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Horror on Seymour Avenue

May 11, 2013

Cleveland-house

As we get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, we have been greeted with news of the liberation of three young women who were held in captivity for nearly 10 years in a ramshackle house located in a rundown neighborhood of Cleveland. Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry, along with her six year daughter born during confinement, were freed from their captor Ariel Castro last Monday. Michelle was only 21 years old in 2002 when her captor brought her into his house and did not let her go. Over the next couple of years she was joined by two teenage girls: Amanda, 17 and Gina, 14. One of the first to come to the rescue of the three women was Charles Ramsey, an African American who lived across from Ariel Castro on Seymour Avenue.


While a story as complex as this will admittedly take some time to unfold, the emerging tidbits are beginning to point to a familiar picture. The perpetrator is often a victim of abuse himself: in a 2004 suicidal note, Ariel Castro had detailed his own history of sexual abuse as a child. Women prone to sexual victimization usually have prior history of abuse: Michelle was sexually assaulted after dropping out of the school at 17 and lived in an abusive relationship with a man who was abusive to both her and her son. The perpetrator is usually familiar with the victim: Gina was best friends with Ariel Castro’s daughter prior to her abduction and had met her just an hour before the perpetrator lured Gina into his home. The perpetrator is usually not readily identifiable and is often a sociopath living in isolation: however, Ariel Castro played music with several Latin bands in Cleveland and loved his collection of base guitars. He even entertained other musicians in his 1,400 square feet house while he had the three captive women locked away in adjoining rooms. In fact, he helped organize a benefit concert to aid the community search efforts to locate these three missing women!


These are good learnings. They tell us that we have well substantiated touch-points for intervention and prevention. The question is: do our communities have the resources and inclination to intervene? The Seymour Avenue events will tell us a lot in the coming months. They will also tell us whether the sex education that some of our young children receive in schools, lowers the motivation for escaping should they find themselves in similar unfortunate circumstances. Elizabeth Smart, herself tormented sexually by her captor over many years, thinks it does. Ms. Smart remembers feeling, “Who will want me now after sexual assault; I am worthless.” This feeling, combined with what is known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’— a victim’s life depends on the perpetrator, can create a hopeless cycle of dependence for a captive child. Recalling her sex education at school prior to her abduction, Ms. Smart remembers the teacher likening those girls who engage in frequent sex, to an over-chewed piece of gum that is ready to be rejected. I hope the Seymour Avenue events will teach our sex educators to find better metaphors.


Then there is our hero Charles Ramsey. TV coverage has shown that the man clearly has a penchant for performance…both on and off camera. Sadly, the social media is focusing on getting chuckles out of the mannerism and speech of this brave, spontaneous African American. When Ramsey said, “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” it was no laughing matter. It was a telling commentary on how stereotypically fearful we are of black men. This is the same man who told Anderson Cooper that he did not want to receive the monetary award associated with locating the three women. Ramsey wants the money to be used for the care of these rescued women.


The Seymour events will provide many teaching moments and America will be better for all of them.

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