On April 21, 2003, Amanda Berry was abducted on her way home from work by Ariel Castro one day before her seventeenth birthday. Castro was a local school bus driver and Amanda knew two of his children. Little did she realize at the time that he'd already kidnapped another young woman a year earlier. One year later, he struck again, this time taking fourteen-year-old Gina DeJesus, his own daughter's best friend. The disappearances of Amanda and Gina made headline news, not only in the city of Cleveland where they lived, but all around the country. Their families immediately began searching and never gave up hope of finding them alive, even as year after year passed by. For the next decade, the girls lived locked up in a bedroom in Castro's house with neighbors and the law enforcement officers who were searching for them none the wiser. Their lives became a constant cycle of abuse, threats, and sexual assaults, with Amanda even giving birth to a daughter while in captivity. Throughout their ordeal, they often saw their families on television, pleading for their return, and it gave them the strength they needed to keep going until one day, Castro finally made a mistake that made it possible for Amanda to escape and call for help. Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland draws on the girls' recollections of their ordeal and journals that they kept to tell a remarkable story of faith, hope, and resilience in the face of unspeakable cruelty and seemingly impossible odds.
I seem to recall the news stories in the early aughts about the disappearances of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, whose families were relentless in their attempts to locate them. However, like so many other people, I was also keenly aware of the low statistical probability of them being found alive after a lengthy amount of time had passed. So along with the rest of the world, I was astounded when international news broke of their escape from captivity in 2013 along with Michelle Knight. Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland chronicles Amanda's and Gina's stories. Both were kidnapped as teenagers by Ariel Castro, a seemingly ordinary school bus driver, who kept them locked in his house for a decade, repeatedly abusing and sexually assaulting them. Amanda became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Jocelyn, who spent the first six years of her life in this strange prison-like environment. Then after ten long years, they finally got the break they'd been longing for when their captor left their bedroom door unlocked and left the house. It gave Amanda the window of opportunity she needed to finally escape with the help of a neighbor and call 9-1-1, bringing the police to rescue all of them. Theirs is an amazing story of hope and resilience in the face of unspeakable cruelty.
Amanda Berry was an ordinary high school student who worked part-time at Burger King. It was the day before her seventeenth birthday and she'd just gotten off work. Rather than waiting around for a ride, she started walking home and was about halfway there when a van pulled up next to her. The man inside offered her a ride. He was someone she thought she recognized and later she realized that he was the father of two other students from school with whom she was acquainted. She'd just seen him pull into a driveway with a girl (one of his daughters) who she thought was still inside the van, so she accepted his offer. Of course, from there, her life turned into a living nightmare when he took her to his house, chained her up, and started raping her, often several times a day. He allowed her a small television, and with nothing better to do, she watched it several hours a day. Soon she saw her family on the news, searching for her and begging for her return. Seeing them and knowing they were out there looking gave her hope and strength to do whatever she needed to do to survive. Three years later, she gave birth to her daughter, Jocelyn, and was surprised, but relieved, when Castro allowed her to keep the baby girl. I was absolutely amazed at what a wonderful mother Amanda was in spite of her circumstances. Jocelyn gave her another reason to keep living every day, because she couldn't imagine her daughter being raised by this monster even though for all his cruelty to Amanda and the other two young women, he was shockingly nice to Jocelyn. Having this "bond" helped her to get closer to her captor and eventually gain more of his trust as well. Ultimately this may have been his undoing, as he claimed that Jocelyn's complaints about being locked up all day were what made him leave their door unlocked, giving Amanda her opportunity to finally escape. Amanda kept a journal of her time in captivity, which ended up being instrumental not only in the writing of this book but also in convicting Castro on nearly a thousand counts of rape and kidnapping.
Gina DeJesus's story isn't unlike Amanda's, although she had an even closer tie to her abductor. They were both from the Puerto Rican community and her family knew his. In fact, she was best friends with one of his daughters and had just been with her before being kidnapped. Because she knew Castro as her friend's father, she felt comfortable accepting a ride from him. She was only a fourteen-year-old middle-schooler when she was abducted and her story is also one of chains and repeated sexual assaults. She, too, found strength in seeing her family on television, but there were times when the stress of captivity took an emotional toll on her, such as when she started cutting in an attempt to bring herself out of a deep depression. All three of the young women struggled to trust one another, because Castro was a master liar and manipulator who liked to play them against each other to keep them off balance, probably thinking it would prevent them from conspiring together to escape. However, Gina eventually found herself chained to Michelle and sharing a tiny room with her, so they gradually started getting to know one another. Later, Gina forged a friendship with Amanda, too, and they're still close friends today.
Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland is written in different voices but masterfully weaves together the stories of both the girls as well as what was going on outside their prison. Amanda's and Gina's parts are written in first-person, journal-style entries, detailing their abductions and time in captivity. Interspersed in between is third-person background information on Ariel Castro, along with the story of Amanda's and Gina's families' searches for both of them. Everything was put together in such a way as to make for compelling reading. Even though the girls don't go into particularly gory details, their story is still a bit hard to read. Imagining what they must have gone through at their captor's hands was tense and spine-chilling, and yet somehow they found the strength inside themselves to persevere and survive their ordeal. All three young women deserve to be lauded for their bravery and resilience. As I read along, I was eagerly awaiting the time when they would finally escape, and when that part came, I ended up crying buckets, which is rare for me when reading a book. I think it was just that so much emotion and tension had built up within me by then that it was simply a cathartic release. Of course, the story doesn't stop there. It continues on to detail Castro's arrest, plea deal, and sentencing, as well as his later suicide. But more importantly, since the book was published two years after their escape, it tells about some of the things that Amanda and Gina have done since. Both of these young women are incredible and their story is amazing, giving hope to other survivors and the families of missing persons. It was a wonderful read that I highly recommend to anyone who's interested in survivor stories or true crime. Since Michelle chose to write her memoir separate from Amanda's and Gina's, I also look forward to learning more about her and the experience from her POV.
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