IT’S ONLY a year since Michelle Knight’s living nightmare ended, but the memory of the previous terrifying, harrowing decade will never leave her.
Aged 21, the young mother had stopped at a local discount store in Tremont, in Cleveland, Ohio, to ask for directions to attend a custody meeting involving her son Joey, and was offered a lift by the father of a friend.
“He told me he could drive me there and that beforehand, we could go to his place,” Knight recalls now. “He said he had puppies — I love dogs — so I said fine.
“We got into his back yard and he locked the gate, which I thought was a bit odd. We went further into the house and I didn’t hear any puppy sounds.
“That’s when he shut the door and I never saw the daylight again. That’s when the hell began.”
The man, Ariel Castro, turned out to be a sadistic torturer who imprisoned her in his filthy house for nearly 11 years, subjecting her to unimaginable physical, sexual and mental cruelty, chaining her around the neck and stomach to a pole in his dark, dirty basement, silencing her by cramming socks into her mouth and ramming a motorcycle helmet over her head.
Knight didn’t believe anyone would look for her. She’d run away from home before, her parents had split up and she had a difficult relationship with her mother.
During these years of horrendous torture, she fell pregnant five times. Castro would hit her in the stomach until she miscarried. As a result, she now can’t have children.
Meeting Knight today, she is tiny; 4ft 2in, and looks younger than her 32 years. When he took her, Castro thought she was just a child.
She hopes her recently published memoir, Finding Me, will bring some closure, although, obviously, you can’t put such a horrific past to bed with the flick of a pen.
But Knight is tough. Her difficult upbringing, with sometimes homeless warring parents who lived in rough neighbourhoods among prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers, must have fuelled her gritty, defiant personality.
While she was incarcerated in the house just three miles from where she was kidnapped, Castro, a school bus driver, abducted two other women; Amanda Berry, then 16, and Gina DeJesus, then 14, following the same pattern of sexual and physical abuse. Berry went on to give birth to a child by him. Knight helped to deliver it.
“It was very emotional because at the same time that she had a baby, I lost one. It was very sad for me, but I was happy to deliver her baby. It was an amazing feeling to bring a beautiful life into the world, who brought so much joy into the house.”
She says she tried to detach herself while the assaults continued; thoughts of her son Joey kept her going, along with her faith in God.
On May 6, 2013, nearly 4,000 days after Knight was first taken, Berry escaped through a door Castro had left unlocked and alerted police, who rescued the two other women.
Knight will never forget when the police officers walked through the dingy bedroom door and found her. She held one of them so tightly she thought she’d never let go.
“When I walked out of the house, the first thing I wanted to do was kiss the ground and thank God that I’m here, I’m alive and I’m breathing,” she says, tears welling. “Now I get to see the beauty in life instead of the ugliness. I learned that we should not take the little things for granted, because there might be a time when everything is taken away, and you’re going to wish you had all those little things that you complained about all your life.”
The case, which became known as the Cleveland kidnappings, attracted worldwide media attention.
Castro, 52, pleaded guilty to 937 crimes including rape, assault and aggravated murder (of the unborn babies), receiving a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance for parole. A month later he hanged himself.
But not before Knight had her say in court, reading a ’victim impact statement’ addressing her attacker. “From this moment on, I will not let you define me or affect who I am. I will live on,” she wrote.
As for her first year of newfound freedom... “It’s been amazing, but it’s also been a roller coaster of many different emotions,” Knight says.
“I notice things like being able to open up a window or a door, making your first cup of coffee in the morning and sitting with your friends having a nice conversation, putting on shoes that don’t hurt, taking a bath, brushing your hair. When I was in the house, I was shaved bald.”
While she was taken, her son Joey was eventually adopted at the age of four, and while his new family have sent Knight pictures, there’s been no contact.
“They’re afraid that might be too unsettling for him, and as much as I want to wrap my arms around him so tightly and share so many things with him, I’m scared of the same thing too,” she admits. “I don’t know if I will ever see Joey again. I miss him more than you can imagine.”
And her thoughts now on Castro? “There are still a lot of days when I get very angry about the things he did to me,” she says. “But a little at a time, I’m learning to let go of the hate. Forgiveness is the only way I can truly reclaim my life.”