Once Again, Media Asks Wrong Questions and Blames Victims

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“The big question is, ‘Why didn’t they leave earlier?’” I heard Elizabeth Vargas ask on the morning news last week, not even 24 hours after the country learned that three women were free after a decade of captivity.

I could feel the heat under my skin making my neck red and my face blotchy. “So many asking that,” replied David Muir, further wondering, “Was there never another chance to escape?” before beginning a report about kidnap victims.

What Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight endured is unimaginable. Ariel Castro is alleged to have lured each of them to his car when they were 14, 16 and 20 years of age. He is accused of bringing them to his home where he chained, beat and raped them repeatedly for a decade. He deprived them of fresh air and the outdoors, normal social interaction, their friends, family and lives. He is accused of impregnating at least one of them and causing a miscarriage by punching her pregnant belly. Another gave birth to a child raised in this environment for the first years of her life.

The question is not why they didn’t escape sooner.

I want to protect these women from these words and the subtext implied that these women are in any way responsible for any of their pain for failing to limit its duration.

Any survivor of abuse, violence or crime knows the answer—fear!—and is offended by the questioning. I am from Massachusetts, where less than a month ago our entire state was shaken by the violence of two brothers who set off bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. People nowhere near the explosion or Greater Boston were on high alert, even with countless state and federal authorities hunting the alleged criminals on our behalf and constant news coverage keeping us informed.

We didn’t ask one another, “Why are you afraid?” We asked each other, “Are you safe?” and “Have they been caught?” Not only did we worry about our own friends, co-workers or loved ones who had gone to the marathon, but we were forced to consider our general assumptions about safety.  If people just going to a marathon can be killed or lose limbs, where is it safe to go? If people are capable of setting off one bomb who knows if another explosion was is planned?

Violence is meant to intimidate. It did. When the bombings in Boston happened, we wanted to know  what it would take for our sense of security to be restored.

I do have questions since hearing about these three women in Cleveland, but not one of them is about why they didn’t escape sooner.

I want to know how a middle-aged man can pluck a teenager or young woman from her own life and use her for his twisted pleasure or perverted pain.

I wonder if his children and those on his bus route or in his neighborhood were ever hurt.

I wonder how he had the nerve to console the mother of one his victims or go to fundraisers or vigils or pass out flyers pretending to be concerned about the disappearances. I wonder how he slept at night while keeping human beings captive in his home.

I want to know what neighbors felt, did and thought. Did they fear being judgmental? Were they afraid to intrude? Did they take action, and were their concerns minimized?

I want to know every detail about how police did or did not respond.

I want to understand if the way he treated the mother of his children should have made him a suspect. She is said to have charged him with abuse, death threats and stealing his children.

I have questions for myself as well. Have I always supported women who said they were afraid? Have I stepped in to check on a child wearing a shawl of sadness to make sure they are not suffering? What have I done about the fathers too creepy to let my daughter go near? So often, for fear of being intrusive or mean or thinking the worst, I have minimized potential danger to myself and others.

How many times have I looked away and hoped for the best, deciding someone else would step up or know what to do? Despite my own excruciating experience as a trauma survivor, I have not always been an advocate for myself or others. Sometimes I have let safety issues and concerns slide because speaking out or reaching out is too hard, awkward or embarrassing.

Our cultural tendency to point questions, shame and blame squarely at victims and away from criminals is a dangerous habit that we must break if domestic violence is to end.

We all struggle with how much to intervene in the personal lives of others, what doors and boundaries to stay outside of when it comes to neighbors, families and lovers. Clearly, with so many children and women still stalked, tortured, abused or killed, we are failing.

I want the three women who survived to know they were supposed to live in a world where it is safe to walk down the street without being lured or manipulated or preyed upon. I hope they know that many ache for the ordeal they have lived through and the healing that will be necessary. Flowers around Castro’s home should have wilted. The lawn should have turned brown. The clouds above should have spelled out HELP.

The question I have for Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight is, “Can you forgive humanity for the inhumanity you endured?”

Cross posted from Guest in Your Heart. Image courtesy of ABC News


  1. Tonya Rothe says:

    Fantastic article! Thank you- I am sharing with everyone.

  2. nancy atwood says:

    So well written and thought provoking. Have shared with everyone.

  3. could not have said it better–I didn’t hear this interview and glad i didn’t i would have wanted to punch the tv–you hit the nail on the head how many kids were on his bus–how many others “got away” or only suffered a bit. But when i read about what a nice guy he was and thinking about the job he choose–totally the mark of a pedophile—unredeemable in my opinion. Good article thoughtful and clear

  4. When I heard those words I wanted to take a baseball bat to the tv. Then came another callus remark from some entitled news ‘woman’ who said, and I paraphrase here “He must have been coming after the little girl, that’s why she made her move”. What an ignorant, self-entitled attitude to believe that these women would not have escaped earlier if they could. What is wrong with this world?

    • Nancy, Beth and Diana, Thank you for reading and commenting on the article Diane. It sounds like so many of us had (or would have had if we heard it) a STRONG reaction to the questions asked on t.v. I know I’m asking myself some questions as well about how I can more aware and involved and better able to know when to bear witness and when to be an advocate. Cissy

  5. Michelle Bermas says:

    Powerful and thought provoking article. Loved it. Great job Cis.

  6. The question malestream media never asks is why men believe they are entitled to subject women and girls to systemic male sexual violence? Also, malestream media never asks the question how did Ariel Castro who allegedly kidnapped, imprisoned and subjected three women to serial sadistic rape and male sexual violence get away with this alleged crime for so long? Is it because police refused to act on allegations made by various neighbours?

    These questions are valid but blaming the three women is not valid but malestream media is a tool of male supremacist system which is why the focus is always on questioning why female victims of male sexual violence ‘didn’t escape sooner’ or ‘didn’t resist the male sexual predator(s). Focus must never be on male accountability.

  7. Jenny Harle says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly with your objections to the coverage, I think it’s part of human nature to want to believe that these things won’t happen to us and that if they did we would be “strong” enough or “smart” enough to get away.

    This is similar to why many young women bought into the idea that Rihanna “asked for it” when Chris Brown beat her up. We want to believe that the victims are responsible for what happened to them because that means it can’t happen to us.

    • Kathleen Clohessy says:

      Maintaining the illusion of safety is not human nature –it is a socially entrained reaction that applies almost exclusively to women vs men. Men are taught to take responsibility for their safety; women are taught to be helpless and vulnerable, and then we are blamed when something happens to us because we were. We are taught to “be nice” to NOT tell the creep who is bothering us at the supermarket or the coffee shop to “f-off.” We are taught to politely accept the helping hand that is offered to us, even if our gut instinct is to scream or run away. In his wonderful book ” The Gift of Fear” Gavin DeBecker writes extensively about how all people — women in particular –ignore danger signals and put themselves in harm’s way. It is not that we are “asking for it”..it is that we are conditioned to believe that evil doesn’t exist or that we are somehow invulnerable to it that does us in.

      None of this, of course, excuses the media’s persistent blaming of female victims and exculpating guilty men. We saw it in Ohio, when the media lamented the lost lives of the “poor boys” who drugged and raped a 16 year old girl. And we are seeing it here, again. The fact that millions of women did not call ABC and demand that they fire these two morons simply proves how deeply entrenched our misplaced “niceness” is.

  8. I had a letter published in our local paper posing similar questions, such as why the blame on cops, next door neighbors, and the families of the victims themselves and not just the perpetrator period: such as: “where do you get off you sick bastard?” being the main focus of the story. Hecuba owns it…”Focus must never be on male accountability.” That says it right there. For all of these issues. It is amazing, and pathetic in our society how we insist women be weaker, lesser, stupider, needier, less able to look after themselves, even after 40 years of Feminism it is still there; this equating femininity with vulnerability and needing saving, but all the sudden when a women/girl is raped or beaten or abused by a man, we are now supposed to have super human or super woman powers of perception, “Ya shoulda seen it coming.”, ability; “Why couldn’t they fight it off.” culpability; “she should a known better…”
    We have PROVEN training women to stand up for and protect themselves, scanning their environment, believing in themselves, and improving self-esteem do not do enough to keep women safe. Men and boys have to be taught and told and shown that abusing women and girls ( and other men and boys) is NOT ACCEPTABLE EVER!

  9. Patricia says:

    Thank you for your wonderful thought provoking article. I want to know those answers also.

  10. Stephen Sharper says:

    Making the connection between the bombing and the kidnappings and abuse and the effect that violence has on intimidation couldn’t help but seem ingenious to me. That is a very good talking point to introduce to those who do not sympathize with survivors of this kind of horrific crime. I hope enough people take this away as I did.

  11. DDB9000 says:

    At the library I work at, on Friday, we got the most recent issue of People magazine. On the right hand side of the cover was a picture of the 3 victims, and a headline that said “The Cleveland Three”! Last time I checked, this type of construction is usually used for criminals, or people accused of crimes (whether they end up guilty or not). People seems to be accusing these women. I guess I’m not really surprised…

  12. When I heard those words I wanted to take a baseball bat to the tv.Have shared with everyone.

  13. Patricia says:

    Having worked in media all my life, I know why those questions are asked. It has nothing to do with the opinion of the questioner. It is a viable question. It is asked so an answer can be given. Hard questions do not imply guilt or blame. They just are. I know what the answer is. I also would have asked the question. And in case you are interested, I am not another entitled woman. I am hard-working, getting by in life, and a feminist to boot. Now as far as the People Magazine cover, that’s another story.

  14. Those types of questions ticked me off too. And may I add that they were tied up in “stress positions” for long periods of time and may have permanent damage to their joints as a result. This happened to John McCain when he was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years. Did anyone ask him why he didn’t escape sooner?

  15. tim mccay says:

    Wonderful Article… Definitely got the point across. i wouldnt quite compare the horror of what these women went through to that of john mcains situation. he did not have his own seperate bedroom and was held captive by gun point and every bone in his body was broken at least once. he was not however raped… which i would say is worse thqn simple physical abuse. i think many ppls flawed logic is just since there were no weapons in the castro house… how come the women never even tried escaping once. like you said… fear

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