“Understanding does not cure evil,
but it is a definite help
inasmuch as one can cope with a comprehensible darkness.”
Joy has been interrupted once again. The story about the young women held captive for ten years in Cleveland has been far too present on my mind to write about joy—or anything else. Once details began unfolding, I couldn’t get the story out of my mind. Like when you pick up a rotten tomato that explodes in your hand and no matter how much soap and hot water you use, you can still feel the slime and smell the stench.
We’ve been given just enough details to let our imaginations run wild. What’s more horrifying (and a blessing) is that none of us can possibly imagine what those young women and the little girl suffered. Considering how young the three women were when they were first abducted—and that the six-year-old girl has been in captivity her entire life—it must have felt interminable for all of them.
I cannot fathom the amount of resiliency the women must have had just to survive. Especially with the systematic brutality Ariel Castro used to make them believe that they were powerless to escape. The psychological term is “learned helplessness.” It is the why when victims of abuse “don’t just leave,” even when it appears they could.
There is heroism in the story—Amanda Berry took the chance to scream for help. I wonder if maternal instinct pushed her past the place of fear—to save her daughter. Charles Ramsey has also been called a hero, and I have tremendous respect and gratitude for what he did. But what a terrible thing to live in a culture where a man responding to the frantic screams of a woman is deemed a “hero,” for doing what should be a reflexive action. The combination of fear and “not my business” is lethal.
Also disturbing are testimonies from random people including neighbors, friends, and relatives of Castro who suspected something “was not right,” but never followed all the way through. All our instincts are more powerful than we think. If something feels “wrong,” it usually is.
When I lived in Singapore in the late 1970’s, I became good friends with Betty Snead, a former missionary who ran the Methodist Youth Hostel. She was my mother’s age and, like my mom, Betty had grown up in Georgia. It was comforting to spend time with her.
The hostel was sponsored by the Methodist church, but it was secular. Children of people employed in parts of Asia without school systems could live there and attend the Singapore American School. Raised Methodist, I find it to be the most accepting and non-proselytizing of all faiths. The Methodist churches in Singapore were the same.
But there was a strong fundamentalist evangelical Christian presence in Singapore—an organization called The Navigators—which promoted non-denominational Christianity—and Southern Baptists. Both had youth ministries, and the lines were blurred as to where one began and the other left off.
Through my attendance at a women’s Bible study group, and volunteering in a drug-awareness program, I was asked to help chaperone a Navigator-sponsored youth trip to Chendor, Malaysia in December 1973. That trip changed my life in too many ways to detail here, but I will say I found a passionate “calling” in working with adolescents.
My continued involvement with the kids participating in The Navigators led me to drop in on weekly meetings which were held at the Methodist hostel. During these meetings I met a man the kids called “Uncle Roy.” Uncle Roy was a Southern Baptist preacher and extraordinarily active in youth ministry. He was in his 40’s with a brown Colonel Sanders’s-style beard, a Bible-thumping persona and a smarmy smile.
I had a negative visceral reaction to Uncle Roy the very first time I saw him—a reaction I tried to dismiss as having to do with his evangelical preaching style. Kids were always being invited to “accept Jesus and be saved.” (Kids who had long attended Methodist or Catholic Sunday school—even those who had been confirmed or gone through catechism.) It was the “one and only way” approach to salvation I had always questioned. As a teenager I’d had exactly one bad experience in an evangelistic, fundamentalist church setting and once was enough for me.
Everyone in the Singapore missionary culture seemed to love Uncle Roy, but when I watched him with the kids, my skin crawled. He liked wrapping his arms around the kids, and held the girls on his lap as they fawned over him. I didn’t like how he touched them. I never saw anything overtly inappropriate—it was just how I physically and emotionally reacted. I hated the man and was tormented by decidedly “unchristian” thoughts. And I felt guilty that I was reading something nasty into what others considered innocent and loving.
On Friday and Saturday nights I sometimes joined Betty for dinner then hung around with her while she waited up for all the kids to check back in to the hostel. We sat up and talked, or read, or I kept watch while Betty dozed. One night when we were sitting in her room talking quietly, I took a deep breath and told her how I felt about Uncle Roy. Including how guilty I felt for feeling it. How wrong.
Betty was quiet a moment then said, “Sheila, you’re not wrong.”
She told me that over the years there had been a number of complaints from children, parents, and others in the religious community (including her) of Roy inappropriately touching and fondling children. He had been investigated, confronted, and reprimanded, but had never been made to resign his post and leave Singapore. Betty was visibly upset that night—the only time I ever saw her like that. She, too, was torn and felt powerless to do anything but stay vigilant whenever the kids were on her watch.
When people ask me, as a psychologist, what kind of person could do what Ariel Castro did to those girls in Cleveland, the only diagnosis I can give includes Antisocial Personality Disorder—what is commonly called a “sociopath” or “psychopath.” At the very least, Castro meets the criteria of aggressiveness toward his victims and total lack of remorse shown for his behavior—including rationalizing his actions through blaming these young women for going with him in the first place.
Roy didn’t meet the same criteria as Castro, but using his status in the church to betray and victimize children who adored and trusted him was pathological and abusive. Both men were predators of young girls. Both have left victims who will never be totally free.
Because of my experience with Roy, I have a sense of the control Castro exerted over those around him—the power that led people to suspect something was wrong, but also left them feeling too afraid to do anything. I also know the gut-roiling sensation of intuition being at total odds with what is being presented as truth.
What Castro’s attorneys said on the “Today” show make me want to claw my face.
“The initial portrayal of him is one of a quote ‘monster,’ and that is not the impression that I got,” said Craig Weintraub.
Co-counsel Jaye Schlachet added, “He is a human being, but what is offensive is that the women and the media want to demonize this man before they know the whole story, and I think it’s unfair and not equitable.”
Unfair and not equitable?! I personally believe that “demon” is a much more fitting diagnosis than anything that can be cobbled together from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And if “Evil” was a diagnosis, that is what I would assign to men like Ariel Castro—and Uncle Roy.
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