Despite the agony they endured, the three women held hostage in Cleveland likely forged bonds—possibly a key factor in their escape, criminal psychologists tell Christine Pelisek.
During their long years in captivity, amid the brutal beatings and rapes, the three women had no choice but to rely on each other.
Michelle Knight acted as midwife when Amanda Berry gave birth to their kidnapper’s child, administering an amateur form of CPR when the baby stopped breathing, according to a police report. This week, when the trio finally escaped their living hell, Gina DeJesus proudly showed off a drawing by the girl, now 6 years old, as if she were a doting aunt.
No one will truly know what kind of relationships the three women formed while they were held hostage for a decade in the home of former school bus driver Ariel Castro. Perhaps they were wary of each other, or too desensitized to connect on any level. More likely, they forged a sort of tragic sisterhood.
“It’s similar to being prisoners of war,” says former FBI hostage negotiator Clint Van Zandt. “You have to make up your mind to survive, and you draw strength from the people around you—you draw strength from their ability to survive. If she can survive, I can survive. They probably drew some strength from each other.”
Dr. Casey Jordan, a criminologist and a professor of justice at Western Connecticut State University, agrees. “There is a lot of comfort in having someone in the same boat,” she says. “Complete isolation will break your spirit. Since they were allowed to have contact, there would be a level of conversation in which they could remember their former selves.”
Jordan, who like Van Zandt is not involved in the current investigation, speculates that any support the women provided for each other may have contributed to Berry’s heroic escape. “It’s relatively rare to break away,” says Jordan, referring to similar kidnapping situations. “The vast majority stay completely in place, and are recovered through different means like discovery.”
“Maybe he had favorites. Why was Amanda allowed to have a baby?”
Berry beat the odds. On Monday, when Castro left to go to McDonald’s, she realized that her captor had forgotten to lock the front door and seized the moment. She was hesitant at first, she later told police, because she thought Castro could be “testing her.” But she slipped through the door anyway, screaming for help when the storm door in front of her was locked.
Van Zandt thinks that Amanda’s maternal instinct may have made the difference. “I think part of it was something concerning her child,” he said. “She had more than herself to think of.” Jordan attributes the escape at least in part to the company of Knight and DeJesus. Companionship of any kind, Jordan says, “was probably why Amanda didn’t get fully inculcated.”
It’s difficult to comprehend the paralyzing fear Berry had to overcome in order to escape—a fear all three of Castro’s victims likely endured. Melvette Sockwell is one of the few people who can relate. When she was 21 years old, Sockwell spent three terrifying days as a hostage of Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell. Sockwell says that her captor, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of 11 women in 2011, locked her in a bedroom on the third floor of a house, bound her wrists and feet, gagged her, raped her repeatedly, and threatened her with a huge knife. “This man told me he was going to kill me,” Sockwell recalled on Thursday.
Sockwell, like Berry, was able to make a break for freedom. When Sowell fell asleep on the third day, she crawled to a window, opened it up with her head, and caught the attention of two elderly women passing by. “I didn’t care if I broke every bone in my body. He would have killed me if he woke up.”
Likewise, Castro kept a close watch on his victims, according to this week’s police report, but allowed them some small freedoms. Initially chained in the basement, the women were eventually allowed to “live upstairs on the second floor.” Still, during their decade with Castro, he allowed them outside only twice—in the backyard. The women “had to wear wigs and sunglasses and keep their heads down."
In the report, Knight also told officers that she became pregnant five times over the years, but that each pregnancy was aborted by Castro. He “starved her for at least two weeks, then he repeatedly punched her in the stomach until she miscarried.”
It’s unclear why Castro allowed Berry’s child, Jocelyn, to survive. The report states that he kept the names of Knight and DeJesus a secret from the girl because he worried that she would divulge them when he took her outside.
“You wonder if he had different treatment for each of the three girls,” says Jordan. “And maybe he had favorites. Why was Amanda allowed to have a baby? Why would he want Amanda’s baby resuscitated and Michelle’s to die? Maybe he got tired of Michelle. We see this with pedophiles when they get older it is no longer a sexual turn on and they want another one.”
When police arrived on Monday, they wandered through the house, checked the basement, and eventually ended up on the second floor. "As we neared the top of the steps, Officer Espada hollered out, 'Cleveland Police,' at which time ..Knight ran and threw herself into [Officer] Espada's arms," the report states. "We then asked if there was anyone else upstairs with her, when [DeJesus] came out of the bedroom. Espada then put Knight down and DeJesus jumped into the officer's arms.”
Van Zandt sees evidence in the passage of a division between Berry and her fellow prisoners. “The other two didn’t run, and there is a reason for that,” said Van Zandt. “They were likely conditioned not to escape. There are psychological chains and restraints that are so much stronger than any steel chain or handcuff. I think they gave up the idea of escape because they had to consider the price they would pay if they didn’t succeed. You do the cost/benefit analysis in a situation like that.”
Castro, 52, was later arrested at a nearby McDonald's, and yesterday Berry and DeJesus, after a short stint in the hospital and after being questioned by the FBI, returned home amid raucous cheers. Knight is reportedly still in the hospital.
Castro, who appeared in a Cleveland municipal court, was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. On Thursday, a prosecutor said he would also seek aggravated murder charges, which could carry the death penalty, stemming from the forced miscarriages Knight suffered at Castro’s hands.