“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?”