Pain becomes a commodity, sold and bought; fame, the ultimate reward if you survive it. There was a part of me that felt irritated reading Knight’s memoir, the subtitle of which is A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed. Some abuse memoirs – Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger comes to mind – are enlightening in their depiction of the complex emotional relationship between a sexual abuser and his victim.
But Knight’s book, penned with celebrity ghostwriter Michelle Burford, lacks nuance. It is a rape-by-degradation story that simply satisfies our addiction to know the worst. Even though she left out details of the sexual perversions Castro subjected her to, we imagine them. Lots of people probably know them all, anyway, thanks to the Internet. The book is our fix of the confession/redemption drug. There Knight is, smiling on the cover.
But her book and all those talky TV shows have failed her, reducing her complexity to a Coles Notes version of a story that could be titled The House of Horrors. I didn’t know what to expect upon meeting her. “Frail” is what the publicist suggested. But frail she is not. Nor is she celebrating the fame, high on its brief intensity, which I have seen happen to many. She is not using the attention for catharsis, either. Whatever strength she has took root long ago. “I think I was born with spirituality. [But] I didn’t quite grasp it. It is like something that has to come slowly, just like learning to ride a bike.”
At 33, she is a tiny person – only 4-foot-11 – curled up in a chair at a big table in a fancy hotel room, rarely making eye contact from behind thick glasses, speaking with a sort of out-of-body perspective about the terror she endured, an unexpected oracle of love and acceptance and equanimity.
Many people told her not to publish her memoir so quickly. “They said it was too soon. They said people will make me feel bad,” she explains quietly. But she wanted to – “to tell people that they can overcome anything, even if it’s a small thing” – just as she decided to be the only one of the women to personally read her victim-impact statement in front of her tormentor at his trial. (Castro pleaded guilty to more than 900 counts, most of them for kidnapping and rape. One month into his sentencing of life plus 1,000 years, he hanged himself in his cell.)
“I’m going to tell you, just like I tell everybody else: I will always be who I am. I’m still the same old me. Regardless of fame, I still go to thrift shops. I still go to the dollar store. I’m not like everybody else who goes with money, ‘Oh, I’m going to buy a $2,000 dress!’ No. I’m not that type of person. I know where I have been before, and I am not going to go back.” (More than $1-million was raised in a public fund soon after the women’s release. Financial details about Knight’s book deal have not been disclosed.)
She grew up poor, at one point living in the back of her parents’ car with her twin brothers. Sexually abused from a young age, she once ran away from home and lived under a bridge. Even then, she was stubborn, she says. “That came from my mother always telling me what to do, how to act. No. She always tried to tell me that I was dumb, I was stupid.”
She refers to Castro – who had been known to her as the father of a school friend – as “the dude” in the book and in conversation, not wanting to dignify him with his name, and yet she forgives him and shows compassion for him. “His family didn’t understand him. He was drinking heavily. He was screaming out for help, but in a different way. … All he wanted was love. He didn’t get it. He didn’t know what it was.”