Cleveland Kidnappings: Power, Possession, and Women’s Voices

The house on Seymour Avenue where Ariel Castro held 3 women prisoner for 10 years. (Photo: ABC News)

The house on Seymour Avenue where Ariel Castro held 3 women prisoner for 10 years. (Photo: ABC News)

Now that it’s been a week since the young women kidnapped in Cleveland asked the media for a little privacy, the news world has mostly moved on. It’s tempting to grant that privacy  completely. The victims’ admittedly rare case is already becoming a sort of Law & Order: SVU episode, as the police and FBI complete their investigations and prosecution of the alleged abductor, Ariel Castro, begins.  But to move on might make their ordeal seem far too singular, instead of echoing—as it doesthe experience of far too many women.

When Ohio realtor Geri Cahill-Miller heard about the dramatic rescue of Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Regina DeJesus from that Cleveland house where they were held against their will for a decade, she cheered along with everyone else. She also waited for the ball to drop, and it didn’t take long.

As neighbor-rescuer Charles Ramsay, describing his first sight of Amanda Berry, said, “I thought it was a domestic violence situation,” Cahill-Miller nodded involuntarily, while glad (like the rest of us) that Ramsay had used that belief as a reason for action.The founder of Purple Lotus, an Ohio network serving victims of abuse, Cahill-Miller told WVFC that her gut feeling about the abductions was always, “This is all about domestic violence.”

As more evidence emerges about the case, it becomes clearer that Charles Ramsay’s first reaction was spot-on: This is a domestic violence situation.

Start with what happened between Castro and his former common-law wife, Grimilda Figueroa. In 1989, according to police reports cited by USA Today,  Castro “slapped her several times in the face . . . . When Figueroa tried to run, he grabbed her and slammed her several times into a wall and several more times into a washing machine . . . . She was treated for a bruised right shoulder. She told officers that Castro, who had been her common-law husband for nine years at that point in their relationship, assaulted her several times, but she filed no official complaints. No charges were filed in the 1989 attack.” It happened again in 1993:  According to Reuters,  when Figueroa “told police that he had thrown her to the ground, hit her about the face and head and kicked her.” Reuters adds that by the time a grand jury began to consider charges, Figueroa said she could not remember the abuse, and the story quotes former police officer Chris Giannini, who had tried to help protect her, about why: “She was afraid.”

The story above also helps explain how Castro remained the “respectable” neighbor few suspected. “Filing a report with a law enforcement agency requires tremendous courage by victims,” Indiana prosecutor Michael Dvorak writes. “It is incredibly painful for victims to recount the abuse they have suffered at the hands of a loved one. They may also become susceptible to additional pressures when a report results in the filing of criminal charges. Financial dependencies, pressure from the abuser and fear of retribution to themselves or their children are some of the obstacles.”

In 2005, Figueroa had moved away and was living with another man when she told police that Castro had “threatened to beat her ass” in front of their daughter, but she never filed charges, and even the weak protective order she asked for never made it onto his permanent record.By 2005, of course, Castro had also met all three of the young women released this week, and had locked them in his house.

One of the captives, Michelle Knight, had already been the victim of repeated violence  before her abduction. “As a high school student, Knight had been raped by several classmates, became pregnant and left school,” reports the New York Daily News. Knight was also allegedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was eventually jailed for breaking the arm of Knight’s little son, Joey.  The day Knight was kidnapped, she was due in court to fight for custody of her son: When her parents filed a missing-persons report, the police thought she had simply run away.

It’s dangerous, of course, to associate the Cleveland case too closely with domestic violence. Why? Because people are likely to grow numb from the familiarity of it all. Familiar enough, after all, that there are jokes about domestic abuse, including an “Ex-Girlfriend” human target sold at the NRA convention, notes Katie Baker at Jezebel as she explains why we still need to pay close attention. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a shooting target called ‘kidnapped teenager’ because we care very much about pretty adolescent girls who disappear into thin air. As we should, of course. But we should also care about men who abuse their wives and children before they go out and find replacements to hide in the basement.”

In addition, the Cleveland story is rife with the same isolation, fear, and sense of being trapped reported by so many family-violence survivors. “They share a lot with these girls,” Dr. Cecilia Ford, who explores the road to recovery for the Cleveland victims, told me this week.”Isolation is key to the tormentor’s power.”

Power is also often the tormentor’s chief motive, as illustrated again in the suicide note/confession reportedly written by Ariel Castro himself and found by police at the Seymour Avenue house. TV reporter Scott Taylor tweeted one of the note’s key lines: “I don’t know why I kept looking for another. I already had 2 in my possession”  (emphasis mine). “It’s not just rape, it’s not just harassment, it all flows together,” said Geri Cahill-Miller of Purple Lotus, who gets four to five calls a week from Ohio abuse survivors.  “It’s abuse, no matter how you tag it.”


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  • Paul January 21, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Awful, truly awful. Makes me so glad that I live in a tiny village in the far north of Scotland where everyone knows everyone. Can’t imagine anyone getting away such attrocities here. My heart goes out to those affected.