Ohio kidnapping victims may have shut down mentally

By Fabienne Faur

Deborah Knight, center, grandmother of Michelle Knight, drives her wheelchair past the home of Gina DeJesus in Cleveland. Photo / AP
Deborah Knight, center, grandmother of Michelle Knight, drives her wheelchair past the home of Gina DeJesus in Cleveland. Photo / AP

To survive a 10-year ordeal of beatings and rapes at the hands of the Ohio kidnapper, his three victims may have shut down mentally on a form of "auto-pilot'' to dull the trauma, psychologists say.

The three women were kidnapped in separate incidents around 10 years ago in the US city of Cleveland, and were only released on Monday after spending years trapped in a house prosecutors have dubbed a "private torture chamber.''

Police have reported that the women are in surprisingly good physical condition after their ordeal, but that they need peace and privacy while they cope with the psychological torment inflicted on them.

Steven Gold of Nova Southeastern University's Center for Psychological Studies, said that in many cases victims of this kind of abuse survive by "shutting down emotionally and often even on a sensory level.''

"In these types of extreme and long-term conditions, people commonly survive by dissociating, that is, by disconnecting to a great extent from their immediate surroundings and from their own experience,'' he said.

"This is largely an automatic process rather than an intentional one, a reflexive survival mechanism.''

With the women now free thanks to a chance escape, grim details have begun filtering out about the rapes, beatings, forced miscarriages and periods of starvation that they endured at the house on Seymour Avenue.

"When a dire situation goes on for long periods of time, living on automatic pilot and being relatively oblivious to emotional and physical discomfort is not just a momentarily triggered response,'' Gold said.

"It becomes a constant state and a way of life.''

Ariel Castro, 52, was arrested on Monday after 27-year-old Amanda Berry called out to a neighbour who then kicked in the door to the suspect's home to rescue her and the daughter - now six - she bore during her captivity.

Police arrived on the scene and entered the house, finding two more women, 23-year-old Gina DeJesus and 32-year-old Michelle Knight.

Castro has been charged with kidnapping and raping the women. He was ordered held on an $8 million bond and prosecutors say they plan to charge him with the aggravated murder of unborn babies the women lost during beatings.

The former captives have not spoken publicly about their experiences, and will need counselling, but experts said there is hope that they could recover.

"The human mind is just incredibly adaptive and resilient,'' said Elaine Ducharme, a licenced psychologist in Connecticut. "We are really trained, our basic instincts is for survival.''

Without commenting directly on the Cleveland case, the psychologist noted that each person reacts differently to the same trauma.

This could explain why DeJesus and Knight initially stayed inside the house, perhaps worried that Castro would return, while Berry and her daughter made a run for it.

Ducharme noted that once the hope of escape fades, captives can become deeply spiritual in their search for meaning.

They may reassign their hope onto certain sounds they may hear during the day - such as bird songs, television or the radio - or routines, such as daily meals or sunrises.

Michael Mantell, who was the chief psychologist for San Diego police in California, said the women likely had to "change their thinking from 'this is awful and horrible' to 'this is, sadly, bearable' to help them cope.''

"They have had to redefine life by placing their wellbeing into the hands of their psychiatrically ill captors,'' he added.

This so-called "Stockholm Syndrome,'' in which captives develop positive feelings toward and even form a bond with their captors in a time of trauma, may have come into play at the house, he speculated.

"People form some type of dysfunctional, confused, attachment to their abductors, as a way of staying alive,'' Mantell added.

As for resuming life as normal, he warned that this would "be a long and sensitive journey for them all, complicated by a wide range of emotions that their families will need help in dealing with.''

Although the families may be eager to think that all is fine, the path to recovery will be long and fraught with obstacles.

"These people, the adults and children, are fragile, broken and will no doubt move along the continuum of wellness with lapses that need to be gently and carefully handled,'' Mantell said.

"They will have to relearn how to communicate with others in healthy ways, free of the burden of not knowing if they would live or be killed.''

Ducharme insisted that despite the immense public interest and fascination in the case, the women will need privacy for some time as they gather up the pieces of their once shattered lives.

"It's going to be important for these women to know that it wasn't their fault,'' the psychologist said.

"They may feel so guilty that they should have figured out how to escape, or they shouldn't have walked out of school that day.''

But she was confident that with time, therapy and the love and support of their loved ones, the women could learn to trust again and find some peace.


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