Many are still reeling over the case of Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man responsible for kidnapping three women and holding them hostage for more than a decade. Castro, a former bus driver, abducted Michelle Knight in 2002 at age 21; Amanda Berry in 2003 at age 16; and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus in 2004 at 14. The women were held in captivity in Castro’s home until May 6, when Berry shouted for help while Castro was out. Castro pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, in addition to 1,000 years. The city demolished the house on Aug. 7.
Lisa Lopez Levers, a professor of counselor education and supervision at Duquesne University and member of the American Counseling Association, says she believes it’s important to look at all sides of the case. Levers spent 15 years working in the community mental health and private practice sectors, focusing on trauma recovery and the impact of violence on child development. Levers edited Trauma Counseling: Theories and Interventions, which was published last year.
Counseling Today asked Levers to share her thoughts on the case and what she felt was most pertinent to counselors.
What are your general thoughts on the case?
Obviously, the Cleveland kidnapping case was a horrific ordeal for the three young women and the child. The responses of the survivors, in the aftermath of this egregious event, have been inspiring, to say the least.
Is there anything unique about this case, as opposed to others you’ve seen/heard of?
I actually was asked by a foreign government to work on a high-profile case in which a government official was abducted. I also have worked on various types of domestic abduction cases. In the Cleveland case, the extent of the perpetrator’s sadistic behavior toward his victims was stunning. Equally astonishing to me, under the worst circumstances imaginable, was the propensity of the victims to bond with and care for one another. It strikes me that one element of this case involved Stockholm syndrome. Clearly, the perpetrator managed to gain a high level of control over his victims — any acquiescence to his demands certainly was linked directly to their survival. Yet, in spite of individual suffering and abject terror, these young women formed a community among themselves that assisted in their survival. Their ability to aid one another, during a decade of horror, was awe-inspiring.
Why do you think the general public was so captivated by this story?
This was such an extreme version of the day-to-day interpersonal violence that some people experience and to which we, as a society, tend not to pay enough attention. Rapes, intimate partner violence, abductions and other types of interpersonal brutality unfortunately occur every day, and they just do not register on our various radar systems. This scenario makes me think of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, when regular citizens come to accept a premise of ordinary acts of violence as somehow becoming normalized and therefore being “okay.” As citizens of the society, I believe that we are complicit when we choose not to pay attention to the “smaller,” everyday incursions against civility. Generally, we choose to ignore this, but when such an extreme atrocity occurs, it reminds us of our humanity, as well as our vulnerability. This is precisely the type of event that should send us into deep levels of self-reflection about this particular scenario and then have us engaging in the broader discourse regarding “how” and “why.” These young women were from lower socio-economic groups, and their parents could not even convince local law enforcement personnel to investigate properly. We need to examine how social marginalization infringes upon human rights and human dignity.
What do you think counselors need to know?
Counselors need to understand the core experiences of persons who have been exposed to traumatic events and to be sensitive to the emotional and cognitive states that are engendered by acts of neglect, cruelty and violence. It is wonderful that our accrediting body, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs, has acknowledged the importance and mandated the inclusion of trauma, crisis and disaster in the curricula of counselor education programs. But counselor educators still have a long way to go in terms of embedding these issues across the curriculum, as well as developing content-specific courses. As a professional counselor of 37 years, I can guarantee that any licensed counselor is going to encounter clients in crisis as well as clients who have been seriously traumatized. An unfortunate aspect of humanity is that these issues always have been and remain ubiquitous.
What do you recommend for counselors who may be counseling victims or families of victims who have gone through this kind of ordeal?
Unfortunately, many practicing mental health professionals, across disciplines, have not had any pre-service preparation for dealing with survivors of trauma or for assisting clients in the management of crisis situations. Given the extreme nature of this particular ordeal, any counselor needs to recognize the seriousness of such a case and, in the absence of appropriate training, needs to refer the victims/families of the victims to appropriately trained professionals.
In the meantime, every practicing counselor who has not had pre-service training in trauma, crisis and disaster services needs to acquire in-service or ongoing training and to stay current with the relevant literature. For counselors who work regularly with trauma, self-care is of paramount importance, and I cannot emphasize this last point enough.
What are your thoughts on Ariel Castro?
Let me begin by emphasizing my concern for the survivors and how remarkable I think their responses have been. I believe that these young women embody the construct of resilience. Even during the televised sentencing, they maintained dignity and hinted at an extraordinary determination that they will not be defined by this atrocity and that their survival includes moving well beyond this horrendous event. The women have been horribly victimized, and their transformation to survivors is beyond admirable — this is a given and should go without saying.
I am in Africa right now, and I stopped my work to watch the Castro sentencing on CNN. It made me sick all over again. But I cannot help agreeing with Castro on one issue, the claim that he is not a “monster.” Now, my resonation with his claim differs greatly from what I believe is his likely motivation for asserting such. I have a lot of diagnostic impressions, but without interviewing him personally, it would not be fair to comment. However, I think that there is some danger in simply “dismissing” him as a monster. We use terms like “The Cleveland Monster” and “House of Horrors” to distance ourselves from the abject depravity of the situation. But to follow this metaphor, Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein createdthe monster; the “monster-ness” of the creature was not innate.
It is evident from everything that I have seen on TV and read in newspapers that Castro’s behavior was sadistic and narcissistic. For example, I was stunned during the sentencing when he asserted, in spite of the evidence — chains, ropes and boarded windows and doors — that the women were there of their own accord. I equally was stunned that he clung to the excuse of being a “sex addict,” and I was glad that the judge dismissed this. However, I believed Castro when he said that he was sexually abused as a child, and I think that this is a crucial issue. Clearly, this is no excuse for the evil that he has committed. But we need to understand the dynamics of severe early childhood abuse and how, left unattended and in concert with other potentially negative environmental factors, as a society, we run the risk of newly emerging perpetrators. This leads me back to Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. It is easy to construct Castro as a monster — this lets all of us off the proverbial hook. If I construe Castro as a monster, over there, I can situate myself over here, with all of the other non-monsters. But Castro is not a monster — he is the construction of what we can come to expect as a society when we ignore child sexual abuse — indeed, extreme child maltreatment of any kind. It is not about him; it is about us.
Do you have any additional thoughts you’d like to share?
In this type of horrendous criminal activity, we pay attention to the victims, as well we should. In fact, the way that local, national and even international communities have come together in support of the Cleveland survivors has had to be healing for the women. So when interpersonal violence is this extreme, it almost seems counter-intuitive to suggest that we need to pay attention to the perpetrator, other than to lock him up — in this case, for well over 1,000 years. However, if we ever are to have a positive influence on the cycle of violence, it will be, in part, because we develop early and effective interventions for those who become the perpetrators of violence.