Less than a month ago, TVs and iPads everywhere were ablaze with the shocking story of three women freed from a horror house in Cleveland. Every nuance of the case was covered, from the insensitivity of the 9-1-1 operator to the emotional distress of Ariel Castro’s family. Even the shenanigans of Big Mac-loving hero, Charles Ramsay, went viral. News outlet and bloggers across America seemed obsessed with the story.
And then, a few weeks later, nothing.
This is not surprising. It is the very nature of our 24-hour news cycle society. We salivate at the sight of a sensational story. Then we wait for the media to carve up the pieces, so we can devour each distasteful byte. And the Cleveland case sure was a sensational story—what with its padlock basement, chains of bondage and home-birthed baby. One couldn’t help but be shocked.
Unless, of course, they were me.
See, I specialize in this kind of thing. In fact, for the past six years, I’ve been researching various aspects of kidnapping, enslavement, sadism and sex rings, as well as the more pedestrian topics of pedophilia and child sexual abuse. I spend my time trying to figure out why the perpetrators of such crimes do what they do and how they manage to get away with it. I try to explain what violence does to the victims, both in the short-term and the long-run. I do all of this to shed light on a dark subject—a subject most people don’t care about unless it bombards them in the news. I want people to understand the peculiar kind of hell that women like Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus are forced to live through.
I want people to understand, because I lived through a similar hell. At the age of eight, I was procured by a man who turned me into his sex slave. For the next eight years, I was forced to endure bondage, humiliation, torture and rape. My captor didn’t kidnap me; there was no need. My young, broke, stupid mother was all too willing to hand me over to a practiced pedophile. If this sounds shocking, it shouldn’t. Cases like mine and the one in Cleveland happen more than you think.
We all know the names of survivors like Jaycee Dugard, Shawn Hornbeck and Elizabeth Smart. But there are other recent stories that, for some reason, never entered the national zeitgeist. In 2003, for example, a man named John Jamelske was arrested in Syracuse for abducting a 16-year-old runaway and locking her in a basement dungeon. As the investigation developed, police learned that Jamelske had been using the dungeon for more than 15 years. During that time, he held, beat, raped and released at least five women.
In 1999, David Parker Ray was arrested in New Mexico after one of his victims, naked except for the iron slave collar around her neck, managed to escape from his elaborate dungeon. Ray turned out to be an especially passionate sadist, having built an elaborate and expensive torture chamber that he dubbed the “Toy Box.” With its vast array of whips, chains, pulleys, surgical blades and saws, the “Toy Box” surely rivaled the most tricked-out dungeons of the Inquisition. No one knows for sure how many women Ray tortured and murdered (a few were released), but some estimates are as high as 60.
In the late 1980s, Gary Heidnik held six women in his Philadelphia basement where they were bound, starved, raped and tortured. In the mid-1980s, Colleen Stan escaped after being held as a sex slave for seven years. In Europe, Natascha Kampusch escaped a basement prison after eight years in captivity. Poor Elisabeth Fritzl had to wait 24 years before she could escape the underground hell of her own father’s making. During that time, she was forced to bear him seven children.
And these are just the big stories, folks. The stories unusual enough to get a Wikipedia page. If you’ve got time for the more run-of-the-mill sex slave stories, I’ve got about 20,000 of them.
Go on Google and search “sex slave.” Just last week, a couple in San Diego was sentenced for forcing a 12-year old relative to “clean and cook, take care of the couple’s three children and have sex with [her uncle] and with other men for money” (LA Times). This girl wasn’t missing. Loving parents weren’t begging John Walsh to plaster her pictures on America’s Most Wanted. She was just a girl being abused by horrible relatives—a far more common scenario when it comes to sex slavery.
But whether it’s a headline-grabbing escape or the mundane world of sex slaves in suburbia, the story never seems to change. There always seems to be a sadistic man who yearns for despotic control over women and/or children. And this sadistic man seems to possess an archetypal desire to lock his victims in basements, bind them, torture them and turn them into sex slaves. In her book, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, Anna Salter offers the general sentiment of this type of man:
“I had fantasies [of] having a large house and having the basement full of women locked up in chains. At first it was one woman, then more, then later on as the years progressed, it was more and more. And it became more and more deviant…I had redheads, blonds, brunettes. I could pick any victim I wanted. I’d have them all stored down there.” (p. 92)
In the past few weeks, the story of three women released from captivity made headlines. These headlines, like the headlines of similar stories before, proceeded in a predictable way. First, everyone expressed relief for the victims and outrage at the abuser. Soon, family, friends and neighbors expressed “shock” because the abuser seemed like such a nice guy. Very quickly, people started asking, “How could this have happened in our safe and quiet neighborhood?” Then, as people started to realize that really bad things can and do happen in safe and quiet neighborhoods, they started to grow scared.
In order to alleviate their fear, these bystanders need to tell themselves that it is within their power to avoid tragedy. This is why the townsfolk who originally expressed joy for the victims are starting to subtly blame them instead. Thus, we’re already seeing posts about the perils of hitchhiking. We are learning that, before her abduction, Michele Knight already suffered from mental illness. People have started asking, rather accusingly, why the victims never tried to escape. And many news articles have already criticized the victims for developing “Stockholm Syndrome.”
A clear example of how victims get blamed can be found in the “comments” section of an article about the case that appeared in New York Magazine online. Candid08 asks, “Almost 10 years—and none of them could get out of a house??
Then, the more enlightened FunBud23 responds, “There’s not enough info…yet to judge. If you’re terrified enough, you don’t try to escape.”
But Blanch_White jumps in with her own harsh opinion, “…the house isn’t out in the boondocks—it’s in a densely populated residential area…Did the captors NEVER leave the women alone during the ten years?”
And so it goes. This is how the good townsfolk of America always overcome their fear of violence after one of these stories breaks—by arrogantly assuring themselves that, in similar circumstances, they would be smarter, stronger, more courageous than the weak, pusillanimous victims on TV. Meanwhile, the victims, desperate to forget what has happened to them, unwittingly aid in their own shaming by asking for privacy and remaining silent. Due to this silence, bystanders never hear the gory details: how victims are rendered helpless through physical and psychological torture; how their lives, the lives of other hostages and the lives of loved ones are threatened should they try to escape. Instead, victims stay mum on the horrors they’ve experienced. This suits bystanders just fine, as they don’t really want to hear.
What people really want is to forget that bad things happen. That’s why, as Judith Herman notes in her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness” (p. 1). This is what we’ve all done fairly quickly in the weeks since the story first broke; we’ve banished our fears about predatory sadists and missing young women and inept police. Unfortunately, in doing so, we’ve also banished thoughts of all the preventive measures we were going to take so this could never happen again.
That is, until the next story breaks and everything old is new again.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).