An expert takes us inside the minds of Cleveland’s kidnapped women.

Amanda Berry and Gina Dejesus will have to return back to the lives they left a decade ago.
Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus will have to return back to the lives they left a decade ago.

by SARAH WAYLAND

Imagine for a moment stepping back in to the life you lived a decade ago. You might look quite similar, you know where you came from, who your family are, but your reflection will be tainted and tweaked by the experiences you’ve endured during that time. It’s you, but a different you.

Every fifteen minutes someone is reported missing to a law enforcement agency in Australia. While the majority of those are located within one month; over 1600 people remain missing for longer than six months. These families, at this very moment, are waiting for the knock on the door that tells them they can breathe out.

Across the other side of the world the families of three women, once teens but now in their twenties, will be wading through feelings that even a week ago would have been unimaginable. They will be trying to find a way to reconnect with the life that they lost when they were snatched from the streets as well as beginning to come to terms with the trauma they endured.

The faces of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight flash quickly across our TV screens – they move between the images found on the side of milk cartoons to the faces they have grown into while they have been away – its almost too much to grasp as to how they might learn to live with what’s happened.

Madeleine McCann disappeared in 2007 and is still missing.
Madeleine McCann disappeared in 2007 and is still missing.

From the moment a missing person is reported to the police the families who await their return, and the community who wish for similar outcomes, are invested in their return. We don’t sit well with the concept of missing as it goes against the need for solutions and outcomes that many of us come to expect when life throws us a challenge.

Living with the unresolved loss of a missing person is like being stuck some place between absence and presence. It is impossible to mourn the loss of a person if you don’t have evidence that they have truly gone.

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As with many missing persons cases the questions about the three women will begin to circle around how they were taken, how they might have been found sooner and disbelief at the lack of clues especially when the hysteria settles down.

Kym Pasqualini, founder of the National Center for Missing adults in the US explains that ‘we can only speculate what the three Cleveland women and 6 year old child endured over an unimaginable ten year period of captivity, hopefully they will not continue to endure the scrutiny of people asking,

“Why didn’t they take an opportunity to escape?” It is difficult to understand the psychological and long-lasting impact of trauma. Instead of the public scrutinizing and questioning why they didn’t escape sooner, what is important now, is embracing their safe return and recovery’.

The women are both returned missing people and survivors of abuse. Abuse of unimaginable trauma. The intersection between being away for so long and the damage they may have lived with, both physically and psychologically, would require long term psychological support that recognises both the trauma of being taken, the impact of years of hypervigilant  behaviour in terms of keeping themselves going and the grief of losing their family and their teenage years.

Alongside the road to recovery for these women, just like other American cases like Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart, support by their families is just as important. In working with families in Australia and conducting research into the impact of hope in living with this type of loss families find solace in taking steps forward and multiple steps back to manage the recurring triggers of the trauma.

Working out ways to continue to move on with life, while acknowledging the ordeal can be helped by creating, together, a space for new memories to be laid down rather than continual reminds of what was lost. These women need to be seen as more than missing people.

Daniel O'Keeffe has been missing since 2011.
Daniel O’Keeffe has been missing since 2011.

For the families in Australia, of the 1600 that wait for a resolution, the news of the three women in Ohio might have given them more than a glimmer of hope about the reunion they imagine multiple times a day.

Families like Loren O’Keeffe agree. For her each minute of each day is focused upon the ways in which she can gather more community support to find her brother that ‘despite the fact that Dan is still missing, almost 2 years on, I still have hope. And there are no words to convey the importance of that hope to people in our situation. It’s everything.

In rejoicing in the return of these girls there also needs to be room for the support they need and the patience required for them to settle back in to the life they were taken away from. To provide a chance to reflect on the new person they have become during the time they were lost.

If details within this story trigger an emotional response please contact Lifeline 13 11 14.

Sarah Wayland has been working as a social worker in the missing persons field since 2003.  She is a mum of two and is currently completing postgraduate studies in the field of hope and loss at the University of New England. Visit Sarah’s Blog here and find her on Twitter here.

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