Cleveland survivor Michelle Knight said yesterday that the one good thing to come out of her 11 years of torture was her friendship with fellow victim Gina DeJesus.
“From this moment on, I will not let you define me or affect who I am. I will live...”
What brings a woman, for years chained and abused in every aspect of humanity, ripped from her family and small child to be trapped in the basement of a demented abuser, the ability to declare those words, before not only cameras of the world and a judge, but the very man who tortured her for years?
Every victory for the three women caged in the bowels of a small Cleveland home is redemptive, even as no one would believe that serious, surely unalterable damage has been done to the psyche of each woman. For Michelle Knight, the damage goes further—beaten to the point of partial deafness and facial damage that changed her appearance and abused until miscarrying five separate times.
So we watch with admiration the spirit of this woman as she makes her declaration of separation and healing. She speaks with a weighty dignity, an irreproachable claim to selfhood. She trembles and hesitates, she speaks of days that turn into nights, nights that turns into days, she speaks of knowing that no one cared about her. And then she says: “Gina [DeJesus] was my teammate. She never let me fall. I never let her fall. My friendship with her was the only thing that is good out of this situation.”
In this brief statement, we have a glimpse of one way that this woman survived “years that turned into eternity.” Imprisoned at 21 years old, Michelle reportedly suffered the worst of the abuse for the longest time, and has emerged from the long years to a precarious family situation, hoping to be reunited with her son, who was 2 at the time of her kidnapping. She was held captive along with two other women, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, and it might have been their presence that allowed her to survive to say that her wish now is to help others who have been kidnapped—”to know that there is someone out there to lean on and talk to.”
Resiliency has long been studied by sociologists and other scientists interested to learn how human beings can endure trauma, neglect and abuse, and one overwhelming and enduring necessity for resilience appears to be the support of one human being who cares and is willing to be involved on an ongoing basis. The famous “power of one.”
Growing up, I was in an ongoing traumatic family situation. For years, I felt alone as I navigated my pre- and teen years, and while I recognize that this was my emotional experience—valid and important in my formative years—I also look back and realize the gift that my mother and sister were to me. Although there were many problems and I had a difficult relationship with my mom and a strained one with my sister, I knew that they loved me and I them, however imperfectly.
As the years went along, my mom finally reached her limit, and got us all help in the form of therapy and other types of support. She left my dad soon after, and because of her willingness to grow and change, my sister and I had access to all kinds of help that I never would have taken if I had not been forced. That support saved my life.
I remember vividly suffocating nights of fear, lying in my bed with my stuffed animals around me, the blanket pulled and tucked, my hands in the temple of prayer. And I remember the deep comfort of my sister’s knock on the door, her small shape next to mine, playing shadow games on the wall. I remember my mom making lunches and dinners and breakfasts—the healthiest she possibly could on a poverty budget. I remember her meeting with my teachers and walking with my sister and me at night, I remember her caring for me when I was sick and I remember her saying “Things are going to change.”
When I encounter any person in pain, I think of those years in my life. When my oldest son would have a friend over who was obviously suffering, I would ask myself What if I am the only adult this kid meets who asks what is wrong? And I would ask, and listen. Sometimes that is all I could do, and I have experienced too much to tell myself a fairy tale about how one, two or a handful of conversations will save anyone.
But it might be a piece, an important piece of their impression of the possibilities in other human beings, in life. For those who latch on when I reach out, I keep holding on. If a drowning person grabs your hand, you don’t let go.
Lacey was 13 when I met her. I was a young adult, a single mother, and visited an abuse chat room for teenagers to offer support. I had been speaking to Lacey on this chat board for close to a year when she asked to meet. We met at a public mall, and she showed me the marks on her back. She had been abused for all of her young life. Soon afterward, I picked her up at her house and didn’t take her back. Instead, we made our way the next day to the Polinsky Center, a kind of boarding station for children before they are placed in foster care. Lacey was returned home soon after. Weeks later, she tried to kill herself. An ambulance picked her up, and she was placed permanently in foster care. By then, she was placed permanently in my life.
I cared deeply for this red-headed spitfire, a seriously intelligent and deeply wounded little girl with a huge heart. I began picking her up for weekend stays at our home, for a trip to the movies, birthday parties. She stayed with our family for Thanksgiving; I bought her a stocking for Christmas. She called me often, usually crying, and recounting long and harrowing memories of abuse. I sent her money and bought her supplements. When she graduated out of the system, I offered for her to come live with my family, but she said no. She wanted to be out in the world with her friends, working, going to college, and partying.
Years have passed and we have stayed close, and last week, Lacey had a little baby girl. I took my two youngest children to visit her in the hospital, and tears filled my eyes as I held her baby. It was a profound moment for me; as I looked into this infant’s face, I saw how everything her mother had been given would be passed to her, and I was deeply grateful that I had been a part of what was good in that narrative.
It is incredible to realize the potential of such small gestures—weekly phone calls, trips out, birthday gifts—in the life of someone who is suffering. I try to imagine what these things were between Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight: caring for a broken bone, holding each other while crying, silly jokes, stories to pass the time that was heavy with anticipated torture. Whatever those things were, they amounted to a friendship so meaningful that it was announced as the one good thing to come out of a long dark winter for Michelle Knight.
We mean so much to each other.