News & Politics

Feelings of Powerlessness Likely Prevented Cleveland Captives from Attempting to Escape Sooner

Previous cases of long-term kidnapping indicate that low-self esteem is at the heart of what keeps victims from resisting captivity.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

As the FBI and Cleveland police try to figure out how three women and a six-year-old girl were kept captive in a house for more than a decade in a dense urban neighborhood, the answers might be found in remarks and anecdotes from other victims of similar horrors.

Elizabeth Smart was a 14-year-old girl who was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June 2002. She was spotted traveling with her kidnappers—a couple—nine months later, in March 2003. Though she did not comment about how she was treated at that time, she has been speaking out recently about how the daily sexual assaults she endured destroyed her self-esteem and left her with no willpower to try to escape.

Speaking at a recent conference on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University, Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after being raped that she could understand why a woman in those circumstances wouldn’t try to escape “because of that alone.” She said that her deeply religious upbringing contributed to her shame and kept her in captivity.

Smart’s experience has echoes of what happened to Elisabeth Fritzl in Austria, who was freed in 2008 after a 24-year ordeal. Fritzl was held captive by her father in a cellar behind a series of locked doors and was sexually assaulted thousands of times, leading to the birth of seven children. Some of the children were kept in the basement prison, while others were raised by Fritzl's father and his wife, who was told the children had been abandoned by Elisabeth after she ran away from home.

The U.K. Guardian’s followup report on the case describes how Elisabeth Fritzl was similarly paralyzed during her captivity and its aftermath by deep shame:

Soon after her release she started to develop an obsession with cleanliness, showering up to 10 times a day. Her children were traumatized in different ways. The cellar children found it hard to relate to their siblings who had led normal lives. What, they asked, was the reason? The upstairs children felt guilty for having been spared.  

Despite newspaper reports that both women have returned to some semblance of a "normal" life—with Smart working publicly against sexual trafficking and violence, and Fritzl living in a heavily guarded home with all of her children—it seems that whatever healing was possible came only after their assailants were held accountable in court and received lifetime prison sentences.

Psychiatrists such as Dr Adelheid Kästner say that Elisabeth’s… most significant catharsis occurred at her father’s trial almost exactly a year ago. The press and public were banned from the court to allow a videotaped recording of Elisabeth giving evidence to be played. Elisabeth crept into the court in person to witness her father's reactions. Then Josef turned round and saw her for the first time since her escape. He broke down and wept. At that moment Elisabeth knew she had won.

In the Cleveland case where three women were held captive for more than a decade, three brothers—Ariel Castro, 52; Pedro Castro, 54; and Onil Castro, 50—have been identified by police as suspects, Deputy Chief Ed Tomba, has told the media. One of the women, Amanda Berry, is being called a “hero” after making a key 911 call.

According to press reports, Berry called the police and pleaded with them to show up “before he gets back,” revealing the depth of her fear and the power her kidnappers had over her. 

But as Elizabeth Smart told the Johns Hopkins audience, she had been so damaged by the sexual assaults and her loss of self-esteem, she did not even think about escaping for years. “Why would it even be worth screaming out?” she said. “Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

Obviously, something happened that gave Berry the strength to seek help.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).