What Cleveland tells us about the cycle of abuse

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Homecomings for freed Cleveland kidnap victims

Two newly freed Cleveland women had family homecomings after a decade of captivity in a house where police said chains and ropes had been used to hold them prisoner.

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It's been just over a week since three women in Cleveland, Ohio, secured their escape after a decade in captivity, and details of the situation are still emerging. The little that we do know is chilling.

Within a two-year period, Amanda Berry (now 27), Gina DeJesus (now 23) and Michelle Knight (now 32) were abducted by Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver. The women were initially held in a makeshift dungeon in Castro's basement, and then later allowed to live on the second floor of his house. In addition to the sexual torture inflicted upon them, the women were physically beaten; Michelle Knight, the first of the victims to be kidnapped, endured at least five miscarriages brought about by either physical abuse or deliberate malnutrition. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a sexual sadist, Castro appeared to enjoy tormenting the three women psychologically, in some instances tricking them into trying to escape so that he could punish them. In one of the more twisted details to emerge, it was revealed he served them "abduction day" cakes to celebrate the anniversaries of their kidnappings. The trio might have remained hidden had Charles Ramsey not intervened to help secure Berry's release and thus the liberation of the two other women.

There's no doubt that the facts of the case are horrific, both those known and those yet to be revealed to the authorities required to know them. (Despite our general fascination with salacious details, even those we find emotionally difficult to bear, this is not our story; the women involved are at last able to shield themselves from invasion, and that includes protecting themselves if they so choose from the world knowing to what depths the humiliation was that they suffered.)

The house that was a prison: Ariel Castro allegedly held three women captive in his Cleveland home.

The house that was a prison: Ariel Castro allegedly held three women captive in his Cleveland home. Photo: Getty Images

But should we be surprised that a man such as Castro could conduct a decade-long exercise in brutality? Prior to kidnapping Knight, Berry and DeJesus, he executed a similar campaign of violence against his wife, Grimilda Figueroa. Among other things, Figueroa (who died last year from complications following a brain tumour) was frequently locked inside her home by Castro, confined to a wooden box as punishment, endured the dislocation of both her shoulders and fractured her skull after being thrown down the stairs. Although it hasn't been reported, one could reasonably deduce from Castro's later actions that sexual violence formed part of the equation. She finally fled Castro in 1996, but continued to be harassed and threatened by him for the following decade – well into the incarceration of his three young victims. Over the years, Figueroa attempted to prosecute Castro but was often coerced by him into dropping the charges - an all too frequent circumstance for victims of family or intimate partner violence, much of which features the same kind of years long torment discovered last week in that nondescript house on Seymour Street.


And here's the uncomfortable reality about the case in Cleveland. While seemingly anomalous in its specificities, it isn't so far removed from similar instances of abuse whose binding chains aren't found in dungeons but in psychological prisons. The violence expressed towards Knight, Berry and DeJesus (and to Jaycee Duggard, Elizabeth Smart, Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch before them) doesn't emerge from a dark and distant wasteland. It's extreme, yes, but it occurs on the same continuum as that of all violence against women.

Its driving force isn't sex, but power and control.

Neighbour Charles Ramsey: "I heard screaming."

Neighbour Charles Ramsey: "I heard screaming." Photo: AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, Scott

In the realm of abuse all too often considered "a private matter", Castro was a known offender. While it's difficult for law enforcement to prosecute incidents of family violence when its victims mysteriously forget its occurrence (often through fear of retribution or death), it shouldn't be impossible. Castro and Figueroa lived in a predominantly Latino community, and prejudices involving racial profiling and economics were no doubt a factor. If you increase the marginalisation of a group of people (which has a greater effect on the women in that community), you generally decrease the level of interest the state takes in protecting them. It's why the homicides or disappearances of white women are overwhelmingly prioritised over those of non-white women.

There's no doubt that if the judicial system was weighted in the favour of marginalised women at risk like Figueroa, the kidnapping torment of Knight, Berry and DeJesus may have been prevented. As a community, if we took more of a zero tolerance approach to domestic and family violence, we might manage to help save the lives of significant numbers of people.

We might even manage to save the lives of perpetrators. 

Charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape: Ariel Castro appears in Cleveland Municipal court.

Charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape: Ariel Castro appears in Cleveland Municipal court. Photo: AP

Because like Castro, Charles Ramsey (the local who intervened when he found a desperate Berry begging for help) has a history of abuse, with three convictions and a penal sentence for domestic violence.

He admits himself that he "used to be a piece of shit". But what he also is is evidence that redemption is not impossible – that people can change when they are supported to, and that the cycle of violence can end. As DeJesus' mother said of Ramsey, “It was awesome what he did. Because he could have turned his back and he chose not to. He chose to help her.”

Eradicating violence against women, from the more ‘minor’ incidents of sexual harassment to the less common end of abductions and ritually inflicted torture, is not the job of individuals but of our entire community. A recent report released by VicHealth  emphasises the need for ‘bystanders to play a more significant role in preventing violence against women’. Whether it’s confronting casual sexism or reporting incidents of violence or assault, everyone can play a part in combating the violence inflicted on women in all of its degrees. From a more practical point of view, our judicial system needs to figure out a more effective way to deal with perpetrators. If the (rarely applied) penal sentences aren’t working, what’s being done with rehabilitation programs? Why are we discovering evidence that the victims of intimate partner homicides - particularly when they’re Aboriginal, like Andrea Pickett - are being failed by police and community services? Why did state governments in Australia drag their feet for so long in creating Domestic Violence Death Review Panels to assess the risk factors for the roughly 55 per cent of female homicide victims murdered by an intimate partner, of whom Indigenous women are overwhelmingly represented

These are just some of the questions everyone needs to be asking themselves - not how it is a man could kidnap three women and hold them hostage for a decade, as if we don’t live in a society that routinely turns its head away when confronted with the reality of ritualised violence against women. 

What happened in Cleveland is horrifying, yes. It's incomprehensible. To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can't unsee. But we should resist the temptation to consider it different somehow to the violence expressed on a daily basis in homes on similar suburban streets occupied by similarly "normal" people, domestic matters in which we imagine we have no obligation to get involved. Three girls don't get kidnapped and held as sex slaves in a populated suburban area without a number of previous contributing factors making that possible. The extreme end point of any equation cannot be arrived at without a lot of individual numbers adding up.

24 comments so far

  • Spot on, Clementine. Cleveland is really just the ultimate end point of power, control and a sense of entitlement claimed by abusers.

    Date and time
    May 14, 2013, 9:38AM
    • Clem, not sure if it was your writing or if there has been a web dev's slip up but you are repetitive in two consecutive paragraphs.

      "Because like Castro, Charles Ramsey (the local who intervened when he found a desperate Berry begging for help) has a history of abuse, with three convictions and a penal sentence for domestic violence.

      Like Castro, Ramsey has a history of abuse, with three convictions and a penal sentence for domestic violence. "

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 9:49AM
      • Fixed now! Thanks!

        Daily Life
        Date and time
        May 14, 2013, 10:21AM
    • I applaud clementine ford for her article on the Cleveland atrocities. I have worked as a counsellor for many years in the domestic violence field and yes this case is extreme, however the tactics of abuse that allowed this perpetrator to do what he did occur day in day out in many homes across Australia. They are expert at creating an image that has people question the unlikelihood of them being a perpetrator.
      Society wants to believe abuse is not true , it is more palatable to believe it has to be something about " those" women because then it can't be us. In my experience domestic violence transcends all parts of our society from those with money to those without, to those unemployed to those working as professionals . It is not just that we don't want to get involved it it is that we do not want to believe what is possible : what this man could be doing to this woman. Male privilege and entitlement is still alive and well.
      Next time you hear of a case of sexual abuse or domestic violence instead of questioning the integrity of the victim think about what tactics of abuse are at play that has you doubt the victim ?

      South australia
      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 10:17AM
      • Thanks, Suzanne - I've been counselling for close on 30 years now, and I heartily concur with all you've said.
        And thank you Clem - the best article on this issue I've read, and one of the best articles of yours I've ever read.

        Date and time
        May 14, 2013, 1:38PM
      • This article and yourself are trying to draw stretched links between the violence in general in Australia and horrific treatment of these three women. By social grandstanding you are trying to get people to do something about an issue (however important it is) based on something that has no relevance to the event. Lets face it no matter what any of us do in our day to day lives in our local area's in Australia has no bearing on what is going to happen in a society that we do not influence. They gave different values, racial stereotypes, judicial system, counselling system and outreach programs.

        Date and time
        May 14, 2013, 4:41PM
      • @trigga- what the article is saying is the Cleveland case is the sharp end of a long and pointy violence against women stick that can be directed at the Australian situation. There are no sketched links about general violence in Australia: many relevant comparisons are made, especially to the Aboriginal experience. Ford is not merely jotting down notes about violence in general re: drunks getting hit by bouncers, people yelling at each other in miscellaneous situations, but drawing direct correlations between exposed domestic violence extremes (such as the Cleveland case) and under-reported, under-punished cases here at home. I'd advise a re-read and a less cynical attitude. Her point is clear and what we should take from it is a valuable and thought provoking message.

        Date and time
        May 16, 2013, 11:19PM
    • A movie with James Belushi called
      "who killed Atlantas children" is a clue to whats really going on in the nation with all the mass killings, the violence,the family abuse and the thousands of children that go missing in the USA everydayIts root is far deeper than most would want to dig.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 11:44AM
      • I agree. Most pedos snatch, abuse & then dispose.

        This particular abuser couldn't let go which is why he ultimately got caught,

        The mero you dig, the more you discover how horrible the world really is.

        Date and time
        May 14, 2013, 4:37PM
    • I don't view this incident as domestic violence per se, as the children were abducted first, and then the abuse occurred in a house that was not their home.
      Having said that, the incident is horrific and I feel for them and their families and the violence and torment all went through, and hope that not just counsellor but friends family and the community in general are supportive and do not stigmatise them, their families, or the children, as has happened in other circumstances.
      But partly fixing this problem must surely be about fixing more elements of American society and not ours, and their attitudes to violence, both by and toward both genders, gun control, equality of gender,race,religion,social strata etc.
      I also feel that we mustn't view violence as a gender issue - concern about reducing violence against women should be part of the equation. Compass as clearly shown that violence by women, and against both men and women is there, and violence on the sporting field should be viewed no differently than that on the street or in the home, as surely acceptance of public violence can lead to a tacit approval of private ie domestic violence?

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 12:02PM

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