By Sarah Montez —
Michelle Knight was held hostage, chained and raped for almost 11 years by a macabre man. She also endured starvation, lack of sunlight and extreme thirst.
“Almost every day he did beat, rape, and do horrible, unimaginable things to me,” Michelle said on the Today Show. “I just thought of myself as a punching bag because that’s all he did to me.”
Since her ordeal, Michelle has gathered her courage — with God’s help — to forgive her tormentor, Ariel Castro, who hanged himself with bed sheets in his prison cell one month into a sentence of life plus 1,000 years.
“He had a disease,” Michelle told Christian Today. “I was able to forgive him. God put us on earth for one reason, to do his work. The situation (he) put me in didn’t define me. I choose to live a meaningful life.”
On May 6, 2013, fellow captive Amanda Berry escaped and fled to police, who rescued Michelle and another girl, Gina de Jesus. Shortly after that, they arrested Castro. Since then, Michelle has married and moved on from the trauma. As part of her new life, she legally renamed herself Lily Rose because she wants to disassociate herself from the ugly past.
Raised in a troubled home, Michelle, 20, was living under a bridge in 2002, upset over losing custody of her 2-year-old son. On August 23rd of that year, she left her cousin’s house in Cleveland and accepted a ride from Ariel Castro, the father of a friend. He took her to his Tremont home, where he chained her in the basement.
Amanda Berry was abducted the following year, and they were joined by Gina de Jesus in 2004.
Castro first starved his victims for days to break their will to resist. Then he beat them and raped them. Michelle got pregnant from Castro at least four times, and the beast beat her with his fists and even dumbbells, sometimes slamming her against the wall to induce miscarriage.
Amanda somehow gave birth to a child in 2006.
Neighbors say they reported to police suspicious activity at the home on Cleveland’s rough west side, but police found nothing unusual, even though parts of the home were locked and inaccessible.
In 2013, Amanda managed to escape, catalyzing the subsequent rescue of her co-captives and arrest of Castro. Michelle was only 80 pounds when she was found and taken to the hospital. She had lost the will to live.
“They told me I only had two days to live, I was dying of a bacterial infection. I just wanted to let go.” Michelle recounted. “The first time that I tried to let go (and die), the first thought that came to my mind was my son. I don’t want my son to see me as a person that took the easy way out. That’s the real reason why I didn’t commit suicide.”
Because she was chained in constant darkness, Michelle couldn’t bear the light of the sun.
“When I first was outside, it felt like my eyes were being fried like eggs in a frying pan,” she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She wore special sunglasses for days.
Michelle spent her first year in an out of hospitals recovering from the physical and psychological damage. In hospice care, she found her gift of writing.
“I chose to write down my feelings, write down everything that I was going through, even if it was hard for me to write,” she explained. She went through therapy to process the harrowing nightmare of her past and learn mental and emotional strategies to overcome the pain and move on to the future. She also found God, who worked miraculously in her heart.
On Aug 1, 2013, Michelle confronted her abuser face to face on the day of his sentencing.
“From this moment on, I will not let you define me,” she told him.
“I wanted to let him know that he didn’t break me, that I was going to be strong,” she said afterward. “And what he had put me through I’m going to overcome.”
Michelle officially changed her name to Lily Rose Lee. It was a way of breaking with the past. She chose “Lily” because lilies are pure and “Rose” because that was her best friend’s name. Rose stood by her side through good times and bad. “Lee” was her son’s middle name.
Michelle married Miguel in 2016 and has worked in groups helping missing persons. She wishes to see her son, adopted during her captivity by his foster parents, when he comes of age.
“Everyday of every hour I thought of what my son might think of me if I had done this this and this,” she says. “When I wanted to kill myself I saw my son telling me mom I don’t want you to kill yourself, I want you to survive this.”
Michelle, now 38, expressed a desire to adopt, since her abuse, she said, probably made her infertile. Her fellow captives expressed through representatives to the media their desire for privacy. Michelle is using her story to encourage others in situations of abuse. She wrote a book Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed to tell her story of recovery.
“If you had already went through torture in your life, you can’t be broken twice,” Michelle says. “You can only survive after that.”
She is an inspiration to those who have been abused, suffered domestic violence, and also human trafficking victims.
Sarah Montez studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.