Sunday, September 1, 2013

Don't Look Away

She watches the breaking news about the sentencing of Cleveland rapist, kidnapper, and murderer Ariel Castro. She is completely mesmerized by the rich flow of tears and snot that run from from Michelle Knight's tiny, broken face as she bravely addresses the court in front of the man who tortured, raped and imprisoned her for over a decade. Judge Russo addresses the man in the orange jumpsuit as if he were an ordinary guy, explaining to him wearily that Castro, contrary to what he has said in his own defense, is indeed a violent person. The criminal responds, speaking uninterruptedly for what seems like way too long a time. She wonders how can they let him talk so much. The defendant tries to formulate words, sentences, and paragraphs that will elicit the understanding and compassion of the court, and ends up proving only that he is a sociopathic narcissist.

She hangs on every word transmitted from the Cayahuga County Courthouse today, letting other tasks go unattended. She is hypnotized by the images on the screen because one summer when she was a child, she herself missed being a victim of a man like this. Missed it by a hair.  
She was 10, and riding her mother's old WWII-era blue bicycle around the flat, suburban streets of the rural, mid-western town where her grandparents lived. She had grown up spending vacations there, and she loved spending those six golden weeks each summer in a place where she was free to roam, free to play with the neighbor kids, free to get tanned and transformed by the sweet, dry, western air. It was the freedom that was the best part of those summers; the feeling of safety and limitless freedom.
One day she rode up S. Avenue from her grandparents' house on Buchanan, there in the "Presidential Streets" neighborhood of town. Pump, pump, pump, on she rode the big WWII-era bike, flying along and naming the streets out loud as she passed them: Buchanan, Pierce, Fillmore, Polk, Tyler... All the Presidents in neat historical order. That day, she went past Washington Street North where well-kept yards with brick suburban ranches gave way to dusty, weed-filled lots with low, stricken-looking wood buildings.
The TV commentators say that Castro offered the girls rides home in his car, and they got in because they knew him. He was just another guy from the neighborhood. Before they knew it, they were at his house. Before they knew it, he was pushing them through the back door, through the old house, and to the top of the old wooden stairs that went down to the basement where they saw chains coiled on the floor. Chains.
Just past Adams, the girl saw a sleek black cat crossing the bar ditch into a weedy lot followed by five tiny black kittens. So she dropped the heavy bike in the dust at the shoulder of the road and followed the cats into the car park, which fronted a series of low structures that had once been painted the sick green color normally reserved for the walls of old gas station bathrooms. There was an old aqua and white Oldsmobile parked there. It had fins and pointy red parking lights projecting out from the back like rows of missiles.  
The girl was startled when the driver's side door suddenly swung open.
She listens as the well-groomed TV news anchor recounts how one of the women tried to escape what they are now calling "the house of horrors". As punishment, he chained her to a pole in the basement and made her wear a motorcycle helmet on her head. Castro taped her legs and taped her mouth shut, and other things "too terrible to say on air", says the news anchor. Not too terrible to happen, but too terrible to say on air. You have to wonder, muses the anchorman, how Castro managed to convince the women to accompany him into his house.   
She does not remember what the old man said when he appeared so suddenly, opening the door in such a way that she nearly walked right into it; he must have seen her coming in the rearview mirror. But she did remember that after he swung open the car door, he stuck out his dirty, denim-covered legs so that she was trapped between the door and his legs. He wore "over-hauls" on his big, old man's body, and he had very red, sunburned skin with a dusting of white hairs all over. He was poorly shaved, and gave off a strong odor of stale sweat, cigarettes and beer. He did not smile.
The old man asked her questions. She was afraid that she had been trespassing, so she stood straight and respectful, hands clasped loosely in front as she did in music class. She responded to his questions shyly, looking up to answer and then quickly looking back down at the rubber toes of her sneakers. He asked many, many questions: Where was she from? What was her name? What was her Daddy's name? How old was she? Did her Daddy take care of her good? She itched where the sweat trickled down the back of her turquoise wash n' wear shorts and top, but she didn't dare reach up to scratch. Her mouth had gone dry.
He told her that he lived "all alone" and said other words designed to evoke sympathy. She said, "Oh, I bet you never get a nice home-cooked meal," and she immediately regretted the intimate sound of the words as they left her mouth. He invited her into the low wood structure with the fly-specked screen door that was only feet from where she stood. Are you hungry? he asked. I have some snacks inside. No thank you, she said. Not "no thanks", but "no thank you", still smiling politely and dipping as if to curtsy, awkwardly holding onto the protocol her mother had taught her to use with adults. But a creepy tingle at the base of her brain kept saying "uh oh uh oh uh oh", and it was as if an invisible lasso were being slowly lowered around her as she stood frozen, staring at the rubber toes of her sneakers.
On the TV, the police officers and lawyers around Castro in the courtroom are all men. They avert their eyes from the alleged monster as he speaks, or look in his general direction but somehow just past him with odd grimaces (of anger? shame? discomfort?) on their faces. Castro's lawyers do not look at their client either, but rather at the judge, leaning slightly forward with hunched shoulders. Castro says "I am not a monster, I'm sick," and incongruously raises his handcuffed hands in what seems to be a gesture of prayer. And still all the men look away, look everywhere but at the man in the orange jumpsuit. Look at him, she thinks, look right at him.
The old man asked the girl, what are you doing this summer? She, her sister and the neighbor kids friends were collecting aluminum cans to turn in at the recycling plant for money; the kids were proud of their little business and pursued it vigorously, even though they would come home smelling of stale beer as a result of plunging headfirst into waste baskets at the municipal golf course, and even though their grandparents really didn't like them "canning". But she didn't say all that; she just said in a small voice "collecting cans".  "Tell you what," said the old man in an over-bright voice as if he had just had the best idea ever. "Get into my car and I'll help you look for cans!" He scooted a little further out on the car seat, reaching one big, red arm out on the open door just inches from the girl's thin, sun-kissed shoulder. The hot summer air went completely silent except for the sound of the girl's heartbeat. Uh oh uh oh uh oh, said the prickle at the bottom of her brain, uh oh uh oh uh oh. She started to back away but, suddenly spry, he caught her between the two dirty denim legs that were strong and not at all like the legs of an old man. The legs squeezed just enough to show that they could squeeze harder if they wanted to.
Which is when the old man asked, "Does your Daddy pet you?"
The CNN reporter asked how it could be that three women were held prisoner and tortured for so many years with no one in the perpetrator's family or the neighborhood knowing. Could anyone have done anything to stop this horror? One neighborhood guy tells the reporter that he had known Ariel Castro since junior high school, and he was stumped because he always thought Castro was a nice, outgoing person. "A very nice guy," he says. A very nice guy? What made him a very nice guy in this person's opinion? That he played salsa music on the porch and had barbecues? What did they talk about? Women? Sports? What did this guy see when he looked at Ariel Castro?  
The girl had no idea what the old man meant by "pet". "Yes," she said, unsure of the answer, blushing as she said it because she didn't understand what he was getting at. She was thinking of pets, of her cats back home, of caresses, of kindness which was what she was used to from her Daddy.   "Yes," she said. And that was when the old man reached out and traced his big meaty hand from one small breast to the other one and then down between her thin legs. "I bet he does," said the old man.
The handsome anchor man clears his throat and says that Castro's former wife accused him of breaking her nose (twice), breaking her ribs, knocking out her teeth, cutting her, causing a cerebral hemorrhage, dislocating both shoulders, and threatening to kill her and her daughters. She received an order of protection against him which was later dropped, asserts the anchorman without elaborating further. She can't understand why someone who habitually assaults and injures people doesn't end up in jail. She wonders further why such a person was allowed to become a school bus driver. Why do the police, courts and schools avert their eyes from such crimes? How much damage do you have to do to another person before society has to put you in jail? How many times can you assault people and still qualify as a school bus driver? Is justice really that blind?

The T.V. reporter stands in front of the "house of horrors" and  tells the TV camera that people saw Castro driving his bus around, parking near schools where he would try to "befriend" teenage girls and offer them rides home. In light of recent events, says the reporter, it is suspected that Castro was trawling for a fourth victim. 
The old man touched her there, there and there, where no one had ever touched her. The girl was no longer thinking; somewhere in the most primitive part of her brain an enormously strong survival instinct took over, and her skinny knee flew upward, jamming itself hard into the soft inside of the old man's thigh, making him grab at it instead of her. He howled and she jumped backwards as if she had springs on her feet. The old man clawed at her, shouting, but she was already loose and running, gulping the hot, dry air and running for the road. She lifted up the heavy old bike in one motion, fumbling for the peddles, pushing hard to get going. She heard the gravel crunching behind her, but she didn't look back. Pump pump pump. She rode like the wind.
The Cleveland School District fired Castro for unprofessional behavior, but it did not investigate his strange activities further. She thinks how amazing it is that no one ever thought that that the bus driver might be a pedophile, that no one thought, here's a guy with opportunity. Maybe he knows what happened to little Gina? I mean, how amazing is it that he could he be in plain sight hunting for a new victim and yet remain completely invisible to a community whose girls had been disappearing?
Her mother took the girl to the town police precinct where they both sat in big old wooden chairs that smelled of rancid furniture oil. A very young policeman sitting behind a big old wooden desk asked the girl questions that he seemed to be reading from a script. He asked his questions in a neutral voice, one by one, without looking at her when she answered. The mother's face was taut and distracted during the interview; she appeared to be studying the wanted posters on the precinct wall, or checking the time on the big gun-metal gray wall clock. Looking at her mother's expression, the girl wondered if she were in trouble. She tried hard to answer each one of the policeman's questions correctly.  In between questions, the big clock on the wall went tic-tic-tic, the second hand bouncing lightly just past the second and then back with each tic.  Tic-tic-tic. The policeman asked the girl about location, time, and the appearance "of the suspect". Then, studying his paper as if he might burn holes in it with his eyes, he asked her, "Did the man have sexual contact with you?"
She listens closely to Castro's neighbor Daniel Marti as he talks to the reporter. "It was happening right in front of our face, and we didn't even know," he says. Family came over sometimes, but Castro made them use the back door; when they asked to go upstairs, he would make excuses saying the house was too messy; then there was the abandoned bus, the child left trapped (trapped!) inside, and the troubles at work. Castro walked home regularly with huge bags of McDonald's take-out, states the reporter standing in front of the "house of horrors". Heck, we had barbecues on his front porch, says Charles Ramsay, the neighbor who finally freed Amanda when her heard her screaming behind the storm door. "My neighbor," says Ramsay referring to Castro, "you got some big testicles to pull this off, bro."
"Did the man have sexual contact with you?" repeated the young officer, still examining his paper. Her mother continued to study the wall. The world went completely silent and breathless; even the clock stopped ticking.
"No," said the girl. 
The clock started ticking again, and everyone breathed out and smiled. The girl's mother looked at her, smiling. The policeman, made a swift check on his piece of paper and looked up with a bright grin. "Okay", he said briskly, "I guess that's all I have!" That's how the girl knew that she was right to say "no", because everyone looked happier.
But everything was not alright. Because the truth was that the girl had been sexually molested by an old pedophile who had probably molested other kids before, and would probably go on to molest more. The truth was that a dangerous man had tried to do something terrible to her. And she grew up with the secret of that awful event lodged in her brain like a worm; she learned to say that she was okay when she wasn't, and from that one event she learned to associate sexual feelings with fear and powerlessness. She wondered for years what would have happened to her if the old man had caught her and pulled her into that old car. But she was a lucky, lucky girl. Because she got away.
Michelle, Amanda, and Gina were not lucky girls, she thinks now as she watches the breaking news on CNN. While Ariel Castro gives his speech to the judge, the other men in the room cast their eyes down or look at a point in space somewhere just past him. Only tiny little Michelle has her eyes focused forward, her determined, broken little face shining with the triumph of a victor, snot and tears cascading off her nose. Castro looks straight at his first victim. Why does the judge let him look at her like that? Why don't the other men in the room at least raise their eyes to stare him down, to challenge him? Why, she wonders. Why does everybody look away?

She sits there for a long time staring at the TV screen. She wants to turn it off and go do something else but she has to keep watching. She has to hear every last awful detail. She will not avert her eyes from this. Because she knows better than anyone that it's when you look away that bad things happen.

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