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The Cleveland Kidnapping: Two Memoirs

Unless you’ve been away from Earth the past two years you’re probably aware of the Cleveland Kidnapping case that gripped America, and indeed the entire world, in May of 2013. It involved Ariel Castro, a school bus driver who during the years 2002-04 kidnapped three young women, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, and subjected them to all manner of depravity inside his Cleveland, Ohio residence. The ordeal ended on May 6, 2013, after Amanda Berry managed to attract the attention of some neighbors (who somehow never noticed anything untoward during the decade of the ladies’ confinement).

     Now, on the two-year anniversary of the rescue, a look back at the case has been provided in the form of two recently published memoirs. Other books have been written about the Cleveland Kidnappings, including CAPTIVE by Allan Hall and THE LOST GIRLS by John Glatt, but the accounts outlined below stand out because they were told by the actual participants.

     These memoirs are about the closest things to critic-proof that exist. Any hint of cynicism or negativity risks the reviewer coming off as callous about these ladies’ ordeal (even though, with one book titled HOPE and the other bearing a personal thank you to TV’s Dr. Phil, cynicism is difficult to entirely suppress). Looking over the user reviews on Amazon.com and elsewhere, I find the expected blather about “sensationalism” and “exploitation” that tends to dog publications like these is nowhere to be found, nor the standard bitching about the lack of source material. You can’t quibble with the facts presented in these books, after all, as their authors are literally the only people alive who know what went on in that house of horror.

     One of those authors, Michelle Knight, published FINDING ME: A DECADE OF DARKNESS, A LIFE RECLAIMED (with co-author Michelle Burford) in October of 2014. Michelle was the first of Castro’s victims to be kidnapped, and suffered the most harrowing ordeal.

     Yet, as revealed in these pages, Michelle’s life before the kidnapping was far from rosy. So horrendous was her upbringing, marked by poverty and sexual abuse by an unnamed relative, that a brief stint of teenage homelessness, during which she slept in a dumpster and worked as a drug mule, was actually a step up! Further unpleasantness occurred when Michelle’s infant son Joey, the product of an unplanned teenage pregnancy, was taken away from her by social services. Michelle was on her way to an appointment to regain custody of Joey when she accepted a ride from Ariel Castro, a divorcee with a history of violent behavior and a debilitating porn addiction. Unfortunately the 21 year old Michelle was unaware of those things, knowing Castro only as the father of a friend--which is why she allowed him to take her to his house.

     If this were fiction I doubt too many readers would accept Michelle Knight’s descriptions of what happened inside Castro’s garbage-strewn house. She was apparently raped daily by “the Dude” (she consciously refrains from calling her attacker by name) and beaten nearly as often, in addition to being chained up and forced to eat putrid food. There was a brief respite of sorts in the form of a cute puppy the Dude bought her, but that ended when he snapped its neck in a fit of rage.

     A second girl, 16 year old Amanda Berry, was snatched by Castro nearly a year into Michelle’s confinement, and then a third kidnapee, 14 year old Gina DeJesus, joined them in April of 2004. Amanda and Gina wound up chained together in an upstairs room while Castro took Amanda as his pretend “wife,” and that’s largely how things stayed for the following nine years, interspaced with countless rapes that resulted in five pregnancies by Amanda--in all cases the fetuses were forcibly aborted by the Dude--as well as near-death from a severe allergic reaction brought about by eating a mustard-lathered hot dog. On Christmas Eve 2006 Michelle helped Amanda gave birth to Castro’s daughter, who was christened Jocelyn, and lived the first six years of her life confined in the Dude’s house along with her mother and two “aunts.”

     In a book containing more than its share of sad moments the saddest, I’d argue, occurs after the ladies are rescued. It’s then that Michelle, who throughout her decade-long ordeal was sustained only by her love for Joey, learns that her son is living with a foster family, and that she won’t be seeing him, possibly ever again. Compounding the sadness is the revelation that neither the police nor her own family ever put up much of a search for Michelle during the eleven years she went missing, and also some misleading statements made about Michelle by her mother, which has the effect of splintering an already strained mother-daughter relationship.

     FINDING ME, incidentally, was the subject of a Lifetime Network movie entitled CLEVELAND ABDUCTION, with Taryn Manning playing Michelle Knight and Raymond Cruz as Ariel Castro. It's set to air on May 9, 2015. Initial reviews have not been encouraging!

     The second of the two memoirs, HOPE: A MEMOIR OF SURVIVAL IN CLEVELAND by Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus (and also Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan), was published in May of 2015. It largely corroborates Michelle’s claims, excepting a few notable discrepancies (for instance, Michelle says in her book that she informed Amanda of her mother’s death, while Amanda reports she found out on her own). A prologue claims Michelle was asked to contribute but chose not to, which may explain why she’s such a shadowy, barely-there presence in HOPE. Her assistance in the birthing of Jocelyn is acknowledged, but otherwise her role in these pages is entirely peripheral, with her five pregnancies left undiscussed. So too the abovementioned mustard episode (during which Michelle claims Gina was instrumental in saving her life), an incident that doesn’t receive a single mention in HOPE.

     What is covered is the often adversarial relations the girls experienced during their confinement. Michelle’s account characterizes the three ladies’ relationship as occasionally rocky yet tempered by the knowledge that all were going through the same ordeal. According to Amanda and Gina, however, Castro none-too-subtly turned his captives against each other, leading to much petty teasing and infighting. HOPE also details a bout of self mutilation undergone by Gina and an escape attempt by Amanda during a time when all three were locked in Castro’s van and she became determined to slam on the gas pedal--but hesitated a bit too long. We also get a full accounting of Amanda’s grief over the untimely death of her mother in 2006, and the infamous ‘04 MONTEL WILLIAMS SHOW taping in which Amanda’s mother was falsely informed by the “psychic” Sylvia Brown that her daughter was dead.

     HOPE includes much third person reportage detailing what went on outside Castro’s house during the kidnappings, with Amanda and Gina’s grief-stricken families, the policemen who investigated their disappearances and Castro’s own sordid background all given a full accounting. There’s also a lengthy epilogue detailing a May 2013 trip undertaken by Amanda and Gina to speak at the White House, and Castro’s suicide a month into his prison sentence. As the girls aren’t shy in pointing out, this highlights his cowardly nature, as Castro could only handle a tiny fraction of the type of enforced confinement endured by his victims, and also the amazing resilience of Michelle, Amanda and Gina.

     To get a full picture of this case one has to read both FINDING ME and HOPE, as neither is definitive on its own. The former book tells the story of Michelle, whose ordeal was arguably the most severe of the three; her account deserves to be read, if for no other reason than, as she intones in her forward, “The man who took away a huge part of my life would have wanted me to stay quiet. But that’s exactly why I shouldn’t.” The latter book gives a much fuller accounting of the overall case, although its reduction of Michelle’s presence is a most unfortunate distraction.

     I’ll also complain about the publishers of these accounts, who insist on pushing the redemption-through-hope angle a bit too blatantly. The opening page of HOPE all-but spells this out, proclaiming, “our story is not just about rapes and chains, lies and misery…our story is about overcoming all that.” This is to head off, I’m guessing, the inevitable charges of exploitation that haven’t yet emerged but are certain to eventually.

     Certainly these books are inspirational, but both end on an (appropriately) unsettled note. I’ve already mentioned Michelle Knight’s maternal drama, which somewhat offsets the joy and gratitude she claims to feel. As she acknowledges toward the end of her memoir, “if you let yourself cry long enough, you finally reach the bottom of your tears. I haven’t reached the bottom yet…”

 

--5/4/15 

     

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