The Internet is having a love affair with Charles Ramsey, the man who helped Amanda Berry break down the door of the Cleveland house where she said she was being held captive, along with two other women. All three went missing a decade ago; Berry was 16, Gina DeJesus was 14, and Michelle Knight was 20. It’s entirely understandable to focus on Ramsey in the giddy moment of breaking news. He is forthright and funny in describing what happened. (“I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”)
And what a relief to find a glimmer of help and humor in this macabre story about missing women imprisoned in a house on an ordinary-seeming street of row houses, with a young child who the police said is Berry’s daughter. According to Ramsey, the owner of the home, Ariel Castro, appeared to be a normal guy who attended backyard barbeques and chatted with the neighbors. Everyone wants this to be a tale of hope. The Cleveland police chief said that finding the women alive gives his department a boost and that they’ve arrested the men they think are responsible: Castro and his two brothers, all in their 50s. The FBI saluted the women’s “survival and perseverance.” A doctor in the emergency room where Berry, DeJesus, and Knight were taken Monday night emphasized how amazing it is that the women are physically healthy. “This is good,” he said. “This is not the ending we usually see from these stories.”
But this is not the ending, and surely little other than the escape will seem happy once the facts begin to flow. That’s already clear from the frantic tone of Amanda Berry’s voice when she called 911. How were these women kidnapped and held undetected for so many years? Does their story connect to the still unsolved disappearance of Ashley Summers, another teenager who vanished from the same neighborhood in 2007? Why didn’t the police or child-welfare workers see anything amiss when they visited the address in 2000 and 2004, as the mayor said Tuesday? What about the neighbors, especially given Ramsey’s description of Castro coming outside to work on his cars? And most of all, what were these women’s lives like inside that house? What were their relationships with each other?
I obsess about stories of women who are kidnapped and imprisoned: Elizabeth Smart, taken in Utah when she was 14 and held for nine months; Jaycee Dugard, taken when she was 11 in Lake Tahoe and held for 18 years; Natascha Kampusch, held from the age of 10 for eight years; Elisabeth Fritzl, a captive of her father in Austria for 24 years who had seven children with him.* There are more. The pattern is hauntingly familiar: An older man or men, sometimes with the aid of a woman, imprisons a child or a teenager. Sometimes she is literally locked away in a cellar or in a closet. Sometimes she has a bit more physical freedom, but she’s too afraid or psychologically manipulated to identify herself. Almost always there is repeated rape, and often children are born from it.
These ordeals are our gothic horror stories, our Bluebeards come to life. I fight my own obsession with them because it fills me with morbid fear and not much else. The disappearance that’s at the root of this is a made-up story from the movie The Silence of the Lambs. When I saw that movie as a college student, I was so frightened that I could barely crawl into my car: I made the friend I’d gone to the film with look under every seat and in the trunk before I would get in to cry all the way home. I tried to focus on the bravery of Jodie Foster’s character, young FBI trainee Clarice Starling, because at least in her the film has a female rescuer. But the scene I couldn’t shake was the one in which the victim (whom Starling later finds in the dungeon basement of a psychopath) gets captured. It happens when she helps him load a couch into the back of his van. She makes herself vulnerable by giving a hand to a stranger, and he slams the door on her. I could easily imagine myself as that naive, trusting girl. The movie terrified me so much that I turned down a summer job I’d wanted as a caretaker on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Suddenly I couldn’t handle the idea of being alone and exposed.
This is the opposite of empowering. The stories of girls who have a chance to escape, but don’t take it, darken the picture even more. Elizabeth Smart walked around with her captor and his wife, dressed in a robe and veil, without alerting the other people she came into contact with. I know about the idea of traumatic bonding—the ties that a captor can establish with a young captive (and a more scientifically supported term than Stockholm Syndrome). After her release, Jaycee Dugard wrote in her memoir about how the man who took her, Phillip Garrido, used rape, pregnancy, and the birth of their daughters to bind her to him. Eventually she would answer the front door and talk to people without telling them who she was or asking to leave. When investigators finally questioned her, at first she gave them a false name, called Garrido a “great man,” and only identified herself by her real name after he’d confessed to her abduction. In her book, Dugard reminds us how young she was when she was taken, and how desperate she was to keep her daughters safe. Like Smart, she says she was too scared to sound an alarm. “What I knew was safe,” she told Diane Sawyer on TV. “The unknown out there was terrifying, especially when thinking about the girls.”
It’s not clear yet what conditions Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight endured. The account Ramsey gave of Berry screaming to get out, and her 911 call identifying herself as the missing girl who’d been in the news for 10 years, show a strong desire to get away. Maybe this will turn out to be a story of total, unrelenting captivity like Room, the Emma Donoghue novel that’s the best thing I’ve read about kidnapping and imprisonment. Donoghue’s book is told from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, the boy born of rape to his captive mother. Spoiler alert: The best part of this book comes after Jack and his mother escape and have to figure out how to acclimate to the regular world. He doesn’t know how to go up and down stairs. She has to deal with parents who love her but have trouble accepting her son, and with a media spotlight that turns into a harsh glare. “Now you have lots of help from your family as well as lots of dedicated professionals,” a chirpy TV interviewer reassures Jack’s mother about continuing to raise him. “It’s actually harder,” she answers. “When our world was eleven foot square it was easier to control.” She doesn’t mean she wanted to keep him in captivity. She means that the transition is brutal. It’s a haunting, amazing book, a novel that somehow spins literature from sensation.
Room doesn’t go to the Jaycee Dugard place of a victim who surrenders her self-identity to her captor, and then has to win it back. But it helped me understand how difficult it can be to come back from the presumed dead, and how painful the need for explanation can be. Maybe the answers to my questions about what the past decade has been like, day to day, for Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight are none of my business. Maybe my fixation from afar on these life stories can lead to no deep insight. At arm’s length, I’m left only with the lesson I already know, the one I repeat to my children every time a story like this hits the news: Never get into a car with a stranger, because much as I wish it were otherwise, there is evil afoot in our world.
Correction, May 9, 2013: This article originally misspelled the first name of Natascha Kampusch. (Return to the corrected sentence.)