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.