The morning I learned about the women in Cleveland, I knew from a single headline that there was more to be said, and horrified by, than I wanted to know: Cleveland Women Rescued From Ten Years’ Imprisonment in Captor’s Home.
As the news poured in, the photos of balloons flapping from Amanda Berry’s porch and family members doubled over in relief, the weight in my stomach got heavier. And despite my attempts, I could not turn myself away from the latest details of their captivity, the grim facts of what took place in the silence of those ten years.
The inability to look away – the paralysis of gruesome, awful news – is something that we all know. We do our best to protect ourselves from stories that draw us in without any relief, accounts of loss or pain that disarm and puncture the illusions we hold about the world being safe, or our days being predictable.
But glance at the number of comments on any news article concerning the Cleveland women, and you’ll find scores of people who simply cannot turn away, whose days are spent, it seems, remarking on the supposed foolishness of these women for accepting Ariel Castro’s offers for a ride, or hoping that Castro will find himself repeatedly raped in prison.
It is what Eric G. Wilson, in his book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, describes as the compulsion that seems to accompany crimes of this degree. We may want to look away, but we cannot, and in cases of sexual assault, what we look for is an escape – an easy dismissal of the perpetrator as “monster” and a slap on the wrist for the victims, who must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, who should have known better.
“I have always told my daughters to stay away from strangers,” an NPR commentator wrote, “and now these young women have to pay the price for their mistake.”
When I learned about the brutal gang rape of an American woman in Brazil this past winter, I asked my Brazilian ESL students if they had heard the news. They dropped their heads and murmured yes, then quickly moved onto questions from the previous night’s homework.
I can’t blame my students for moving past the subject. There is something particularly terrible about any kind of sexual violence, perhaps because the victim, in the most hopeful cases, remains alive, with his or her wounds buried deep within, haunting us with their unspeakable, palpable damage.
And our inability to bear the stories of sexual assault comes in the triumphalism of the online commentator, the distractions that we cling to as we wait for another gruesome story and character to condemn.
My sister is a survivor of sexual assault, and there is not a day that goes by where I do not find myself staring out the window, holding back tears that I don’t think will ever stop coming.
In the history of Christian saints, numerous women in the early church were persecuted on sexual terms. St. Agatha was held captive in a brothel for two months, and after refusing marriage to an emperor, had her breasts cut off in public. Other stories depict young girls, some as young as twelve, tortured in ways that number among the tactics Ariel Castro used in his own home.
In many accounts, there is little reporting of what female Christians endured at the hands of their captors, but the silence says enough.
What separates the stories of the abuse women of the early church endured, and what we see in our newsfeeds now, is a difference of response on the part of the onlookers. The bodies of female Christians were rescued from public display; they were buried beneath churches bearing their names.
And while there are all sorts of things people say about misogyny and women in the early church, there is something particularly attentive about the ways these women’s accounts were kept. The ways their bodies were tended, even when the worst wounds could not be seen.
In the lives and deaths of female martyrs, we encounter a way of facing grief that is neither dismissive nor fatalistic; we see a participation in suffering that comes out of the desire to honor, the courage to not look away.
And in the wake of flippant commentary and paralyzing fear—in a culture that blames the victim and walks away—what would it mean to face the grief of Cleveland? Of India? Of the untold stories of our loved ones?
Perhaps it means that, instead of turning away, we turn towards. That we repent. That we name our fear for what it is and look beyond it. That we light candles and make phone calls and learn, as Julia Kasdorf writes, “how to love the living.”
For the body that suffers is still a body, and it is not enough for us to move through our days numbly, fearful of suffering ourselves.
But it might be enough to carry these stories as gently as you would your own daughter, your sister, a stranger clawing at a door. It might be enough to say little beyond a prayer, to consider yourself but one small muscle in the body of witness.
It might be enough to move us, slowly, but with power, with true, holy love.