***Caution:  There are graphic descriptions in this post.  If you are concerned about being triggered, please do not read this.***

When the news broke of the three women in Cleveland who’d been held captive for ten years, I felt a rush of sisterhood.  I was never chained in a room or beaten, so I cannot relate to these aspects of what Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry went through.  Their nightmare is a unique and horrific one I cannot fully fathom.  But there is much of their story I can relate to.

They have been heavy on my mind ever since the story ran, but I’ve been hesitant to write about them.   I’m aware the more ‘normal’ response is shock; but I feel this kinship instead.  I desperately want to be ‘normal,’ but my history has robbed me of many aspects of normal.  After much reflection, I sensed a calling to share my perspective in the hopes of giving every outraged person a way to use their anger for good.

I felt an immediate connection because, to a degree, I understand the fear, threats, and despair they must have endured.  Amanda said she took the first opportunity for escape, which didn’t come for ten years.  This fact alone tells me the level of terror and control these girls lived in.  I know what it’s like to be taught what will happen if you don’t do exactly as you are told.  You believe the threats because you’ve already seen and/or experienced what the abusers are capable of.   

When I read about kidnapper Ariel Castro’s apparent suicide note from 2004 indicating abuse by both parents and being raped by an Uncle I could only shake my head and think “Of course.”  Likely no one got him the help he needed and all his anger was unleashed on –at a minimum- girlfriends, an ex-wife, and these three women.  Abusive minds are not logical.  Without help, they are driven by a need to purge the abuse by reenacting it.

I read that a few years ago, Castro’s then 19-year old daughter slit her own baby’s throat in an attempt to kill it.  The news reported “Emily Castro suffered from manic depression and was paranoid that her family was trying to kill her baby.”   She claims her dad never abused her.  Well, duh.  Of course that’s what she’s going to say.  She may have even convinced herself its true by now, but her actions tell a very different story.  In what is truly a sick twist, some mothers in that much despair feel the only way to stop the violence is through death.  I imagine this girl was in a terrible state of hopelessness.  It never excuses the behavior, but perhaps it helps explain the depth of despondency most of us can never understand.  We cannot expect a desperate person to make logical decisions.

The opposite response in wanting to protect your child is to flee.  I presume being a mother gave Amanda exponential focus on escaping so she could protect her young daughter.  My own pregnancy was the catapult I needed to move away from my family.  The instinctive need to protect my unborn baby gave me the push I needed to do what I’d wanted to do for years before but just couldn’t manage.

It makes an incredible difference to have a strong support network for survivors.  Gina and Amanda apparently have loving, welcoming homes to begin their healing processes.  Their recovery will likely be light years faster than Michelle.  She apparently does not want to reunite with her family which paints a fairly clear picture to me.  I envision how difficult her family dynamics must be in order for her to make this choice. 

Ten years is a very long time for the captive women to live in those awful conditions and suffer so much abuse.  These women, and Amanda’s 6 year-old daughter, have much grieving and healing ahead of them.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I want to acknowledge a certain degree of envy.  Of course I don’t envy what they went through.  What I envy is the response of family, friends, neighbors, and strangers.  The gaping discrepancy of how people respond to the family abuser versus the stranger abuser is astonishing.

These women have not been criticized or ostracized.  They were believed, welcomed home, showered with cards, and even have donations pouring in.  Everyone understands they need therapy, patience, and kindness.  When a survivor finally outs the monster in their own family, the typical response is no one believes you, no one welcomes you to their arms, and no cards or money pour in.  People think (and say) therapy is an indulgence for ‘something that happened so long ago.’   They are impatient and frustrated with the slow recovery.

Survivors from family abuse are left with shame and loneliness.  We are liars and disgraces to the family for saying such horrible things about our abuser.  Ah, but the rules change quickly when it’s a stranger.  The gloves come off, and no amount of outrage is enough.

Outrage is the appropriate response to something so heinous.  But it’s a tough pill to swallow for those of us who lived with the monster our entire childhood and had to hear about what a funny, smart, caring, wonderful, et cetera person our abuser was.  There is rarely outrage toward the abuser; if anything, it is usually directed toward the survivor.

There are thousands of people, mostly women and children, stuck every day in abusive homes; family and neighbors either don’t see the red flags or are too afraid to speak up. 

It’s unrealistic to think we will ever stop domestic violence and abuse.  But, it is a reasonable and attainable goal to become more aware.   Don’t believe the myth that ‘it couldn’t happen in my family/neighborhood/church’.  It happens in those places every day.

Abusers don’t have stickers on their foreheads.  They don’t necessarily ‘fit’ a profile.  They are our neighbors, relatives, classmates, and co-workers.  They usually blend right in with the rest of us.  But if you pay close attention, there are subtle clues.  Do not excuse or dismiss those clues.  File them away and when the time is right, make a difference.  Reach out when it’s safe, call the authorities, offer assistance.  Be a safe, non-judgmental person in the survivor’s life.  You have the potential to change, and perhaps even save, a life.


In honor of Gina, Michelle, and Amanda, let’s make a difference.