"And there’s another one on my lower back. Look,” says Michelle Knight as she gets up and turns around, lifting her flowery peasant blouse and pushing the waistband of her black leggings down a bit, to show me her tattoo of four blossoms surrounding an evil-looking face. “It’s four flowers for the four girls in the house, and the devil is in the middle!”
This is the voice – light, mirthful, sing-songy even – of a survivor of unspeakable abuse. Knight, in Toronto on a book tour for her memoir, Finding Me, is one of three women who were held captive as sex slaves in Cleveland – a story that horrified the world in May, 2013, when one of the women, Amanda Berry, managed to shout from behind a locked door, alerting a neighbour. Their captor, Ariel Castro, was away from the house. With Berry was her six-year-old daughter, born in captivity as a result of rape. Police then liberated Knight and Gina DeJesus, who were locked in a room upstairs, the windows of which had been boarded up.
Knight was the first to be abducted, lured into the house by a promise to see puppies. The details of her horrific ordeal hurt like body blows just to read them. Strung up on a wire, bound by her feet and hands like a hunted deer. Chained to a pole in the squalor of a basement. Gagged with a dirty sock and duct tape. Silenced under a suffocating motorcycle helmet. Raped repeatedly. Allowed to shower only once in the first year of her captivity. Five times impregnated; five times forced to abort through beatings and starvation.
When police found her, Knight’s jaw was severely damaged from the number of times Castro had punched her, in several cases with a barbell. She had nerve damage in her arms, and a serious bacterial infection in her stomach. She weighed less than 84 pounds. It had been 11 years since she had been abducted. But there had been no candlelight vigils; no tearful pleas from her family. They lived only a few blocks away. Knight was 21 at the time, and they had written her off as a runaway, she says.
“And this one says, ‘Living life ’til death do us part,’” Knight says, holding out her left forearm, tattooed with a design of a butterfly, a rose and a skull. (She almost died while in captivity from an allergic reaction to mustard, which Castro forced her to eat.) It’s her 16th tattoo since she was freed. She had had only one before – of a single butterfly – which a friend did for her at 14. She has plans for many more – of a phoenix, a wolf, some crows, feathers, various sayings, such as “God gave us this chosen life because we can handle it.”
“My body is going to be covered with butterflies of life,” she tells me. “And roses.” She produces a sweet smile. “This is my therapeutic art.” She has also changed her name to Lily Rose Lee (though her book is published under the name Michelle Knight).
Don’t let your survival-story ennui stop you here. We live in an age when confession is expected, celebrated even, no matter the struggle – drugs, divorce, alcohol, abuse. It’s everywhere. And we consume the narratives with voyeuristic curiosity – an addiction in itself, really – needing to up the ante of the struggle to heighten the high of redemption. The darker, the better, all of it packaged for our entertainment, as if we’re spectators in an amphitheatre, enthralled by a reality contest about the limits of human fortitude.
Publishers line up: Knight’s memoir is being launched only one year after her release. The other former captives have theirs coming out at a later date. Dr. Phil makes the call: Knight has appeared on his show, fulfilling the obligatory script in which his compassion is traded for her willingness to retell the horror – an exploitative transaction, masquerading as talk therapy, for an invisible audience of prurient strangers.