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Opinion

Give the kidnapped Cleveland women their privacy – and identity

Many have asked that the women who were held hostage in Cleveland be given privacy to heal. But compassion should involve more than suspending our curiosity. How we actually define people emerging from traumatic experiences can support their healing and the public’s.

By Kurt Shillinger / May 20, 2013

A Cleveland police patrol car sits in front of the boarded up home of Ariel Castro in Cleveland May 14. Three women were rescued from the house after a decade in captivity. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'There’s something unresolvable – and indeed unjust – about continuing to identify an individual as wronged, harmed, threatened, or less than whole.'

Mark Duncan/AP

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From Cleveland, to Boston, to Newtown, Americans have been sadly and repeatedly forced to grapple with acts of incomprehensible violence and cruelty. One response is to ask probing questions in order to prevent more such tragedies – questions that can also uncover the resilience of the human spirit. This kind of searching helps society heal.

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But boring in on such tragedies can also have a negative effect – on those directly involved. Many thoughtful people – including family members – have called on the public to grant privacy to the three Cleveland women who broke free from a decade of horrific captivity so they can rebuild their lives.

“We, the public, have to have a sense of leaving them alone, but also rooting for them,” said Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, in a PBS Newshour interview May 9, speaking about the Cleveland case. “We don’t want to over-interview them. We don’t want them to define their lives as those women who were captured for that period of time.”

In the digital age of Facebook, Twitter, cell phone cameras, and a competitive, sensationalist news media, calling on the public to respect a person’s privacy seems oddly virtuous. One wonders whether both the media and their consumers have the self-restraint to resist the lure of voyeuristic reporting on victims that is often dressed up as empathy.

Even if, as a society, we can reject such prying, compassion should involve more than suspending our curiosity. How we actually define people emerging from traumatic experiences can both support their healing and the public’s, too.

Over the past 25 years, more than a dozen countries emerging from violent conflict have established truth commissions to facilitate individual and societal reconciliation and healing. In South Africa, people who were directly affected by human rights violations under white rule could register with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as victims. That designation entitled them to modest monetary compensation.

But then what? For many, the commission process wasn’t restorative enough. In the years that followed, the terminology changed. “Victims” became “survivors” as support groups looked for new ways to help people recover from the past.

We have much the same conversation in the United States. We talk about “victims” and “survivors” of violent acts, destructive storms, and disease. Accentuating the positive surely helps, but there’s something unresolvable – and indeed unjust – about continuing to identify an individual as wronged, harmed, threatened, or less than whole.

Dr. Ochberg, of Michigan State University, noted that the three kidnapped women in Cleveland had been deprived of mothering during their long captivity. He says they’ll need a maternal presence, which of course means unconditional love. There’s a lot to that observation. We might even see it as a challenge to rethink how we identify each other.

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