Many of you Readers will have already come across the sensational story of a woman escaping from an eighteen-year captivity in an East Bay Area exurb. She was kidnapped by a stranger near her home in South Lake Tahoe in 1991 when she was only eleven years old, and held by a married couple. Her male captor appears to have raped her at least twice shortly after she reached puberty, fathering two children by her. The kidnap victim, and maybe her two daughters, were forced to live in tents in the back yard, as over the years the captors seem to have descended into a cycle of madness reinforced by warped religious views. The dude finally got arrested taking these victims with him to circulate religious literature on campus at UC Berkeley, and now the story breaks.
I’ve got a few thoughts in reaction to reading about this.
First, I say the criminal here has “warped” religious views despite knowing that that determining the exact point of warping as opposed to theological disputes is somewhat subjective. I might think that someone who sincerely believes the Holy Spirit protects him from the venom in a rattlesnake’s bite has gone over-the-line crazy while you might defend that person as as factually erroneous in that particular belief but otherwise functional in society and therefore not insane.
But we can all agree that when you think God speaks to you out of a cardboard box and tells you to kidnap and rape an eleven-year-old girl, and you also believe you’ve been gifted with the ability to control sound using only your own mind, it’s been quite some time since you crossed the line from “unusual religious beliefs” to “schizophrenia.” The male captor, at least, has a rap sheet for violent sexual crimes going back a quarter century.
So while in other entries of this blog I’m critical of religion, this incident isn’t something for which religion, at least in the form I usually address it, is a significant factor. The issue here is the crazy, not the religion.
Second, the kidnapping of children by strangers who are sexual predators is actually extraordinarily rare, but it does happen, but when it happens, unfortunately, the usual and horrific result is that the child victim is raped and then killed shortly afterwards. (Regarding the frequency of stranger kidnappings, see also this contrary study, suggesting that 24% of all juvenile kidnappings are by strangers.)
What makes this situation extraordinary is that the kidnapper did not murder the kidnap victim but instead kept her. Perhaps that was an outgrowth of his particular kind of mental derangement. I think it would make more sense for us as a society to respond to the story rationally, by recognizing that it is an exceptional circumstance. I suspect, though, that it will be digested into our culture as an example of what usually happens in a kidnapping situation.
Third, at least here in California we have a culture in which it’s not unusual to not know your neighbors very well, rarely if ever visit their houses, and generally leave them alone. I’m a big one to espouse the virtues of people minding their own business, and I think that giving other people a reasonable sphere of personal privacy is one of the obligations of decent behavior. Now, the Wife and I are friends with our next-door neighbors and we’re very fortunate that they’re perfectly normal folks. But the fact of the matter is that being friends with one’s neighbors is something of the exception rather than the rule in California.
But what if our neighbors were not perfectly normal folks but instead were kind of weird, hyper-religious, seemed to prefer to keep to themselves, and had tents and outhouses up in their back yard all the time? At what point do we stop respecting their desire for privacy, and start to be justifiably suspicious that something criminal is going on over there? And once we form that suspicion, what do we do about it? No easy answers here.
Fourth and finally, how will the now-freed victims adapt to their new circumstances? The 29-year-old woman who was abducted was eleven when she was taken. That would mean she was in, I think, sixth grade. She’s had no education at all since then but probably a lot of bizarre religious ranting. She is 29 years old and has spent 18 of those 29 years as a captive and probably as a sex slave of a couple of lunatics.
Her two daughters have had no education of any kind, and are now 11 and 15 years old. Whether the pubescent girl got treated like her mother is a disquieting question but one that there seems to be no choice but to confront when contemplating the situation. Either way, though, living in that bizarre environment is the only thing they have ever known.
How does a human being adapt to that sort of circumstance? How will these women re-integrate into normal society? What kinds of bizarre notions about the world will they have acquired? Will they be able to learn the kinds of skills that they will need to get jobs and support themselves? Will they be able to fall in love, and have families of their own? They were no doubt subjected to huge amounts of bizarre religion — will they become religious themselves, now that they will have the freedom to choose for themselves how to live their own lives?
Gratefully, most of the public will never learn the answers to these questions. They will be a long time coming, and the media spotlight will move off of them very soon. Which is good — these women should be allowed privacy and personal space in which to do what they have to do to heal and integrate into society. I would hope, though, that mental health professionals stay on top of the situation and there is at least some professional literature that comes out of the singular and exceptional case study that this situation represents.
There are elements of hope for a good outcome here; the abductee’s mother appears anxious to reunite with her daughter after so many years; her stepfather also seems supportive and willing to help. (The trauma of having their daughter taken from them seems to have led to the breakup of that marriage, an illustration of how crime affects not just the victim but like a crack in a windshield spreads harm and pain to many members of society.) But I think that whatever happens to them will have to look a lot like the way people are deprogrammed from cult membership, and that seems to be a decidedly unpleasant process.
The proverb is that people are amazingly resilient and adaptable. But the reality is that they are not infinitely so. These three young women are going to be a test of exactly how resilient and adaptable people can really be.