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.

Mark Duncan/AP
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.'

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.

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.

Rather than waiting to hear the media stories about permanently diminished lives of those injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, we can help nurture these individuals by seeing them as able to be productive again. Instead of viewing the three Cleveland women as violated and robbed of their formative years, we can uplift them by noting their effort to build a life that recognizes their innocence.

The flip side to this is more demanding. Just as those affected by tragedy are more than the sum of the worst things that happened to them, so, too, are those who instigated these acts.

Ariel Castro, the man accused of kidnapping the three women in Cleveland, speaks tenderly of the little girl he fathered with one of his captives. The young Boston bombing suspects were immigrants trying to fit in. They went to high school in the US. The younger brother had obtained citizenship. But the older brother was a story of dashed dreams when the boxing world barred him from chasing his ambitions because he had not yet been naturalized. At some point he apparently became receptive to destructive distortions of his Muslim faith.

While the journeys of aggressors toward restoration may be very different from the people they harmed, it serves both our individual and collective interest to acknowledge something worthwhile when it may be evident. If wrongdoers are to reform, they must recognize the wrong they have done. Then they must be helped to see that they are worthy of reformation.

That is the essential lesson from successful reconciliation processes elsewhere. South Africa’s truth commission tied full disclosure and remorse to amnesty and forgiveness. In Rwanda and Sierra Leone, villages torn apart by unspeakable atrocities have found healing through traditional forms of dialogue and justice.

It takes great courage and humility for perpetrators of gross human rights violations to face the communities they terrorized, admit their deeds, and ask for forgiveness. It takes even greater courage and humility to reaccept them. But that is how these families and communities have been restored.

When high-profile tragedy breaks on the news, there will always be tension between the public’s right to know and the right to privacy of those affected. There should be. But we as media consumers can do much to elevate both.

These events should rouse us to think more deeply about what really defines us, and to see in each other the more inviolable substance of each person’s humanity.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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