"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.
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.”
During her captivity, she wrote in a journal and drew pictures, focusing on “the brighter side.” She willed herself to live for her young son, Joey, who had been removed from her custody when her mother’s boyfriend broke the toddler’s leg, she writes in the book. She was trying to get to a child-services appointment when she was abducted.
Since her release, she has been in touch with Joey’s adoptive parents, but has not seen her son, now 14, who doesn’t know her story. That heart-wrenching disappointment she handles with more understanding. “I think about how I would feel if I were in his situation. I wouldn’t want him to be ripped away from the people he knows. I wouldn’t want to hurt him in any way. ”
And then this, when asked how she could believe in God after she had endured such cruelty. “Everything in life is not what it seems to be. And eventually, just like now, you get exactly what you want. And just like all things, they can be taken away.”
Really? She finds comfort in that? “Everything in life doesn’t always stay the same,” she continues with eerie composure. “You move on. There is a point in time when you go through pain. You suffer. But you’re going to overcome it. And you’re going to be different. And that doesn’t mean you have to let the money, the fame, love, abuse, define who you are.”
Estranged from her family, she is living in her own apartment in Cleveland, where she has many friends, old and new, she says. She has also taken up boxing, hopes to release a song, and is enrolled in cooking school.
Despite her recovery – she had nightmares at first, which have since subsided – there are some things she cannot do because they remind her of Castro.
No paper napkins: He would throw them at her, to clean herself up after his sexual abuse. “And more than likely, he rammed them down my throat,” she explains coolly.
Nothing with chains on them, not even decorative ones on shoes or purses.
“No mirrors,” she says. Why? “Because he had them all over his house.” A pause. “To watch.”
No McDonald’s food ever again. He would feed her rancid leftovers from the fast-food chain.
I ask her if there are things she has treated herself to. “I got my first blanket,” she says with a little laugh. Castro never gave her sheets or blankets, and for months removed all her clothing so she was freezing in the unheated house. “I took it recently to a friend’s house, and she said, ‘You don’t need that!’ And I was, ‘No, it’s my first blanket. I have to take it everywhere.’”
In the book, she writes that she was treated more cruelly than the other women. I tell her that I sometimes think weak people have more hatred for those who are strong. She looks at me, unsmiling, her blue eyes clear and direct. “Yes,” she says in a slow, calm voice. “He was the type of person who wanted to break everyone in the house. And I was considered unbreakable.”
We look at each other, quiet for a moment. I take her hand to say goodbye. It is tiny, and fragile as the palm of a spring leaf, and she looks up at me, expressionless.
Her resiliency, I realize, is significant not because of what it shows us about human strength to overcome hardship. Rather, because it shows us what we should be focusing on in the first place. Many of us allow things to define us – status, our spouse, where our children go to school, a job, wealth, address, ancestry. That’s how we live. And yet they’re all ultimately meaningless and limiting.
“Our life is a painted canvas, painted by everything you do,” Knight told me at one point. “Make it a beautiful one. Don’t make it ugly. There’s no time for that.” I asked how she feels on a daily basis. “I’m just sitting here, looking at the world in a different light, and I see all the beauty that I missed.”