The long dark arm of abduction

This article is reprinted and re-edited from a previous article originally published on the now defunct Examiner website. It addresses the emotional aftermath of the Castro abduction case of 2013, when three adult women were rescued from a captivity that they had suffered for many years at the hands of one Ariel Castro, who later, committed suicide in his cell.

It's been a few weeks since the media world and public at large was riveted by the story of three women emerging alive after having been abducted by Ariel Castro and held in captivity for the better part of a decade in a crowded neighborhood in Cleveland, OH. After the initial flush of publicity, complete with colorful heroes and a whole host of rumors about the circumstances of the women and their families, media has, perhaps mercifully, moved on.

Not surprisingly, the actual process of recovery for these women and their families will take many years, perhaps the rest of their lives. What isn't talked about in the media, or often even acknowledged in larger society, is the damage this kind of violence does, not only to the obvious victims, but to the neighborhood, the perpetrator's family or anyone that may have called him/herself a friend to the perpetrator.

In order to speak to this, your author has to break the frame and speak a bit more personally, even though, we're really not encouraged to do this at Examiner. However, your author was, herself an unwitting social witness of singular acts of abduction and violence that occurred in Kansas City, MO in the late 1980's by the serial killer, Bob Berdella, more generally known as the Butcher of Kansas City.

Bob was a social friend, colleague and boss. I worked at his shop in Westport, KC, Bob's Bazaar Bizaare, where he sold antiquities, beads and odd, interesting knick knacks. We moved in some of the same social circles and attended some of the same parties. One of my subsequent employers had Berdella's power of attorney, so after Bob's arrest and confession. I had several conversations with him before he descended into the depths of Missouri State Penitentiary.

Without going into many of the details concerning the case, most of which can be gleaned from perusing sensationalistic online sources, I can pretty clearly state that the experience of finding about Bob, being hounded for a bit by the media, interviewed by the police and shunned into silence by the larger community was probably the most traumatic thing that's ever happened to me. And though I would never compare what happened to me, and our circle of related business associates and friends, with what Bob did to his victims, and by extension their families and his own family, it was bad enough.

When one finds out secrets like this about a person, particularly someone with whom one has worked, laughed, eaten, seemingly confided secrets, it's simply crazy making. Everything is up for re-examination, especially your ability to judge character. It doesn't seem to matter that folks like Bob perfect the arts of compartmentalization and lying. It becomes much more difficult to trust anyone after something like this.

In Kansas City, there seems to have been a concerted effort made to not deal with the implications of Berdella's cases, perhaps because the victims were male, adult and sometime hustlers. For many Midwesterners, the victims were doing unsavory things themselves, so, while they might not have deserved what happened to them, they may also have had it coming. Obviously, this kind of attitude does nothing to heal the wounds, nor keep such things from happening again.

It also unfairly isolates the families of the victims who may not be looked on in quite as compassionate a light as the families of Amanda, Michelle and Gina. Very little is actually known about Bob's victims. Only the poorly written, tawdry true crime book, which duplicates virtually every stereotype about gay men that exists, Rites of Burial provides any information on them at all. And for those of us who have been tainted with the brush of association, there is very little voice with which we are permitted to speak.

What this means is that every time media brings the news of new abductions, new victims, even, as in this case, miraculous survivals, the painful recognition of doubt and horror are reopened. Over the years, I've come to some peace with what happened, and with lots of work, even a little forgiveness, even though I don't expect others to necessarily take that tack. There are no easy answers, and those that Bob provided, while probably true from his perspective, make no sense to most of us.

This small bit of peace has come only as a result of squarely facing everything that Berdella was: a ruthless murderer AND a person who genuinely loved his mother; a sexual sadist who ALSO took honest delight in learning the history of trade beads and how to cook; a deeply disturbed compulsive liar who ALSO shared with me what I consider to be true, if occasionally disingenuous conversations, about intimacy in relationships. Based on everything, I believe Bob really did have actual concerns about his relationships that he was entirely unable to actualize, thus, his destructive, sadistic behavior. Both things were true.

It would be easier to see Bob as just a monster who was completely different from most other people, however, that is simply too easy. The kind of obsessive behavior that drove Berdella's compulsions seems to be peculiarly human. While all advanced mammals can be violent, serial abduction, kidnapping, torture and murder require intelligence, advance planning, focus and imagination.

So, it's terrifying, but Berdella and Castro were engaged in uniquely human behavior. And they did these things while in community, which is what makes it all so repugnant and disturbing. Their fears of rejection, of intimacy, their needs for power and control, their rage and defiance of authority and social mores and Bob's internalized homophobia are simply extreme reflections of attitudes and difficulties that many people share. What drives people over the threshold into the commission of such acts, well, now that's the continuing mystery.

It's important to remember that individuals like Berdella and Castro, who contrive logic in such a fashion that it makes sense to them to harm others in order to meet their own needs, create a rupture in the fabric of community life that ripples out to all members. In a sense, Bob murdered himself in my mind as surely as he did any of his victims. He killed the innocence of many, many people who had done business with him, shared his table, purchased treasures from his store. We go on, because we have to, but life has never been the same.