The Ariel Castro case: When fiction became reality
Let’s not keep thanking ‘God’ for tiny mercies, ok?
I KEEP thinking about John Fowles’ novel The Collector. I haven’t read it for decades but I have read it several times in the past. It’s about a socially isolated young man who collects butterflies as a hobby; he inherits some money and has the bright idea of collecting a young woman. He buys an isolated rural house and builds a bunker in the basement, then collects the art student he’s been stalking and locks her up in it.
Much of the novel is her prison diary, which gives a rich picture of her inner life, her plans and dreams and her memories of life before the bunker, in contrast to the shallow view of her the kidnapper has. It also gives a blood chilling sense of the agony of confinement and being at the mercy of the sort of person who would do such a thing. After about a year she gets ill, her captor refuses her pleas to summon a doctor, and she dies.
The novel ends with him stalking a new candidate.
It’s a terrific novel in many ways. Just for one thing, it’s a male novelist portraying a young woman as fully dimensional, complicated, thoughtful, and interesting, which is something one still can’t take for granted in male novelists even after some four decades of outspoken feminism.
What I didn’t realize when I read it, though, is that it’s also horribly realistic. At the time I thought it was a kind of horror story made plausible with a wealth of quotidian detail – Hampstead, grocery shopping, that kind of thing. An allegory about dominance and brutality, an exaggeration of female-male conflicts of interest, a thriller like Psycho – but not a realist novel such as Margaret Drabble or Mary McCarthy might have written.
Well now I know better, don’t I?
As I write this, a few of the horrible details are emerging about the Ariel Castro Ohio kidnapping case. Yesterday it was ropes and chains found in the house on Seymour Avenue, Cleveland. Today it’s what Castro is alleged to have done about Michelle Knight’s five pregnancies: he starved her for two weeks and then repeatedly punched her in the stomach until she miscarried.
The three girls/women were allowed to go outside only twice in the ten years (eleven for Knight). Ten years confined to a room in a house, with no prospect of ever getting out, your life in the hands of a man horrible enough to do that.
Amanda Berry was allowed (or forced) to have a baby, a daughter who is now six. (What’s up with that? Making Knight abort but not Berry? Did Castro think Knight wasn’t hot enough to be a brood mare for him? Was it a beauty contest? Personality? Sexual skill?) I’ve been thinking about that daughter – born into a world where there’s only a room in a house, and only four people. It appears that she’s been out a little lately, in the back garden and to the park with her (it chokes me to type it) “father”, but what can her view of the world be? Does she think it’s just normal for women to be captives and men to be free?
And with all this, people are still invoking and thanking God.
All right, I can see that people want to vent their joy about the escape and rescue and reunion; I can see that they want to express gratitude and that “God” is what comes first to mind for most people as the address to which gratitude is sent. But all the same I wish they would think it through – it only takes a second – and remember that if God allowed the escape now then God could have allowed it ten years ago. If God allowed the escape now why didn’t God just abort the kidnapping ten years ago, and spare everyone all that misery?
Gina DeJesus’s father Felix told reporters:
Again, I get what he means and why it was comforting during those ten horrible years, but all the same, I wish people would connect the dots and realize that being grateful to god is indistinguishable from being grateful to Ariel Castro himself. A high and mighty god could just as easily give Ariel Castro the strength to refrain from kidnapping and torturing women as it could give their parents the strength to bear it.
So let’s not keep thanking “God” for tiny mercies, ok? Amanda Berry found the courage to get the front door open a crack and scream her lungs out even though she was terrified that Castro was “testing” them. Charles Ramsey and Angel Cordero found the courage to help her get out and to shelter her and her daughter when she did. The police arrived and found the other two women, who had been too intimidated to follow Berry.
No god had anything to do with it, or if a god did have anything to do with it, it had to do with all of it. Nobody would (I hope) be thanking Ariel Castro if he had simply opened the front door on May 5 and told the four captives they were free. We need to keep these things sorted.
• Freethinker, May 2013