It’s rare for news media to recycle headliners. A few years ago, the title “the house of horrors” was used to describe the gruesome findings ofeleven African-American women who had been murdered and hidden in a Cleveland home by Anthony Sowell. This week, as the case of Ariel Castro unfolds with details of how he abducted, raped, and held three women captive in his Cleveland home, the “house of horrors” cloud has once again descended on the Cleveland skyline.
The questions and inquiries as to how so many women went missing and were held in common houses, plotted on ordinary streets with everyday activity bustling around them has raised intense questions over the consequences of the United States cultural proclivity to live in, as Connie Schultz describes, “a community of strangers.” How did these women disappear without a trace? How did community fail these women?
The role community plays in preventing, disrupting, and healing the ongoing violence perpetrated against women is multifaceted. Being a “real neighbor” is a general abstraction that can be described for kind tasks of helping mow lawns, taking care of pets, inviting a new resident over for dinner, or helping with a household project. These tasks can be done as a good neighbor and can easily be completed by people who commit the most unthinkable acts of misogyny and abuse. Being a “real neighbor” though is not enough to end the abhorrent occurrences of kidnapping, torture, and sexual abuse.
If a house is the symbolism of community, perhaps Cleveland – one of the prominent cities in the “heart of it all” Ohio – is the best reflection of where the United States stands as a community committed to ending violence against women. Cleveland is reeling alright, but it has been for years after the economic recession that has toppled its real estate value, forced evictions, foreclosures, and unemployment in record numbers. The forced silence onto our communities is deafening. But Cleveland is not the only city with its house of horrors. As poverty is one of the leading social factors contributing to sexual violence, those who want to see an end to crimes like this must do more than pay lip service to community and neighborly behaviors. To combat sexual violence, the very foundations of poverty, silence, resources, and cultural trends must be addressed on a local level. National and even international conversation about violence against women triggers a small flame, but to burn the houses of horror, it will take individual communities to set it ablaze with open and progressive dialogue, mental health screening, job placement, accessible health and reproductive care, and educational opportunities for economic advancement.
These factors may or may not have prevented Ariel Castro or Anthony Sowell from committing their crimes, but no knows what kind of benefits the United States would reap if we safeguarded our communities with both resources and relationship, standardized the worth of girls and women to law enforcement instead of hinging their lives on luck and miracle. The role of community is critical, yes, but the livelihood of that very community is critical to its ability to forge a vociferous cry against heinous crimes in their own neighborhoods. No amount of international or national conversation will transform a city, it must stand up on its own feet to its own demons.
The residents of Seymour Avenue are understandably shocked and ashamed that these three young women have endured hell on the street they call home. But violence against women has set up its (metaphorical) houses of horror in every city in the United States. Its foundations are laid early. The scaffolding increases with time. Tragically, houses of horror are built even though the outside looks just like every other house on the block. In this past week, Cleveland received yet another mind-boggling wake-up call that we have failed our young girls and women. We, all of us, can redeem ourselves, if we’re willing. The next step is to move beyond the guilt and help all survivors rebuild their lives by not just rebuilding but redefining what community means in the face of a burning house.