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Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus

Is a Joke Just a Joke When the Pain it Causes Is Real?

One writer mines the suffering of her own captivity to understand the true abhorrence of Joan Rivers’s jokes about Ariel Castro’s victims.
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My water bottle slipped and tumbled on the treadmill of the World Gym in Glendale, California, on May 6, 2013, as I watched the small TV hoisted on the ceiling. The story of the Ariel Castro kidnappings broke as one of the victims escaped with her six-year-old daughter, and the idea of three women held in the recesses of Castro’s Cleveland home both stunned me and stabbed at my most familiar wound.

The thing that I don’t want anyone to know about me is that part of me fears I am a monster. And I think part of me fears I’m a monster because as a teenager my mother locked me in her closet—and why would she do that unless I’m a monster? And because my mother locked me in her closet, and her bathroom, and because being locked in small spaces was what divided my life into what it was and what it became, I am intrigued by captivity narratives.

As a fiction writer I’m able to give you countless reasons as to why she would do that other than me being a monster, the most honest of which, is that she was afraid and unprepared to be a mother. Still today, after all the love and growth and work, sometimes the simplest grief will bring me right back to the floor of a walk-in closet, dresses dangling by my face, shoe heels digging into my shins. The fear of roaches crawling on me, everything itchy and musty from the stillborn air.

Ariel Castro kidnapped Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus and locked them in various parts of his house. They were chained to walls, they were threatened with death, they were fed one meal a day, they were given a plastic toilet that was rarely ever emptied. A pile of shit and piss stinking beside them as they dreamt of what their life was like. They were likely unsure of which pain was worse, the grief around remembering their past or the fear of the beatings that lay ahead in their future.

They lived like this for ten years.

My mother got the idea to lock me in her closet after the night I was arrested for shoplifting. I was kept in a holding tank with a friend of mine from school. I was so mad at my friend because I thought it was her fault that we’d gotten caught. My mother took me back to our apartment and hit me with a hanger, an idea that she got from a movie, and then she had me stand on one foot, my other leg cocked behind me like a flamingo. She was playing the role of strict mom and I was playing the role of defiant teenager, and we continued these charades until they both became true.

She had me say senseless things on end, things like, “Look at me I’m so cool I smoke.” And forced me to clean, endlessly, at all hours: sweeping carpets, and constantly washing and reusing the aluminum containers our frozen dinners came in. I don’t fully blame her for this because I imagine these are all learned behaviors. Growing up she had to line up against the wall with her siblings to be inspected every morning.

My grandpa came by and pointed to her wrinkled skirt or her scuffed shoes and ordered her to pay penance, say a rosary or scrub a toilet. And this was just one reason I felt deep down I may be a monster. Another reason I felt I was a monster was that when I was a young girl I was raped. Actually it didn’t so much make me feel like a monster but like a part of me will always be broken.

Castro’s victims wrote in their diaries about being raped. Michelle Knight was impregnated five times and Castro induced miscarriages through beating and starving her. She was not the girl who was allowed the role of wife or mom—that belonged to Amanda Berry. Michelle Knight was the sex slave. Castro also impregnated Amanda Berry; Michelle Knight assisted with her delivery. Amanda Berry gave birth to her baby in a small inflatable swimming pool. For a moment, the baby stopped breathing and Michelle Knight resuscitated her. Castro told Michelle Knight he’d kill her if she let the baby die.  

When I was growing up, I deliberately ignored the bottom half of my body. Even now I can’t stand to go to the gynecologist’s office. I mean, women lay with their legs apart everyday. For me it’s unfathomable. I refuse to even touch myself.

About seven years ago I had to have a procedure. I took a friend with me for moral support. We were in a teaching hospital, and I was the human subject. The intern asked me some preliminary questions like, when was the first time I had sex?

            I was 8.

            Was there protection?

            No.

I lay awkwardly in a paper gown, my feet up in cold stirrups. When the doctor came in I heard the slippery noise of gloves and then a quick snap of elasticity around his wrist. The snap made something flash in me. Made me want to scream. There was a cold solution put on my body. There were instruments. I tried not to look, but there were some that were mounted on the wall and labeled with their various names. Small metal instruments with jagged teeth, things for scraping and things for stretching and things for cutting. As a cold tool was placed inside me I began to exhale tufts of breath fast and faster. I stared at the ceiling and then I felt my insides begin to open. My body displayed wider and wider. I felt so exposed and then there was a warm sensation, something pinched at the veins inside of me. And finally the smell of burning flesh. There was a screen mounted to the ceiling so I could watch it all if I wanted, but this was not something to be watched—flesh and cells and disease and pain and the burning of things. This wasn’t a delightful swimming fetus or some good growth blossoming. This was the navigation and scraping out of my insides. Like a hollow bowl. And I felt my suspicions had been confirmed. I was bad in there. I was dead and bad and wrong all along.

I look at pictures of myself as a young girl and I often feel like that girl has died and in her place sprung a completely different person with a different family and a different home and a different school. Because my life is divided into two sets: birth family and foster family. And then there is the limbo in between—group homes and la calle. Yet strangely enough I will sometimes feel like I am possessed by my birth mother, feel her expression bloom on my face, hear her biological echo in my voice.

It’s an echo that scares me. My mom’s voice reminds me of the loss of control. Someone who is possessed by anger. She’s had to pay a hefty price for this behavior—not only did she lose me but she can’t keep a job. She can’t keep an apartment. She moves every six months. She relies on the kindness of others. She will live with this church friend or that church friend. And it makes me so sad. How daunting this world can be. I both pity and fear her. I mostly fear becoming her.

Michelle Knight’s face was so severely damaged from the beatings that she requires reconstructive surgery. She lost hearing in one ear. At one point, she’d had a dog but Castro took the dog in his hands and snapped its neck.

And even though it sometimes feels like this particular wound of being locked in a closet is unique to me, it’s a comfort to know it isn’t. When someone looks at me shrewdly when I walk in late to work, or when I park poorly, or when my clothes don’t fit well, or if I get rejected for a publication, or lose at anything—there’s a private panic. I wonder where it comes from … and then I remember it’s a feeling of being bad—of being found out and locked in a closet. A shame the size of my childhood that began at zero and is toted into every intimidating transaction forward. Because as a child my wild mind would sometimes think, What is the worst thing that could happen? What could she possibly do to me? And then she did it. Locked me in her dark closet. And it was a struggle between my ego and hers. Do I cry? Do I give in? Do I tell her she’s right? If I say she’s right maybe all of it stops. Maybe I end this punishment with charm and flattery. But I don’t. I chose not to. I want to win. And then I in turn have a hand in my own punishment. This too haunts me into adulthood. Because maybe then I don’t deserve to be put into foster care. Because maybe then it isn’t abuse. How much of this is my fault? How much of this is poverty’s fault? Maybe she had no access to the things the rich parents had.

When I read stories of other women being held captive I know there are hearts out there that were wounded in the same way as mine. I think of this history, this lineage that goes from young souls in war-torn countries to mine, hesitating and humiliated as I stand in line to order a coffee. There is the impatient tapping of shoes behind me and mothers with babies and grabby hands. And maybe I should have a baby with grabby hands but I don’t because I’m too selfish and bad and there it is—one tiny decision and I’m back in the closet. Ultimately what I’ve discovered is the big sea beyond that closet in that room in that apartment on Westminster off of Sawtelle beside the freeway. There is a link between that closet and a basement in Cleveland, and truth is there’s a whole world of hurting people out there. And a world that existed of hurting people before I even arrived at this place. Dreams squelched over and over again. A constant pivot on the roads of desire. No private university education, no education, no craftsman-style home, no home at all, no title, no job, no private office, no desk, no car, no fancy car, no license, no children, no fancy children, no love, no tiny fairy floating above our dreams, well-wishing, “Grow grow…”

And if I’m sensitive to it all, I can place my hands out to my sides, palms up, and feel the tiny pricks of airplane-shaped dreams nose-diving all around me. And so it stabs at me even further to be kept in those dark isolated spaces that keep us separate, to hear Joan Rivers compare her cushy, bougie guest bedroom in Malibu to being raped multiple times and chained to a wall, when she joked last week on The Today Show that Castro’s kidnapped victims had more room than she did. To hear even further, that when pressed for an apology she dismisses the victims by accusing them of being freeloaders who got to live rent-free for more than a decade and are now practically celebrities is an even worse kind of injury.

What she’s saying is that her jokes, her desire to get laughs, are more important than the wounds she’s scratching. I read and write our stories to connect. All of this makes me wonder, When is it okay to make fun of suffering? The problem with suffering is its inescapability—wherever you go, whatever you do, there it is.

And here is Joan Rivers, a woman whose body is broken into on a regular basis—new nose, new forehead, tighter, tighter. She masks her everyday pain. She gives the world the gift of laughter. But this joke slices like a dagger. Let’s face it: Her reality is quite different from everyone else’s. Her comments are a neon arrow pointing at the heart of this. Leslie Jamison states in her essay collection The Empathy Exams, “The double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely to myself.”

In her comments Joan Rivers both appropriates and dismisses the Castro victims’ suffering. The injury wasn’t actually in the joke, it was in the disparity of the thing. I mean, who can afford a Malibu home, much less a home with a guest room? Often I think it’s my primary job to be loving. Empathy allows me to do that. It is my capacity to imagine other people’s suffering that is my gift. Rivers has replaced empathy with privilege, which in my opinion is one of the worst forms of economic violence. What Rivers has done is driven an Hermés pocketbook–size wedge between her and the rest of the world. Nobody’s laughing.

 

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Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America, and dozens other places. She is a fellow for The Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A TINY UPWARD SHOVE, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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Melissa Chadburn