My Advice to Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus
It isn’t going to be easy and every day will be a struggle. Maybe not a physical fight to survive but certainly a psychological one. Some days you will do battle just to be happy. From time to time you will even look back and think dying would have been easier. In spite of that, you can do it!
That’s what I want to tell the courageous and heroic Cleveland women, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. They were held hostage for the same length of time I was: 10 years, give or take. While there are major differences between our captivity, there are some similarities.
Like I said in my TEDx talk, “Silence Isn’t Golden—It’s Red,” last month: Three years of molestation led to my pregnancy at age 16. The blame, shame, and guilt I had known since eighth grade dogged my every step so I did the only thing I could: I married “Eddie.” By the time I learned he was doing the same thing to other 13-year-old girls, it was too late—I was his wife. When I left Eddie in 1990, three more children were the result of so many rapes I can’t begin to tally them all.
This is where some major differences come in: Ariel Castro, who apparently wanted Amanda Berry’s unborn child to live, wanted Knight’s unborn children to die. So he starved her and punched her in the stomach until she miscarried—at least five times.
My ex was nothing like that. He was not brutal. He is damaged, yes. He is mean, yes. He is a child molester, yes. But Eddie wanted my pregnancies—because they verified his virility. Even if he doubted it himself, they were proof he was a man.
Nor did Eddie imprison me in chains or hold me hostage in our basement, as Castro did with the three teens he abducted. My chains, though, were equally strong and every bit as effective.
But through it all I had something those teens did not: access to libraries, where I dug and dug until I found answers to my questions. Until I located a magazine article or a book that told me what I needed to know, to prepare me for my escape. To help me know how to survive, once I did get free.
I can only begin to imagine the years and years of work ahead for Berry, Knight and DeJesus to have happy, pain-free lives. The truth is, it won’t be free of pain. There will always be reminders. Sometimes they will come in the form of other victims’ stories, stories like this one. Then you will begin to feel ill—just a general sense of malaise, nothing specific. And you will get a fever blister the size of a nickel—from the stress of reading article after article.
Today I surround myself with reminders of what I’ve accomplished since then. Numerous writing awards hang on my office walls. Signs and pictures and Post-it notes, all remind me where I’ve come from. Who I am. Where I’m going. These positive, external tools give me a boost on an occasional bad day. They are visual cues to keep fighting. To survive, to thrive.
Sometimes they come in the form of an email, like one I received a few weeks ago. “You are saving lives,” was all a reader wrote.
As I told a TEDx audience in April, acting on the red flags around you means you can save someone else’s life. I was referring to the red flags we all need to watch for, to help protect children from sexual abuse. But red flags show up in many situations, especially in ones like this one. Where 10 years of repeated rapes and imprisonment make you long to die. That’s where you need to see the red flags in yourself.
So to Berry, Knight and DeJesus, I want to say this: For now the someone you need to save, day after day, is you.
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My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”