Sunday 24 September 2017

Books: Life trapped inside a house of horrors

Finding Me, Michelle Knight with Michelle Burford, Weinstein Books, €17.95

Michelle Knight
Michelle Knight
Ariel Castro at sentencing
The house where Michelle Knight and two others were held
'Finding Me' by Michelle Knight

Ellis O'Hanlon

Late for a meeting with social services to discuss getting back her son from care, a 21 year old single mother stops at a Family Dollar store to ask for directions. The cashier can't help, but a male voice pipes up: "I know exactly where that is." She recognises the man as Ariel Castro, a school bus driver and father of a schoolfriend, and accepts his offer of a lift. On the way, he persuades her to come into his house "for a sec."

That "sec" lasted for 11 years before police finally broke into the, now infamous, house in Cleveland, Ohio in May 2013 and rescued Michelle Knight, together with two other women who'd been held hostage for a decade by the same man. Finding Me, written in collaboration with a founding editor of The Oprah Magazine, is her own story of a "decade of darkness" and, ultimately, a "life reclaimed".

For months, Michelle was held in the basement and repeatedly raped. Each time Castro put money into the washing machine to pay for her "services". Later she was taken to an upstairs room and chained to the wall. Throughout the first winter Michelle was naked without so much as a blanket to keep warm. Her tormentor didn't even let her shower for eight months and her own smell made her gag.

In due course he gave her a TV to pass the time, and she watched it sometimes even as he assaulted her. Her open and honest story is full of devastating little details like that, almost too horrific to bear. She recalls, for example, that the only time she was warm during that winter was when he was raping her.

She hated herself for succumbing to Ariel Castro's brutality, and studiously avoids even referring to him by name. "I didn't think a monster deserved to have a real name." Michelle refers to him instead simply as "the dude".

He taunted her by telling her no one was looking for her – she had had a difficult childhood and was estranged from her poor and dysfunctional family. Castro repeatedly told her that neither they nor anyone else would bother searching for her.

After about a year, she heard a report on TV of another girl who'd vanished, 17 year old Amanda Berry, and she knew at once that Castro was responsible. A year later, a third joined them, Gina DeJesus, only 14 at the time of her capture. Gina and Michelle shared a small room. Amanda, Castro's favourite, who he referred to as his "wife", lived in another.

Of course, none of this makes for easy reading. Castro calls Michelle a "slut" when he finds out that she is pregnant. He hits her in the stomach with a barbell in order to kill the child, then beats her again when she miscarries, saying that she has "aborted" his baby. Five times Michelle falls pregnant. Five times he does the same. Her life swings between the nightmare of daily abuse and seemingly interminable hours of boredom. Time becomes meaningless. The "dude" constantly tells her that she's ugly and that no one even cares that she's missing.

Knight is not as acute an observer of her situation as Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl whose piercing intelligence made the published account of her similar ordeal in 3,096 Days such an intense and unsettling read. Knight comes across as almost childlike, so that narrative must stand in for analysis – though when a story is this harrowing, speculative analysis can feel superfluous, if not downright impertinent. But there are enough hints here to suggest some of the strange disturbing forces at work in that house.

Castro seemed to veer between seeing the women as prostitutes – when finally caught, there was more than $22,000 (€16,000) of "payments" in the washing machine – and regarding them as his "family". He's hurt when he reads Michelle's journal in which she confesses her hatred of him.

Another time he hands over his gun and asks her to shoot him. She suspects it's a trick but later discovers that the gun was indeed loaded.

Why did she not try harder to escape? That's the uncomprehending question which is always thrown afterwards in such scenarios.

Michelle has no pat answer, except to say: "He kept his gun on his hip most of the time, but to be honest with you, he really didn't have to. By 2008 we were trained. After years of being in prison ... the locks move from off of your wrists and your ankles and up to your brain."

Castro was given life in prison without parole for his crimes, but within a month had hung himself in his cell.

"He couldn't even deal with one month of the torture he put us through," as Michelle puts it.

Now she's free to rebuild her life. She still hasn't seen her son, who was adopted by another couple in her long absence, but she has started attending cookery school, she's visited Disneyland, she goes out dancing. Most of all, she's been given the chance to tell her story.

In works of this kind, there's always a risk of unwittingly pandering to the worst voyeuristic side of human nature, but it's avoided in this short book by the impressive matter of factness with which a, still young, woman relates the horror of those 11 years.

Monsters might not deserve names, but victims do deserve voices. Ariel Castro tried to tell this woman that she didn't have one. Finding Me proves him wrong.

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