July 11, 2013
The crisis communications firm Hennes-Paynter knows what it's doing. On Monday, it released a video statement from Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, the women who were held captive in a Cleveland basement for years until they were discovered and rescued in May. Looking healthy and speaking clearly, if sometimes haltingly, the women expressed their gratitude for the outpouring of public support and asked for privacy so they can continue to heal. They were strikingly positive, speaking of their determination to move beyond the trauma they'd suffered at the hands of their kidnapper.
"I may have been through hell and back," said the 32-year-old Knight. Ariel Castro, the man charged in the case, is accused of raping her repeatedly and, when she was pregnant, starving and beating her until she miscarried. "But I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face.... I will not let the situation define who I am. I will define the situation."
Their recitations proved a hit with the commentariat. On YouTube and other sites, public reaction was reminiscent of the kinds of inspirational quotes you see on posters picturing sunsets and children's hands clasping flowers. "Be positive and remember terrible things that happen make you a stronger more beautiful person." "Live fully. Love much. Laugh often. Keep on blooming."
I didn't cherry-pick those comments in search of the most saccharine examples. The majority are in this vein. You can find them on the Huffington Post, Foxnews.com or the Cleveland Plain Dealer's website. Granted, some viewers have pointed out that the women are reading from scripts and that the video encourages donations to the women's recovery fund as much as it offers thanks and asks for privacy. But those commenters are being roundly dismissed as cynical trolls. The prevailing sentiment is all's well that end's well.
But all is clearly not well. The women's survival is inspiring, sure, but their story is also appalling on about a hundred different levels. It's appalling that Berry gave birth to Castro's child. It's appalling that DeJesus, who was friends with Castro's daughter and got in his car willingly, was never the beneficiary of an Amber Alert. It's appalling that Knight, who was reportedly beaten severely enough to sustain hearing loss and require reconstructive surgery, came from such a troubled background that both police and her own mother assumed she was a runaway and stopped looking for her.
Knight seems sincere when she says God chose this path for her, and the public insists on calling the rescue a miracle. But how much of a miracle is it when a neighborhood takes a decade or so to recognize one of their own as a kidnapper and rapist? What does it say about our concept of community when the dominant narrative that emerges from such a horror leans toward "Thank God they're alive" rather than "How in God's name did this happen?"
There is, of course, room for both conclusions. As unfathomably terrible as the women's imprisonment was, it would be that much more terrible if they'd never been freed.
American culture places a premium on resiliency. We seem wedded to the idea that even the sickest, most horrifying stories can have happy, or at least spiritually redemptive, endings. But there's something almost equally sick about fetishizing the Cleveland kidnapping survivors as objects of inspiration.
The upbeat video messages and the relieved, pat responses they've elicited minimize the tragedy of these women. They let society — neighborhood, government, law enforcement, even families — off the hook for allowing, perhaps even enabling, the conditions that led to the horror. They say, essentially, that broken communities don't matter as long as their victims frame their stories so we feel soothed, so we aren't burdened with the hard work of confronting what went wrong and fixing it.
These women deserve the happiest endings they can possibly find, but it isn't their job to dish out those endings to the rest of us. They don't need hero worship. They need our substantive support. They need what we all need — communities that function as they're supposed to. And that shouldn't require miracles, just common decency.
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