I meant to write a book review when I was finished with Michelle's story. Instead I ended up with a great deal of heartsick disappointment and rage pouring out of my pen and embodying a scathing social commentary. Here are my thoughts:
There is so much to learn from this tragedy.
First, and maybe most important, we can learn what Violent Risk Assessment analysts tell us (and chastise us for) already: that the number one reason why violence is so prevalent is because average people underreact to warning signs and worrisome behaviors of those who eventually act out violently. And by underreact, what the experts mean is that we essentially do nothing. And they are right. We see things that are hinky, but we excuse these oddities away. Or we’re out-and-out confronted by an incident or behavior, yet we choose not to believe that our brother, cousin, friend, or son could possibly be dangerous or destructive—sometimes denying it to the point where we get so defensive and angry we victim-blame, and re-write the event to paint the victim as the villain. Sound crazy? It is, yet what is even nuttier is when we are not personally connected to the threat-maker / law-breaker in any way and yet we still do nothing and instead offer a haughty, disaffected little shrug. Say asinine things like “Boys will be boys” to what too often (and tragically) turn out to be outrageously obvious precursors to depravity and/or violence.
Why do we do this?
A few reasons. First, and most obvious, we ignore red flags because we are desensitized to violence. I recall once having a conversation with a literary agent who told me that a fiction novel damn sure better have something more compelling than a mere murder because “people don’t care about dead bodies.” He was sadly, and maybe even shockingly, correct. We’re saturated with violence from every vantage point we seek. So much that it has to be over the top before we do much more than blink.
But our indifference wells from a place even more insidious than desensitization. There’s a toughness associated with the unflappable or disaffected and so we seek to adopt that persona ourselves. No one wants to look like Chicken Little, and people are embarrassed to even think they may appear hysterical. So what do they do when they see things that are glaringly disturbing? Well, internally, they are alarmed. It is highly likely that they are even deeply troubled. But externally? Here, they shrug. They write it off. They reframe the incident or incidences into something more mutable and palatable because the fact of the matter is this: they don’t want to be the one who is seen as pushing the ‘panic button’. They don’t want to tattle. There is a responsibility and a label that goes with being the whistle-blower and the grim reality is that we, as a culture, do tend to persecute the reporter more than we hang the perpetrator, and so no one wants to be ‘that guy’. Therefore we shut up, and internally hope, fervently, that both what we are seeing and our instincts are wrong.
Beyond that, and most obviously, we turn a blind eye because we don’t want to believe what our eyes and guts are telling us, and we certainly don’t want to get involved. Violence and depravity are ugly and unnerving and besides—isn’t it more helpful to focus on the positive instead of dwelling on the negative? Isn’t that what all the self-help gurus are saying these days? And they must be right. ’Cause people are generally more good than evil, aren’t they? Well, aren’t they? Please….?
Usually. But not always. ’Cause here’s the other thing we need to learn from this tragedy: monsters are real. Oh, sorry—does that sound too hysterical? Okay. Try this: people can be monstrous. And what’s more, monstrous things know no geographical limitations. Atrocities can happen anywhere—in Michelle’s case, the monstrosity happened right next door to a good man who (hallelujah!) finally said something.
We too need to start saying something. We need to pay attention. When we are confronted with incidents that we have to explain away, here’s a crazy thought: let’s not explain it away. Let’s take it at face value (even though it might hurt) and consider what we really might be dealing with. Also, when something’s off kilter, when your spidey-sense tingles, when your gut makes that queasy pitch….you need to talk about it. You need to tell someone. Your silence could kill someone, and isn’t that a hell of a lot worse than maybe (just maybe) being a Chicken Little? And here’s a prediction: When you do decide to confide in someone, share the things you’ve seen that are hinky? You will be shocked at how relieved the person you disclose to is to also share that they feel the same way (and might even know more pieces to the puzzle than you). From there, don’t stop talking. Tell authorities. Keep telling authorities until somebody listens because, sadly, law enforcement are disaffected too and they fall into the same wells as we do in terms of underreacting.
Yet how many people may still be embracing their lives on this planet if someone had not been afraid of overreacting?
Let me tell you a story: in my community we once had a quasi-homeless woman who would float between here, Edmonton, and Vancouver in an unholy trinity of sex-trade locales. Her timelines for each region were loose, but reasonably predictable….until at one point she just stopped showing up. At all. Months passed. She didn’t surface. People noticed, but, like Michelle’s absence in Finding Me, no one cared that she was gone. I daresay some were even relieved. But then was found dead, a murder that had occurred right under their noses and “How could that be?!” they cried.
Seriously? Why couldn’t it happen here? Why couldn’t it happen anywhere? How, in our quest to look worldly and disaffected, can we instead look only colossally naïve?
And how can we be so heartless? A few paragraphs prior, I made mention of victim-blaming. In Michelle’s recount of her ordeal, victim-blaming was a theme underscoring her entire story. Because of where Michelle came from and what Michelle was, no one looked real hard—or at all—when she vanished. Why? Because her absence and presumed-dead status had to be a result of her own shitty life and choices, hadn’t it?
I need to be careful not to get into rant-overload mode here, but….if there is one things that grinds every one of my gears, it is victim blaming. So let me make this abundantly, crystal, unmistakably clear: when someone is the victim of rape, murder, kidnapping, vandalism, or verbal abuse, and the crime they have endured is NOT the result of another party’s self-defense, then IT DOES NOT FUCKING WELL MATTER where they came from, if they have a home, if they are male, female, gay, straight, trans, or asexual, how they were dressed (or not dressed), what god they worship, what hue their skin might be, what they do for a living OR ANY COMBINATION THEREOF. When someone is violently attacked in any manner, ESPECIALLY when there is a power differential placing the perpetrator at a physical, financial, psychological, or emotional advantage over the victim, then it is never—EVER—the victim’s fault, and we should ALWAYS take the side of the oppressed and not the oppressor.
And we need to be both vocal and vigilant in doing so, and we need to shame those who are not.
We clear there? Victim-blaming casts you in the same lot as the perp. And yes, that includes victim-blaming over the little things too. So please consider that the next time the phrase ‘Boys will be boys’ falls out of your mouth. Know that you are a total asshat for saying such a stupid thing.
Moving on: Michelle’s history and home life (if we can even call it that) was nightmarish. Transient, impoverished, and neglected, she was also sexually abused from the time she was small, the effects of which remain so profound that her voice is stunted at the emotional age she was at when the molestation began (count, for example, how many times she refers to her body, in a way that is simultaneously childlike and dissociative as ‘my little body’). Michelle was, horrifically yet truthfully, ‘the perfect victim’: unloved, unsupervised, unnoticed and then….gone. Presumed dead. Unpursued. Because here is yet one more thing we need to learn, and we need to learn it well: Predators go where vulnerable people are. Perpetrators take full advantage of the aforementioned set of benefits which place them in a position which is psychologically, financially, physically, or emotionally superior to their victim because believe me, they are fully aware of the ‘weak links’ amongst them. As victimizers, that’s their job and they have honed their skills well. So even if we remain determined not to blow the whistle on their behaviors (which in retrospect of any crime are always glaring and many), then we had better start doing a far better job of looking after the most vulnerable among us. That means our homeless and disenfranchised. It means our children. And yes, sadly, it still means our women (and as a woman it pains me to note that, yet it is true; women remain far more likely to be victims of violence than men). Looking after our vulnerable also means we need to start holding those in their midst to a higher standard. Does that mean every coach, teacher, social worker, parent, church leader, and therapist is plotting some sort of secret perversion and violence? Of course not. What it does mean, though, is that perpetrators put themselves in positions of trust over victims—and that we might not like that, but we’d better accept it. And we’d better be prepared to do something about the breaches of trust we see when they happen.
Lastly, we need to learn to communicate with each other. This is direct reference to the admonishment to speak up from above, but it needs to be repeated, and repeated, and repeated until it is so ingrained in our psyche that it is second nature. Stop dismissing outrageousness. Stop thinking that just because you know someone, and because you think they’re a ‘good guy’ or a ‘good kid’ that they could not possibly do something heinous. In other words? Get over yourself. Currently, the community where I live has a group of professionals trying to ratify a Violent Threat Risk Assessment agreement which, in a nutshell, would allow all human services professionals to share information and make a help-plan about and for anyone who is exhibiting what’s known in the field of violence to be ‘worrisome behaviors’. The point of this initiative is twofold: first, and obviously, it is to protect the person or persons at whom any threat or violence is directed. Second, it is to intervene in the life of the threat maker, perhaps dismantle plans of violence and ascertain support and help for that individual.
Shockingly, there are people opposed to this plan. “It is intrusive!” cry some. “It seems like gossiping!” cluck the sanctimonious tongues of others. “It’s all hocus-pocus!” snort of the egos in the crowd, the cowboys who think they alone can swagger in and handle it all without consultation from others (especially meddlesome, pseudo-science head-shrinkers like *me*).
Wonder what Michelle Knight would think of someone shooting down the possibility of a team of professionals sharing information about the worrisome behaviors of one Ariel Castro? Wonder how she’d feel about having 11 years of her life back? Wonder how intact her psyche would be if she’d never been violently tortured and raped, over and over and over? Wonder if she would have cherished every moment she would have had with the beloved little boy she called ‘Huggy-Bear’, the child she never saw again after she was kidnapped and shackled for what would have felt like a lifetime?
I wonder how much every one of us could make a difference if we stopped accepting the outrageous and instead started being accountable for what we see, hear, gloss over, and cover up? I wonder how much violence and depravity we could stop in its tracks if we just got the hell over ourselves and SAID SOMETHING.