The sentencing of the Cleveland man who abducted and held three women for a decade came to a dramatic end last Thursday as victim Michelle Knight and kidnapper Ariel Castro delivered dueling statements. There are many things to say about the whole affair, but I want to comment on the effect of hearing their conflicting points of view. It struck me as somewhat literary and reminded me of two novels with a similar storyline, John Fowles’ The Collector and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. I talk first about The Collector because its plot is closer to the case of Castro kidnapping Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus. Richardson’s novel, however, ultimately gives us more insight into Castro’s depravity and the women’s heroism.
In The Collector, a young city hall clerk, Frederick Clegg, kidnaps Miranda Grey and holds her in his basement until she finally dies of pneumonia. We see the story first from his point of view, then hers (through a journal that she keeps), and then his again.
The unsettling thing about a subjective point of view is that it can make even a bad character sympathetic. Many were queasy about this aspect of the novel when it was in its infancy. After all, should one identify with a thief and prostitute like Moll Flanders? The first-person point of view in Fowles’ novel initially makes us sympathize with Clegg, despite his crime.
However, the sympathies shift to Miranda when we get her point of view, and this sympathy becomes so fixed that, when Clegg’s voice returns, every word he says in his defense indicts him as a monster.
This is exactly how Thursday’s sentencing went. Knight read an extraordinarily strong statement, one where she talked about what it took to survive and how she will work to reclaim her life. When Castro, in his closing statement, tried to defend himself, his justifications and special pleading could not be seen but through the framework Knight had established. Castro claimed that he was not at fault, that he was sick, that his victims had asked for sex, that he was not a monster, and every word further cemented our revulsion. Here’s are some excerpts his long rambling statement:
–[In regard to his ex-wife] “I was never abusive until I met her. … They’re saying I’m a wife beater, that’s wrong. This happened because I couldn’t get her to quiet down. … She put her hands on me, and that’s how I reacted, by putting my hands on her.”
–”I’m a normal person, I’m just sick. I have an addiction, just like an alcoholic has an addiction. Alcoholics cannot control their addiction.”
–”Most of the sex that went on in the house and probably all of it was consensual. These allegations about being forceful on them, it’s totally wrong. There were times they would ask me for sex.”
–”We had a lot of harmony going on in that home and if you’ve seen the YouTube video of Amanda this weekend, that proves that girl did not go through no torture. … If that was true, do you think she would be out partying already and having fun? … All the victims are happy.”
–”Michelle, since day one, no one missed her. I never saw fliers about her.”
The same shift in sympathies occurs in Clarissa with Robert Lovelace, the aristocratic rake who abducts and controls the heroine. Because the novel is written in letters, we see both Clarissa and Lovelace from their own points of view. For a while, many readers—certainly 18th century readers and I as well the first time I read the novel—want a reconciliation to occur between Clarissa and Lovelace. After all, her family is horrific and he seems to represent the only way out. However, by the end of the novel there is no character in literature that I despise more than Lovelace (which is saying a lot!). For that matter, there are few literary heroines that I admire more than Clarissa. She takes on a wondrous stature in the face of her persecution, and I saw some of that nobility in Michelle Knight reading her statement.
To briefly summarize Richardson’s million-word masterpiece, Clarissa has a hateful family that is willing to sacrifice her to a boorish suitor in order to advance their economic and class interests. She runs away with Lovelace’s aid—she thinks he is selflessly helping her—and then finds herself confined and under his control. After multiple attempts to seduce her, he finally loses patience and drugs and rapes her. In the end she dies and Lovelace is killed in a duel by one of her relatives.
Just as Clarissa is initially taken in by Lovelace’s words, so are we. Our sympathies may also be shaped by the “beauty and the beast” trope, in this case the dissolute rake who (we hope) will be tamed by virtue and become worthy in his turn.
While he was writing his novel, which appeared in installments, Richardson withstood public pressure to take his story in this direction. Instead, he exposed the bottomless narcissism of a sexual predator. It’s hard to pick out an illustrative example from a million-word novel, but here is Lovelace, in a letter to a fellow rake, inventing every rationalization he can the evening before he rapes Clarissa. Note the contradictory mixture of grievance, insult, vanity, grandiosity, and frustration, a rambling melange not unlike what we heard from Ariel Castro:
Methinks I begin to pity the half-apprehensive beauty!–But avaunt, thou unseasonably-intruding pity! Thou hast more than once already well nigh undone me! And, adieu, reflection! Begone, consideration! And commiseration! I dismiss ye all, for at least a week to come!—But remembered her broken word! Her flight, when my fond soul was meditating mercy to her!–Be remembered her treatment of me in her letter on her escape to Hampstead! Her Hampstead virulence! What is it she ought not to expect from an unchained Beelzebub, and a plotting villain?
Be her preference of the single life to me also remembered!–That she despises me!–That she even refuses to be my WIFE!–A proud Lovelace to be denied a wife!
Later on in the letter, he all but says, like Castro, that Clarissa really wants his lovemaking, that her frost is just for appearances—or (contradicting himself) if her resistance is real, that she’ll come around since, after all, she will get him as the reward for having proved herself virtuous. Notice his appeal to public prejudices: she’ll have to accept his marriage offer to preserve her reputation and, besides, other women will think she secretly wanted it. Or as Castro would put it, “There were times they would ask me for sex.” Here’s Lovelace:
Is not this the hour of her trial–and in her, of the trial of the virtue of her whole sex, so long premeditated, so long threatened?–Whether her frost be frost indeed? Whether her virtue be principle? Whether, if once subdued, she will not be always subdued? And will she not want the crown of her glory, the proof of her till now all-surpassing excellence, if I stop short of the ultimate trial? …
Abhorred be force!–be the thoughts of force!–There’s no triumph over the will in force! This I know I have said. But would I not have avoided it, if I could? Have I not tried every other method? And have I any other resource left me? Can she resent the last outrage more than she has resented a fainter effort?–And if her resentments run ever so high, cannot I repair by matrimony?–She will not refuse me, I know, Jack: the haughty beauty will not refuse me, when her pride of being corporally inviolate is brought down; when she can tell no tales, but when, (be her resistance what it will,) even her own sex will suspect a yielding in resistance; and when that modesty, which may fill her bosom with resentment, will lock up her speech.
What Lovelace does not count on is that the rape strengthens Clarissa’s resolve. All illusions ripped from her, she desperately tries to escape and then, when she realizes she can’t, she takes on an internal strength that makes him appear smaller and smaller. For that matter, the rest of her society looks smaller as well as it clings to conventional categories. But it doesn’t matter that, in their eyes, Clarissa is a ruined woman. She is beyond all that, and through her example the book also elevates u,s the readers. Here is Clarissa shortly before she dies (Letter LV, volume 8):
[T]rue bravery of spirit is to be above doing a vile action; and that nothing subjects the human mind to so much meanness, as the consciousness of having done willful wrong to our fellow creatures. How low, how sordid, are the submissions which elaborate baseness compels!
And here is the conclusion of Michelle Knight’s statement, which show her demonstrating similar strength as she confronts her tormentor:
Gina and I were a team. I never let her fall and she never let me fall. My friendship with Gina is the only good thing good to come from this situation. We said we’ll all get out alive some day and we did.
To Ariel Castro: I remember all of the times you came home talking about everyone else that did someone wrong. You acted like you weren’t doing anything wrong. You said, ‘at least I didn’t kill you.’ You took 11 years from my life, but I’ve got my life back!
I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all that happened, but you’re going to face hell for eternity!
From this moment on, I am NOT going to let you define me or affect who I am. I will live on but you will die a little more inside each day as you think of those 11 years and the atrocities you inflicted on us.
I can forgive you but I’ll never forget. With God’s guidance, I’ll prevail and help other victims who may have suffered at the hands of another.
I know there’s a lot of people going through hard times but they need someone to reach out a hand for them to hold and let them know they are being heard.
After a long 11 years, I am being heard and it feels liberating.
Thankfully, Michelle’s speech does not occur on her deathbed. The transition back will be difficult but I think that, because she is prepared to reach out to others, she will prevail.