Monday night I read about Elizabeth Smart’s latest talk at Johns Hopkins University. Just a few hours later news reports were filed from a west Cleveland neighborhood about three girls. They had been missing for 9+ years and found Monday night just miles from their homes and their mint-condition childhood bedrooms. How?
I think “how” is a better question than “why.” But I’m asking optimists and realists and fellow feminists to disagree. Whether it’s a sleepy southside suburb with German, Irish, Polish names or a rundown urban neighborhood where last names rarely start with “Mc” or end in “ski,” girlhood is a risky business. As long as there are girls they will be looked at, yelled to, talked about, boundary-tested and propositioned. “Luck” is being able to walk away with a girlfriend, to ask your mom what that guy was talking about, to have your high school expel the star athlete who was saying things to you that made you feel awful but you didn’t even know why.
But how do things get worse, so very much completely worse, 10 years worse, never-coming-home worse for some women and girls? As much as anyone is thinking about that trio of women and one girl in Cleveland tonight, we’re also talking about Charles Ramsey. The neighbor who likes his McDonald’s and thought he knew his salsa-playing neighbor and is so damned astonished by the story he jumped into as one of the only people in the right place at the right time since that first girl, Michele Knight, was kidnapped.
America is in love with Mr. Ramsey’s heroism and his urban musings. The McDonald’s, the ribs, the F-bombs. That hair! But by far the most remarkable thing he said in his first interview is this: “You know, I figured it was a domestic violence dispute. So I opened the door.”
How often do we read about and hear about domestic violence as the very last kind of violence to attract third-party intervention? Anyone who has read about the tragic, tell-tale domestic-violence case of Zenia Haughton knows not even a rifle, a police file, a kicked-in door, slashed tires and a restraining order are enough to convince some folks – experts included – that a domestic violence situation is happening. And needs to be stopped.
So who the hell is this Mr. Ramsey? Just walking into what he thinks is some man-woman kind of dispute and busting down a door?
He’s a hero, he and Angel Cordero. Nosy neighbors. Ramsey heard something, but didn’t put down his lunch. He just took it with him, walked out of his house and onto the porch of 2207 Seymour Ave.
I think it’s been about 48 hours since the stories of Amanda Berry, Michele Knight and Gina De Jesus broke. Mr. Ramsey, a dishwasher, has been famous for a couple days.
What we’ve learned about these women in the last 24 hours is, blessedly, very little. I hope that the news comes slowly. Very. Their families will hear it first, when their daughters and sisters are ready to tell them. The trained investigators will interrogate with caution and compassion.
The most important news, I think, we already know. Four or five times a crack in the secrecy surrounding 2207 Seymour Ave. drew in suspicious neighbors. It brought cops to the side of the house and onto its porch. It got the home’s owner and alleged captor fired from his job. It showed us a little girl standing alone at an attic window. It convinced a neighbor or two that Ariel Castro was “not right.”
Mr. Ramsey says he feels bad that he lived there for a year, knew Ariel Castro and sensed nothing unusual. He shouldn’t. He caught on a lot faster than the professionals who were seeking out Amanda Berry and Gina De Jesus for more than ten years. But not Michele Knight.
Yelling and banging from inside the house, lunchtime fast-food deliveries, rumors of women in the backyard – these are red-flag reminders that we don’t need to be experts or psychics or mad geniuses to know when something is very wrong. Would the Charles Ramseys in our neighborhoods please stand up, take a bow, and promise to never move away?
Two Girls Remembered
Their stories probably could not be more different – the two girls I knew in Cudahy and the three women I don’t know in Cleveland. Different in circumstances, outcome, time and place. But every time I read about girls who come home I think about the two I barely knew who didn’t: Jessica and Anna. I remember stick-straight hair and brown curls, badminton and jump rope. That we shared teachers and a zip code. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been a little kinder. Asked a few more questions. Paid better attention.