In Cleveland courtroom, a true hero faces down her monster

| Posted in: Serious

Our hero wore purple-framed glasses. She was neither tall nor imposing, but spoke — through tears — with a force that would blow back the mightiest among us.

Our hero stood in a Cleveland courtroom last week and confronted her monster, like a children’s fable come to life, an innocent gazing into the jaws of the beast that tried to best her, saying: You didn’t win, and you no longer scare me.

Michelle Knight spoke at the sentencing of the man who kidnapped her and two other women, the man who tortured them, raped them and kept them in captivity for more than a decade. Ariel Castro, a monster in the truest sense of the word.

Standing within a few feet of him, Knight said: “From this moment on, I am not going to let you define me or affect who I am. I will live on, but you will die a little more inside each day as you think of those 11 years and the atrocities you inflicted on us.”

The term “hero” is awarded too easily these days, assigned willy-nilly to talk radio pundits or athletes, politicians or whistle-blowers. That makes me think we need a real hero, that we’re hungry for one.

She arrived Thursday. And I hope everyone took notice, because she stood up and spoke in a way that should inspire all of us to face down whatever monsters we may have.

That’s what heroes do. They inspire. They lead by example.

Knight, who is now 32, was the first of the three women Castro abducted, taken in 2002 when he lured her into his house with the promise of a puppy for her son.

It was inside that the monster revealed himself. He chained her up, as he did the others. He raped her, beat her. He impregnated her, and, according to court documents, he “punched and kicked her in the stomach, jumped on her stomach, and starved her for days to terminate the pregnancy.”

Yet there she stood Thursday, alive, resolute: “We said we’ll all get out alive some day, and we did. To Ariel Castro: I remember all of the times you came home talking about everyone else that did someone wrong. You acted like you weren’t doing anything wrong. You said, ‘At least I didn’t kill you.’ You took 11 years from my life, but I’ve got my life back.”

The monster had his chance to speak as well, and he flailed, a desperate man sentenced to life plus 1,000 years. He claimed “we had a lot of harmony going on in that home” and “most of the sex that went on in that house, practically all of it was consensual.”

“What I’m trying to get at,” he said, “is these people are trying to paint me as a monster, and I’m not a monster.”

Knight sat through all of it, stoic. The final growls of the monster wouldn’t faze her. Heroes aren’t cowed.

But they do provide a template for bravery.

Knight’s presence in that courtroom and the force of her words should speak to all of us, whatever problems we face. Nothing can be on par with the horrors she survived, but her strength should make it easier to stand up to anything that might do us harm. It should embolden us to stare our monsters in the eyes and say, as she did, “I am not going to let you define me.”

Her words, at times, were defiant: “I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all that happened, but you’re going to face hell for eternity.”

That is the way stories are supposed to end. With justice. With the monster in chains and the hero free.

Castro will go away now — forever. But his evil will not be forgotten. Knight and the women she survived with will forever live with his torment.

God willing, things will get better. Her words gave hope toward that end.

“I know there’s a lot of people going through hard times, but they need someone to reach out a hand for them to hold and let them know they are being heard,” Knight said. “After a long 11 years, I am being heard, and it feels liberating.”

I hope everyone hears you, Ms. Knight. The mothers of gunned-down children facing killers in court, people fighting abuse or addiction, bullied school kids, hassled workers. I hope they all hear how bravely you stood there and confronted your monster.

And I hope they recognize that you are a hero, in the truest sense of the word.

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