The Abduction Spectacle: Cleveland, Monsters and Heroes

Jun 6, 2013 - by Binoy Kampmark - 1 Comment

Ariel Castro

Update: Ariel Castro was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years by Judge Michael Russo on August 1, 2013. To avoid facing the death penaly, Castro pled guilty to 937 counts, including murder and kidnapping. On September 3, 2013, Castro was found dead in his cell, hanging from a sheet. Attempts to revive him failed. Franklin County Coroner Jan Gorniak said that an autopsy had determined the death a suicide. His body was discovered about 9:20 p.m. in his cell at the Correctional Reception Center in Orient, Ohio, near Columbus. He was being held there temporarily in protective custody, but was not placed on suicide watch.

The field of abduction provides a fascinating if complex area of study.  The individual who seeks to kidnap and then enslave the subject in question is treated as a creature lacking human traits.  It is not merely anti-human but non-human, a figure of fantasy, who conceals his quarry.  With frequency, the term “monster” is used.  It took a matter of hours for the term “monster” to be employed in the context of Ariel Castro.

by Binoy Kampmark

Absentees occupy a distinct part of human consciousness.  They are suspended, either alive or dead, often both.  They might appear at any given moment, or they might never do so.  There is contingency about their existence, qualified, uncertain, and tortured.  

For three missing women in Cleveland – Amanda Berry, 27; Georgina ‘Gina’ DeJesus, 23; and Michelle Knight, 32 – not to mention a 6-year-old daughter born to Berry – hope had been suspended.  They were never struck off the “missing list” – faith prevailed that they were still alive.

The fact that they went missing has its troubling psychic effects on communities.  Reporting a person as missing triggers emotions of guilt – were people being too complacent about their disappearance?  Did the individual in question who went into the darkness do so because of some predilection?  The emotional currency associated with such reportage is of a different order. In some, more gruesome way, the report of a corpse is far more reassuring than the report of a person who is both living and dead.  Such people occupy an eternal purgatory in human consciousness.

For that reason, the range of reactions to Cleveland’s abductees may not be that surprising.  It is not merely that people go missing. Environment is everything.  The wide spaces of Australia offer a seemingly eternal space that takes, consumes and colludes in vanishings.  A person goes missing there every 15 minutes.  In the United States, the number is remarkable – 2,300 people go missing every day.  What is troubling about the figures is that many of these disappearances take place in heavily populated centers. 

Arial Castro's house

The concentrated, densely populated environment of Cleveland is surely never going to facilitate disappearances.  For that reason, complicity in the vanishing of the three women as a suggestion is increased. Guilt follows.  In the Cleveland case, “they were the girls next door.”  Neighbors would have noticed.  People would surely observe irregularities.  They would also note variations in behaviour.  Three abductees would be obvious, even concealed from the world. 

It transpired that suspect Ariel Castro had allegedly abducted and held the three women in captivity in a Cleveland house, beginning in 2002.  As the accounts were released by the prosecutors, it became clear that Castro was going to come in for a considerable, pre-adjudicatory pasting.  This case is fast becoming part of the cult of criminal celebrity, with a narrative of institutional vengeance (we can’t let this sort of thing happen) to the commercialization of rescue. The requirements for this drama: a cold-blooded villain, flawless victims, and saintly rescuers. 

Psychological Portraits

It did not take long for the media machine to spin a narrative of psychological disturbance.  “What kind of monster does this?”[1]  The first part of the drama rapidly developed a momentum of its own.  Police authorities soon released information that they had found “chains and ropes in the home,” with one victim chained to the wall “like some kind of trophy”.[2]  Ariel Castro has already assumed his role in the abduction imaginary, one who initiated, in the words of Jezebel’s Laura Beck, a series of horrors on his victims (May 8).  He allegedly (a word infrequently used in various reports on the subject) “impregnated Michelle Knight five times during her 11 years in captivity. He starved her.  He punched her in the stomach till she miscarried (The Week, May 9).

Prosecutor Timothy McGinty of Cuyahoga County, Ohio was clear about the sheer gravity of what he was pressing on Castro, seeking charges “for each and every act of sexual violence, each day of kidnapping, all his attempted murders and each act of aggravated murder”. 

The tagged offenses of murder and aggravated murder demonstrate the murkiness at stake here – making an individual in control to account over the bodies of others. It was not merely the abduction and the sexual assault.  It was the sheer totality of power wielded over the victims.  McGinty, perhaps unwittingly, was admitting to the sheer tyranny supposedly present in what has now been termed “the haunted house,” a sense of Gothic nightmare in suburbia.  And he is keen that Castro be erased, as authorities are evaluating “whether we will seek charges eligible for the death penalty.”[3]

By way of contrast, the rescued women were nudged ever so closely towards a trope of female virtue wronged by boundless evil.  Excessive brutality was highlighted against highly pronounced innocence.  Such virtue becomes a platform for public celebration.  According to Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, “We, the public, have to have a sense of leaving them alone, but also rooting for them” (Christian Science Monitor, May 20). But such virtue also becomes a mirror. For Kurt Schillinger writing in the Christian Science Monitor (May 20), “How we actually define people emerging from traumatic experiences can both support their healing and the public’s, too.” That the public should be “healed” is an interesting turn of phrase, posing it as a moral entity prone to illness, horror and, even collusion.

Collectivised Guilt

Spectators and viewers tend to individualize their relationship with those involved in a crime, actual or alleged.  Various points of identification are found and made.  The vulnerability of the victims, the power of the victimiser, and the role played by the rescuer are fundamental in this web of meaning. Those who know the suspect are also entangled, an implied sense of guilt that they should have done something to prevent the crime from taking place. 

The Cleveland case has shown a few interpretative strategies in action.  Responsibility, on the one hand, has been isolated. Ascribing responsibility after all, as one of Julian Barnes’ characters remarks in The Sense of an Ending, is something of a “cop out,” and “exoneration.”  This has, predictably, come from relatives of the suspect keen to diminish suggestions of solidarity.  The almost aggressive insistence on that exoneration, however, has been notably shrill.

Castro’s daughter Arlene rapidly moved into a defensive mode, aware that slip-ups were being noted by journalists who swarmed into Cleveland like hornets in the immediate aftermath of the discovery.  Her emotional barricades were aggressively extensive – she has claimed that, “We don’t have a monster in our blood.”[4]  She has sought forgiveness for her father’s conduct. The brothers followed suit, pouncing on the newly minted term of “monster” with enthusiasm, and wishing their sibling “rot” in jail.   

Similarly, Monica Stephens, at one point married to Castro’s son, Anthony, told CNN’s Piers Morgan (May 15) of how she always felt “the heebie-jeebies” about Castro.  When she visited the home on Seymour Avenue, she noted the suspect’s obsession in keeping things locked up.  “Both my ex-husband and his mother had shared with me stories of how he had beaten them, locked them in the house, just treated them like hostages, so I never had a desire to get to know him.  He didn’t have like, you know, father-in-law appeal.”

Even the prosecutors seem to agree about the exceptional nature of their suspect, avoiding laying charges against brothers Pedro and Onil, citing “no evidence” of complicity.  The alleged efforts on the part of Ariel were said to be that of a “sick” loner, without conspiracy, without plan. 

The net of accountability in such cases can be a wide one, spread with an almost compulsive sense.

The spotlight is also on the police forces that apparently deny ever receiving calls from neighbours about what was transpiring in the Castro household.  The situation seems remarkable – three abductees held for a decade in a populated area.  Police quickly denied claims that neighbours had called them about “suspicious” activity occurring in connection with Castro’s residence.  Nina Samoylicz claimed that, in July 2010, she saw a naked woman in the backyard of Castro’s home.  Cleveland’s suburbs can be dull, and such nudity prompted discussion and a call to the police.  A different account was offered by Samoylicz’s sister Faliceonna Lopez, which goes to show how unreliable gossip and speculation can be.  Only their mother, it seems, was contacted by the excited witnesses (CNN, May 8).[5]

The police report makes the claim that the women were allowed to go into the backyard on occasions provided they wore wigs, sunglasses and kept their heads down (Jezebel, May 8).  The women also informed the police that they left the house twice during their period of incarceration.

The narrative that has emerged here is that the “monster” must be capable, credible and competent.  The suspect supposedly kept the abductees under lock and key, a supreme effort of concealment.  The alleged criminal has to be made formidable enough – one doesn’t like being made to look the fool but even more importantly, one doesn’t like being made to look responsible in the face of cruelty.  Martin Flask, director of public safety for Cleveland, informed reporters that “there is no evidence to indicate that any of them (the women) were ever outside in the yard in chains, without clothing or any other manner.”[6]

“Monsters” and Comparisons

The field of abduction provides a fascinating if complex area of study.  The individual who seeks to kidnap and then enslave the subject in question is treated as a creature lacking human traits.  It is not merely anti-human but non-human, a figure of fantasy, who conceals his quarry.  With frequency, the term “monster” is used.  It took a matter of hours for the term “monster” to be employed in the context of Ariel Castro.

Castro’s lawyer, Craig Weintraub, took issue with the designation, telling WKYC-TV (May 14) that, “The initial portrayal by the media has been one of a ‘monster’ and that’s not the impression I got when I talked to him for three hours.”  The same view was expressed, according to Weintraub, of “family members who have been interviewed by the media.”

A useful parallel here is the response to the Austrian abductor Josef Fritzl, who was accused of raping and enslaving his daughter for 24 years in a “basement of horrors.”  Here was an almost mythological monster who operated in sinister, Wagnerian shadows, a ruler of cruelty who conducted what Allan William Hall called a “24 year reign of terror.”. Fritzl oversaw a 650 square foot dungeon, a sprawling complex in which he kept his daughter with whom he had six children.  In a report by Patricia Treble, writing for Macleans (Apr 6, 2009), he would require permanent psychiatric evaluation, without which he would commit more crimes.  For psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner, Fritzl expressed a powerful urge “to dominate and control other people.” 

Josef Fritzl's Basement

Even monsters, however, can bask in the brief light of normality.  Fritzl’s behavior, while shocking, can be seen as the antics of a “cellar rapist.”  Even the W.H. Smith book chain found itself in hot water when it advertised – unknowingly, claimed central office – that the book The Crimes of Josef Fritzl would actually be marked as a Father’s Day present. Is the monster in us all, a creature merely dormant awaiting the spark?

For Fritzl himself, the actions might have been “crazy,” and he was on the downward slide.  Yet the picture he lived was ordinary, or one of “depraved domesticity” (New York Times, May 9, 2008).  He brought his prisoners gifts – his daughter received flowers, the children stuffed animals and books.  Meals would be cooked by Elisabeth.  The family would dine together.  Behind the domestic screen lay a crime, and Fritzl channelled a Nazi sentiment, speaking of an Austria where order and discipline were the staples, where shackles were the rules.  His mother was ever a fantasised figure.  His daughter became the substitute figure, a figure both maternal and sexual.  “My drive to have sex with Elisabeth grew stronger and stronger.”  This took place, despite Fritzl knowing he was “hurting her.”

Domesticity and crime are the twin images of the scene – the monster and the domestic.  At any moment, the image can disintegrate – Fritzl threatened at stages to gas the occupants of the house if ill should befall him. The image of domesticity can also be found in the police report on the Cleveland abductions. Castro, it is alleged, made the women celebrate “abduction day” every year, an almost primeval rite of rebirth.  According to one of DeJesus’ cousins, “He would celebrate their abduction day as their new birthday” (The Week, May 9).

Such captors are also deceptive.  They are able to practice their concealments in full view, holding a broken mirror for society to gaze at.  The paradox here is a simulation of total normality.  No one questions because there is nothing to question.  Violence is internalized and ritualized.  The discovery of the deception is treated by way of an orgy of collective guilt and vengeful anger. 

In Fritzl’s case, the deception was elaborate – his daughter was made to write a note claiming to have “joined a cult group.”  Even the wife, Rosemarie, was convinced.  The alleged deceptions of Castro find similar form – the other family members did not know that the abduction and rape was being perpetrated under their noses.

The environment where Fritzl also operated in is treated as rebarbative.  In the words of the lead investigator Franz Polzer, “The work in the cellar is overwhelming and oppressive for the investigators.  Every object reminds them of what went on.”

The domesticity of the abduction scene, with its family settings, its otherwise dull routine, sets the wheels of trauma into motion.  Brutality is measured and patterned.  Sexual assault is rationalized, normalized, ritualized.  Revelations that a man might father children by his own daughter are taken to be exceptional violations of the incest taboo.  After the Fritzl case, other countries also recorded their own versions of the case.  In Victoria, Australia, a man was accused of fathering four children by his daughter.  The then premier of Victoria, John Brumby, emphasised the acts as exceptional.  “Obviously any crime of this type is one that is shocking and personally repulsive… to me and to other Victorians.” (Northern Territory News, Sep 18, 2009)

Deification of Rescue

Excessive guilt can produce gestures and rituals of overcompensation. One is a developed hagiography of the victims – extensive coverage of their mental state.  “How are they coping?”  The most absurd example of this is the contrition shown by Arlene Castro to that her friend, one of the victims DeJesus.  Given that they went to school together, and that her father was allegedly keeping her under lock and key, was a point of consternation that required some correction.  To that end, she insisted that DeJesus “meet my children.”

While the Castro family fears demonization and the taint of history, the converse is true for Charles Ramsey, the man who, along with Angel Cordero, helped release Berry after he heard her screaming.  The Internet junkies are mulling over the aura that has been generated around Ramsey, which is probably suggestive of the sheer collective guilt for how such a case could have happened. Sites such as Know Your Meme are running up videos with him.  His exploits feature on the loop, gathering a following over what was, essentially, a banal undertaking with remarkable consequence.  “Thank you Charles for going to the aid of Amanda in the selfless way you did,” goes the response of a donor to a site set up to raise money for his efforts.[7]

Everything Ramsey does from hereon in is being revered.  This is despite his own assertion that, “We bleed the same blood, put our pants on in the same way.”  The ordinary act has been treated as singular, while Castro’s alleged behavior was said to be exceptionally brutal concealed by the rituals of ordinary domesticity.  Ramsey’s specific patois supposedly mattered to some journalists – he “calls everybody bro,” as if that might be significant; he is a “straight talking” sort, lacing his words with occasional profane relish. Out of unremarkable simplicity, an almost hysterical interest has been generated.  A saint has been born.

Some of the reverence is of the financial sort, which goes to show that rescuing an alleged abductee might just find yourself a spot of cash, a form of communal dispensation for previous moral indifference.  Robby Russell of Portland, Oregon, at the time of this writing, raised $14,000 on his site “Thank You Charles Ramsey.”[8]  “Thank you for doing what you did… thank you for the fantastic interviews,” claims the ecstatic Russell who is posting tips on where to put your “expendable income.”

Some of this deification may be the outcome of a social and legal state where rescue comes with its hazards.  Rescue, by all means, but do so at your own peril.  Effectively, one is discouraged to undertake a mission of rescue in jurisdictions where the common law prevails against the Good Samaritan.  At times, an effort to assist a person in distress can result in a legal action if the rescue fails.  The very existence of Good Samaritan laws is a testament to that fact. This is in stark contrast to such civil code jurisdictions as France, where the task of rescue is obligatory for citizens. 

The way such guilt manifests itself – the sort that questions why a person did not aid another earlier when needed – is diverse.  Law officials can be shocked into action.  Prominent members of the public denounce moral apathy in the face of a person’s misfortunate.  Officials in Shenzhen, China began, in 2011, to draft rules to protect rescuers from legal action after a case where an injured 2-year-old was ignored by 18 passers-by.  The child was also run over twice in the southern city of Foshan, dying as a result of her injuries.  The laws protect those undertaking the act of rescue “as long as there was no negligence or deliberate sabotage” (ABC News, Nov 2, 2011). While U.S. jurisdictions sport such legislation, the reluctance in a litigious culture to convert an act of rescue into an act of negligent breach is tempting and stifling.  We can only wonder then when a normal act of rescue takes place, a near orgiastic spectacle of reverence follows. Spiced with social media, accounts become extreme, daring, by definition heroic.

The way the celebratory phenomenon occurred in the Cleveland abduction case was, however, variable.  While Ramsey became a cyber phenomenon, a meme in frenetic action, fellow rescuer Angel Cordero, the other rescuer, barely received a mention.  “Among the hard truths revealed by the Cleveland kidnapping horror,” noted Joseph Brean of The National Post (May 13), “was the awkwardly accidental nature of heroism.”

The status of the hero, as noted by historian Paul Johnson in his work Heroes, is transient and transitional, adjusting to times and moments. The clue here is the society in need of heroes, a condition pitied by such playwrights as Berthold Brecht, who’s condemned Galileo makes the point: “Unhappy is the land in need of heroes.” 


The entire drama surrounding the discovery of the Cleveland abductees has become a true spectacle of commercialised morality, virtuous wronged women, and supremely demonic suspects.  Ethical constipation and guilt have played a vital part in this.  Ramsey’s presence proved a godsend, a vent for the broader suspicions of complicity.  The Good Samaritan, it was suggested, was alive.  The sheer savagery of the prosecution language also suggests the anger at how authorities, and the public, were deceived by the domestic spectacle that was inverted under their very noses.  Castro’s behavior was the mirror to a society that was simply deceiving itself.  And it is precisely those which tend to be desperately in need of heroes.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMITUniversity, Melbourne. Email:

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1 comment on " The Abduction Spectacle: Cleveland, Monsters and Heroes"

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By M. Alex Johnson, staff writer, NBC News

Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man accused of kidnapping three girls and holding them for years in his home, has been indicted on two counts of aggravated murder and 327 other counts, including rape, kidnapping and assault, prosecutors said Friday.

A Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Castro, 52, on the aggravated murder charges for allegedly causing the unlawful termination of a pregnancy involving one of the women.

Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, escaped May 6 after having been kidnapped between 2000 and 2004. The kidnapping counts include the alleged abduction of Berry's daughter, now 6, who was born in captivity.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said the indictments covered only the period from August 2002, when the first of the three women disappeared, until February 2007.

Besides the murder charge, the grand jury indicted Castro on 177 counts of kidnapping, 139 counts of kidnapping, seven counts of gross sexual imposition, three counts of felonious assault and one count of possession of criminal tools.

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