It wasn’t supposed to end this way. That’s the verdict in the real news this week, after Cleveland, Ohio, kidnapper Ariel Castro was found hanging in his prison cell, dead after an apparent suicide. In a story almost stranger than fiction, Castro kidnapped three young women and managed to keep them captive in his house for more than a decade; he even fathered a child, a girl now 6 years old, with one of the women during her captivity. The horror story continued until this past May, when neighbors finally heard the women’s screams and helped them to freedom.
After being sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years on August 1, 2013—having pled guilty to 937 counts of kidnapping, rape, murder of a fetus, and more—Castro served only about a month of his life sentence before taking his own life.
It’s a painful postscript to an already painful story of captivity for three women, a young child, and their families.
But perhaps, in a story such as this, there’s no escaping a bitter ending. That’s what Emma Donoghue suggests in Room (2010), a purely fictional novel with a hauntingly similar plot: a woman kidnapped as a teen and kept captive for seven years in an 11- by 11-foot room, where she gives birth to a child by her abductor, Jack. There, in that small space 5-year-old Jack calls “Room,” his Ma creates an amazing world where he can play, live, and learn. It’s a game of survival similar to the one depicted in the Oscar-winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful (1997) by Roberto Benigni, where the father helps his son survive the horrors of the Holocaust by pretending their concentration-camp life is an elaborate game. Ma does the same for Jack, transforming their tiny prison into a world teeming with life and fun. [Beware: spoilers ahead.]
Like Castro’s real-life captives, Ma and Jack manage to escape, in a riveting, page-turning part of the book. But, then, the second half of the novel turns from the narrative of captivity and escape to an important but often overlooked story: “After” and “Living.” All too often, in the real world, we follow the headlines of kidnapping victims making their escape and the kidnappers being caught and punished. But what fades from view is the afterlife of the captives. What happens to them when they return to reality?
In Room, Donoghue paints a grim, unsettling picture of life after captivity for both mother and son. We expect Jack to have difficulty adjusting to the real world, since it’s a place he’s never known. He is not used to wearing shoes, he gets sunburned whenever he so much as goes outside, he doesn’t know how to interact with other people or children, and many of the things he believed were TV fantasies are now life-size and very real:
When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.
The story that is harder to take is his mother’s. We want a happy ending for her; we want her to have a joyous reunion with family and friends, and to celebrate all the things in life she has missed for seven long years. But her reentry to the real world is fraught with pain: not only have the culture and the people around her changed (the most significant change being her parents’ divorce and her mother’s remarriage), but she has changed as well. She left a self-centered teenager and has returned a mother who’s spent the past five years sacrificing everything for her son. In the world of the novel, told from Jack’s point of view, she doesn’t even have a name; she is always simply “Ma.” Now, after escaping, she has to readjust to her own identity—not just as a mother, but as a daughter, a sister, a woman:
“I keep messing up. I know you need me to be your ma but I’m having to remember how to be me as well at the same time and it’s . . .” But I thought the her and the Ma were the same thing.
Jack’s mother hits a sort of rock-bottom, almost killing herself with a drug overdose—an episode that is admittedly hard on us as readers, since we can’t imagine her turning her back on Jack and committing the ultimate act of selfishness. Her act is not the result of selfishness, however, but rather a sign she has lost control over her self and her new reality. But, then, gradually their story begins to turn toward survival again. They move out on their own, finding a home and establishing a new life together, letting go of some of the codependence and settling into their own identities, apart from one another but still together.
It’s not an ending you’d call happy, but it isn’t unhappy either. As for their captor, Old Nick, he is largely absent from the novel’s ending. His story is no longer bound to that of his past captors, and his destiny no longer determines theirs. We should hope the same holds true for the real-life survivors of the Cleveland kidnapping.