I’m struck that we don’t have a folk-memory of women escaping from domestic captivity in the way that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped in Cleveland, and Elizabeth Fritzl and her siblings, and Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck and Natascha Kampusch escaped before them.
The stories of these escapes are new.
Women being captured is not new, it’s not even specific to our species. At a recent Skeptics in the Pub Talk, Dr Alison Craig told us about “coercive consortship” in dolphins.
Women running away isn’t new either. Allegedly, Wilkie Collins took the title for his book “The Woman in White” from his first meeting with Caroline Graves, the woman who became his mistress. Collins was walking through London one night past a suburban villa when
“the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman” …. she had been imprisoned at the villa under the mesmeric influence of an unnamed suburbanite.
What appears to be new, is that the escapes are successful, they are reported, and the victims are reunited with their families. Today Caroline Graves’ story would be international news. But in the 19th century it was not told by the men who witnessed her escape. (Of course, it may not be true).
There are so many possible reasons for this change.
It is finally clear that a man who prevents a woman leaving him is committing a crime not exercising a right. A line has emerged between a consensual domestic relationship on one side, and imprisonment on the other. This is new. In the 19th century and before, you would have happy love-matches on the one hand, pragmatic civil contracts and arranged marriages in the middle, and who knows what hells of captivity and servitude at the far end. Then, as now, a good marriage could go bad. But how many young women were kidnapped in a world where the neighbours all assumed they were wives not prisoners?
Women are free to leave in a way they weren’t before. Divorce gave women the the legal freedom to leave. Before divorce was available, women were chattels in a very literal way. I was checking references for the Mayor of Casterbridge auctioning his wife and I found a Wikipedia entry about Wife Selling, which apparently took place as recently as 1913. Later, women gained the cultural freedom to leave. However, in living memory in the 1970s and 1980s what went on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and the police would not intervene. Putting it bluntly, if a woman runs away now, whether she is a wife or a kidnap victim, she will be listened to. There is somewhere to escape to now.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We see the victims as unambiguously innocent and wronged. When there is no religious fundamentalism or misogyny at work we do not see them as someone whose moral worth has been destroyed. However, Elizabeth Smart said:
… she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” …
I have tried to find out more about Smart’s upbringing in Salt Lake City to discover if it was particularly religious. She certainly expresses herself powerfully:
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.'”
Smart felt worthless as a result of her repeated rapes but we see her as a victim not as “damaged goods” and we celebrate when a kidnap victim escapes. And if we have not yet managed to stop blaming the victims of rape we have at least progressed beyond flogging them, stoning them or forcing them to marry their rapists.
So I am encouraged by the fact that when victims of kidnap and imprisonment escape they now do so into the relative safety of a supportive and rejoicing world.