Cleveland captives likened to prisoners of war. How can they recover?

The brutality alleged by the three women now freed in Cleveland makes their case different from other high-profile kidnappings and escapes, experts say. Overcoming intense fear and hopelessness could be key to their recovery.

David Duprey/AP
A welcome home sign is posted at a restaurant near a crime scene where three women were held captive for a decade in Cleveland, Ohio, Thursday.

As information has trickled out about the conditions endured by three Cleveland women held in captivity for a decade, the picture has become steadily more abhorrent. They were were chained in a basement dungeon for a long period, allowed into daylight only twice in 10 years, and routinely beaten and raped, and one says she was forced into as many as five miscarriages by being punched in the stomach, according to police.

In recent days, the stories of the three women freed Monday have been compared to those of other girls who were abducted and sexually abused for long periods of time, such as Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard. But the brutality alleged by the women makes their case different, experts say.

In that light, the best way to assess the experience of the Cleveland women is not to view them only as victims of captivity and sexual assault, they add, but also as akin to prisoners of war or victims of torture. And that means recovery will probably need to address not only the sexual and mental abuse that they had to endure, but also the fear that can become institutionalized in such a person over a decade of captivity.

“These young women were in absolutely horrific conditions, so it’s hard to know whether the possibility of escape, or taking any control of the situation, was ever real,” says Judith Lipton, co-director of the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who studies family violence and human trafficking. “Their experience is much more like that of a prisoner of war, or a state torture victim – which is much more extreme than, thankfully, most domestic violence cases.”

Ariel Castro was charged with rape and kidnapping Wednesday and is currently being held on $8 million bond. His alleged treatment of the three women, outlined in a police report and other media accounts, included leaving the house and returning abruptly – then punishing them if they had not been obedient. The women were periodically starved, and Mr. Castro is alleged to have forced one of the women, Amanda Berry, to give birth to a daughter, now age 6, in an inflatable swimming pool while another of the women, Michelle Knight, attended to the birth. He allegedly told Ms. Knight he would kill her if the child died.  

Such treatment “serves to ensure that fear remains a very powerful motivator and that the person understands their helplessness very deeply,” says Erin Morgan, an adviser at The Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, Minn. “The women chained in that basement knew every single day they were dependent on this person to keep them alive, and it’s the same person from keeping them from living in a sense.”

The treatment received by Ms. Smart and Ms. Dugard at the hands of their captors was in many ways similar, filled with threats if they did not do what they were told. In 2002, 14-year-old Smart was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom by a delusional religious fanatic and was recovered nine months later. In 1991, 11-year-old Dugard was kidnapped by a convicted sex offender and held in captivity for 18 years, giving birth to two children while living in a squalid backyard compound.

Yet both were in some ways valued by their captors: Smart’s captor saw her as his wife, and Dugard’s captor let her work in his print shop and called her his daughter. The allegations against Castro so far portray no hint of human kindness: The women were literal prisoners.

This has echoes of prisoners of war, says David Reiss, a psychiatrist in San Diego who specializes in working with trauma victims.

In a prisoner of war camp, “there is much more sense of having no control at all, the future being totally uncertain,” he says.

Yet even that situation provides at least the hope that an endgame is possible, which apparently was not the case in Cleveland, with sources suggesting that Knight and Gina DeJesus – the third captive – had become resigned to their fate.

“They didn’t have the institutional setting of a POW camp, they had no idea how long they’d be there. They knew people were searching for them, but once you get past the first few months, how do you maintain hope? The situation is total hopelessness,” Dr. Reiss says.

Overcoming the intensity of this hopelessness will be a key feature in the three women’s recovery, says Ms. Morgan. “Long-lasting trauma can really alter the perception of the world and our place in it.”

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