Whenever you hear stories about children being kidnapped and held for long periods of time, even years, the question is inevitably asked, “Why didn’t they run?” That’s one of the questions being asked even now as three women—Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight—who have been missing for more than a decade have been found alive in a home in Cleveland, held captive all this time by a local man. One has birthed a daughter.
The case brings to mind the horrors of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at the age of 11 and held hostage for 18 years, having two children. The news also reminds us of Elizabeth Smart who was abducted from her home and raped daily until she was recovered nine months later.
Ironically, just last week, while speaking at a Johns Hopkins University human trafficking forum (Smart has started her own foundation to prevent and stop predatory crimes), she answered the question, “Why don’t they run? Why don’t they scream?” Here’s what she said after describing how she had been kidnapped and raped on that first day:
I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anybody want me or love me or care about me? I felt like life had no more meaning to it.
People have asked me, why didn’t you run away ... why didn’t you scream? The answer is very simple, I was scared. I was petrified. I was told every day, if you try to run away ... we will kill you and if we don’t kill you we will kill your family. To me, I had watched them kidnap me ... abuse me for so long, what was going to stop them from killing me ... from killing my family? My family is my biggest weak spot ... so I couldn’t stand to think that for something I did or didn’t do ... they would suffer for it. Looking back, I don’t regret not speaking ... I don’t regret not screaming ... I had to do what I had to.
But I think it goes even beyond fear... especially in sex trafficking ... it’s filled with self-worth, with “Who would want me now? I’m worthless.”
I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and wife who loved each other.... And so after that first rape ... I felt so dirty and so filthy.... I understand all too well why someone wouldn’t run for that alone. If you can imagine the most special thing taken away from you, something that devalued you...
I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking, well, about abstinence, and she said, “Imagine you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?” Well, that’s terrible. But nobody should ever say that. But for me, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed-up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.” And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. You no longer have value.... Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value. So I think probably instead of asking “Why you didn’t run”—and I think we really don’t have a right to ask that question—is to educate young people... give them permission to fight back, tell that they do have value, and nothing can change that. That’s what we should be doing.
In light of what has happened with Amanda Berry, these are good words to hear from someone who can express them better than anyone. Of course, liberal news outlets (Slate, MSNBC, ThinkProgress) are picking up the Smart speech and pigeonholing it as an attack on abstinence education. They’re “reporting” that Smart is saying that “Abstinence Education Teaches Rape Victims They’re Worthless, Dirty, and Filthy.”
I’m not sure if that is what Smart was actually saying. Her emphasis seemed to be on reinforcing to children that they have value no matter what and that her purpose was not to attack abstinence education (however, she might have been—I’ll let you be the judge of that).
Either way, given the news of the three young women being found alive, Smart’s words are a reminder that we cannot imagine another’s trials or another’s pain ... and that we should be cautious in our questions and in our judgments.