I have a bizarre fascination for stories about imprisonment — not for criminals, but for victims of kidnapping. I try putting myself into the situation of the victims and imagining how, or if, I would have tried to survive. Since I'm now a senior, it's harder for me to put myself back into the ages of young kidnap victims like Jaycee Dugard, Michelle Knight, Elizabeth Smart. Because I was a social worker, I try to figure out what made the kidnappers do what they did, and understand how the kidnap victims survived the odds. In these cases, although the kidnappers may have threatened to kill them, they did not kidnap them in order to murder them.
From these stories and the ones I've read by Holocaust concentration camp survivors, and one by a journalist who was imprisoned for 8 years, what has repeatedly jumped to the forefront is how the little things kept them going — a clean pair of underwear after months of filth, a sip of water when they were about to die, the absolute joy of a pencil and paper, a television that brought a little taste of the outside world to them.
The boredom of confinement made memories all the more important. One war prisoner painstakingly constructed his dream house brick by brick until he was freed and actually built his house. And then there was the mental energy needed to figure out possibilities for escape, and the mind game of how to react to the kidnapper's demands. Perhaps that's the biggest challenge because the kidnappers are often mentally ill. There is no sense to be made from what is happening to them.
In Michelle Knight's recent publication of "Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed," I tried to understand her kidnapper. Sexual abusers were more often than not physically or sexually abused themselves as children. I tried to see Ariel Castro as the miserable, sexually abused child he said he had been, but I couldn't put that together with the family he had successfully raised and was in contact with all throughout the decade of holding his 3 young captives who were friends of his children. What turned him into a monster when his brothers and grown children were not? Why did he take pleasure in being a father to the one child he allowed to be born to one victim? The inconsistencies and darkness of his many layers confounded me. Since he killed himself a short time after capture, nothing much was publicized in "explaining" his motives.
The human mind needs to ask "why?" And so we endlessly gnaw on the "why" of someone's deviant and cruel behavior. The other question the human mind continually needs to ask is "how?" And in the case of long-term kidnap victims, we find inspiration in the spirits of these young people who, although battered and bruised and forever changed, survived with an unimaginable strength.