be many times. For the next nine months, the three traveled the country as Mitchell searched for at least six other victims. Ms. Smart testified in court that she was bound and raped at least daily.

Jaycee Dugard

On June 10, 1991 eleven year old Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped by Phillip Garrido on her way home from school. For her first thirty-four months in captivity, Jaycee was repeatedly raped by Garrido and was handcuffed for much of that time. Her captor told her that by being complicit to his advances, she was preventing other children from befalling the same fate, essentially guilting the young girl into accepting her repeated rapes. Garrido and his wife Nancy, also submitted Jaycee to other forms of psychological abuse and manipulation. For example, on at least two occasions Nancy Garrido presented her with kittens, only to make them “mysteriously disappear.” The Garridos also prevented Jaycee from speaking or writing her own name for years.

Dugard gave birth to two children while captive, as a result of being raped. She and her two children were forced to live in a tent in Garrido’s back yard, with only makeshift facilities for their personal use.

Elizabeth Fritzl

Similar to Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Fritzl was held captive at a single location for years unnoticed. Unique to Fritzl’s case, however, are a number of bizarre circumstances.

Lured into the basement of her family home by her father, Josef Fritzl, Elizabeth was imprisoned there for over twenty-four years. Her father secured her in a secret corridor in the basement and repeatedly raped her, eventually fathering seven children with his daughter. One of these children died soon after birth as a result of severe respiratory problems.

Shortly after initially imprisoning his daughter, he forced her to write several notes making false claims about her whereabouts. These notes, claiming that she had run away from home to join a religious cult, were brought to police as proof that she was not, in fact, missing, thus avoiding any investigations into her disappearance. Elizabeth and her children were told that any attempts to escape would result in their being gassed or electrocuted to death via the locked metal door to their enclosure.


In the 1970’s, California State Social Services became aware of one of the most appalling cases of child neglect in history. Genie was thirteen years old when first brought into state custody and was completely non-verbal. Having spent most of her life either locked inside a bedroom, strapped to a children’s toilet, or bound so that her arms and legs were immobile in a crib, the child had almost no contact with the outside world for her first thirteen years of life.

When very young, her father repeatedly beat her if she vocalized at all. He also growled or barked at her, instilling in her a lifelong fear of dogs and cats. She only seemed to understand about fifteen to twenty words, and could only speak the phrases, “no more,” and “stop it.”

“Little Albert”

Not all cases of psychological abuse are committed by terrible parents or complete strangers. Some of the worst abuse cases have been committed by actual psychologists. For example, we have the case of “Little Albert.”

As part of an experiment at Johns Hopkins University performed by John B. Watson, an infant was used to prove that the classical conditioning techniques first documented by Ivan Pavlov, also applied to humans. Baby Albert was introduced to a number of fuzzy objects, such as a rabbit and a rat, for the first time. The child exhibited no fear of these objects at first. Later, he was introduced to these same objects, but this time a very loud noise was made every time the child came into contact with them. This startled the child and caused him to cry and display signs of fear. Again, the child was introduced to these same objects, this time with no loud noise. Little Albert was now very fearful of not only the original test objects, but of anything soft or fluffy.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Conducted by Philip Zimbardo, this experiment placed volunteers into two groups: guards and prisoners. The purpose was to see how those in the guard group would use their authority. After five days the experiment was shut down. Both groups had become completely immersed in the experiment, which they now perceived as reality.

“Guards” dehumanized and humiliated the “prisoners.” When speaking with a prison Chaplain, “prisoners” identified themselves by number rather than by name. All the participants subsequently experienced deep depression and paranoia.

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David Peterson is a family psychologist and guest author at www.bestpsychologydegrees.org, where he has contributed reviews of top-rated online psychology degree programs.