Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger?--Michelle Knight's Story

Like a lot of people around the world, I have been simultaneously captivated and horrified by the story of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus. If you're not aware, theirs is a story of what nightmares are made of. The three women, on three separate occasions, were kidnapped. They then lived together over a period of several years (Michelle Knight was there for eleven horrible years) where they endured physical, verbal and sexual abuse from their captor Ariel Castro. Amanda and Michelle also became pregnant with his children whilst they were in captivity, although only Amanda was allowed to keep her child.
Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus have remained silent about their ordeal, which is absolutely their right to do so. I have heard rumors that the pair are co-authoring a book on their ordeal, while Michelle's solo book was just recently released (Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings). And like many other people, I have purchased Michelle's book (I think it is very important to support her in her efforts to rebuild her life and purchasing her book and reading her story is one very simple way you can do so). I have read it with horror and disbelief, and at the same time have been astounded by her strength of will. But, is there too much emphasis on that?

In my other life, I study the Holocaust, specifically memory and the Holocaust. Although I am not an expert on expected survivor narratives, I have read quite a bit into it--and I think Michelle's story and expected narrative is very similar in nature to Holocaust survivors. Like Michelle, many survivors only tell a small portion about their lives before the tragedy. They become defined by
their survivor status. Although when I watched the first Dr. Phil special, he did ask about Michelle's life before her captivity, it remains a footnote.

What I was struck by most of all in Michelle's story is the focus on the fact that she is not only surviving but thriving. The title of her book alone suggests that with phrases like "Finding Me" and "A Life Reclaimed." Dr. Phil's recent update on Michelle focused on her amazing life now and her new apartment and all that jazz. Like many Holocaust survivors, I worry Michelle is being placed on a pedestal and being forced to act like everything is fine. Her legacy as a survivor and thriver has already followed her in her local area as Dr. Phil showed a clip of strangers in the mall hugging her and calling her an inspiration. They even played this horribly cheesy song with lyrics like, "What doesn't kill you makes you stroooonger!" as she walked onto Dr. Phil's stage.

Yet, a year after such a tragedy is quite soon for her entire life to be reclaimed and to truly be thriving. But people don't want to hear about someone who is still miserable, still stewing in their own horror. People want to hear about someone who has moved on, who is happy and for whom they can call an inspiration. Holocaust survivors are often quoted as saying that when they do speaking engagements, they are pressured to find meaning in their suffering even when there is none. Holocaust survivor memoirs often end on a high note, talking about the life celebrated in spite of the original goal to wipe it out.

I genuinely worry about Michelle feeling like she has to put on a brave face at all times, to act as an inspiration and beacon to those who have been abused and tormented. But Michelle deserves time to cry, time to grieve, and I don't really like the constant emphasis on how strong she is. She doesn't have to be strong at all times and she doesn't owe us, as a public, a happy ending. And really, I hope she knows it is okay to be vulnerable after the horrors of what has occurred. I truly hope she finds her happy ending, but also she doesn't feel pressured to hurry it along faster than it arrives.

Support Michelle and purchase her book here:
Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings

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