I know what happened with those three women in Cleveland, how one man was able to imprison and torture them in the middle of a residential neighborhood for 10 years, even though he had grown children, brothers, cousins who visited the house for hours at a time. It’s not a pretty tale, but we’ve all heard it, although to a lesser degree, countless times before.
Remember the command in the Hebrew Bible: “The Lord your God loves the stranger ... and you shall also love the stranger, for you were a stranger yourself in the land of Egypt”? Well, that’s not true in L.A., and it apparently wasn’t true in Cleveland, either.
For years after I had moved here from Iran, I drew suspicious smiles and “are-you-just-weird-or-do-you-have-a-hidden-agenda?” glares. A mother at my kids’ school would spend half an hour in the parking lot telling me about the husband who had just left her because she was ill, and now she was alone with toddlers and no one to care for them or her, and I would ask if I could help in any way. The neighbor across the hall from me would cry over lunch about her son who had been in a coma for 15 years and how she cared for him at home and could hardly get away, and I would offer to fill in for her from time to time. Or I’d see a colleague get mistreated at work, a child teased, an old lady yelled at by her caretaker at the grocery store for taking too long to decide which brand of milk to buy. If I rose to their defense, it wasn’t just the tormentor who resented me; often, the one I thought I was speaking for was distrustful to the point of being hostile.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get it. I thought of every possibility but the most obvious one.
Societies function through a set of entrenched boundaries. Some of these are spelled out and written into law; they are meant to create order and safeguard rights. The other boundaries, born of culture and custom, are often unspoken, even instinctive. Cross them and you’ll be sent into some form of emotional exile.
In most traditional societies, these boundaries separate each tribe (the extended family, the members of an ethnic or religious minority) from all the others. Within, you suffer from a sometimes total lack of privacy but benefit from an equally formidable emotional support system. Their map looks like a jigsaw puzzle: Oddly shaped pieces fit together by some peculiar logic evident only in retrospect.
In America, on the other hand, the map looks like a page from a grid notebook: Each individual or couple, while part of a larger whole, is ensconced safely, if alone, in a single little box. A person may expose herself, needs and vulnerabilities and all, to a near stranger, or on television and on the Web. She may do this merely to unburden herself, or to arouse the public’s sympathy or to become famous. But just about the only thing she doesn’t want is a display of pure empathy or an offer of guileless aid.
Where I grew up, you did things for others because you were human and so were they. You relied less (or not at all) on government and institutions, taxpayer-funded organizations or troops of volunteers. The government was usually there to make you more, not less, miserable; rich people didn’t pay taxes, and the poor just paid to make others rich. You had only each other and your (and their) basic humanity. It wasn’t nearly as efficient as the Western model, but often it was more effective. Back there, if someone’s child disappeared, people remembered and remained vigilant long after the police had closed the case. They talked about it and asked questions and told the story to every newcomer for three generations.
Back there, if you had a brother who had multiple locks on the basement door, you would know one way or another what he was guarding. If your father disappeared for an hour during a meal at his own house, or if your neighbor had naked women crawling around his yard, or an old man turned up at the park with a 6-year-old who resembled him, you would likely know enough about him to be able to connect the dots.
There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care.
There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. Time and again here in L.A., I’ve seen one person look irritated and change the subject when another began to talk about a painful event or personal tragedy. An old friend of mine once sent out a mass e-mail to announce he did not want to hear about anything unhappy that went on in anyone’s life; bad news, he said, weakens one’s life force.
So, yes, I may be completely wrong about Cleveland, there may be parts of this story that have yet to surface, but given what we know so far, I can tell you those women remained captive because the people on the outside didn’t care enough. The man’s family didn’t care enough about him or what he did to others to find out what lay behind the locked doors. The police didn’t think the girls mattered enough. And the neighbors? The neighbors were asleep in their little grids. That’s unfortunate, but it gets worse: The people on the outside didn’t care enough because they’ve been taught not to; because if they do, they’ll get punished for it in one way or another.
Americans are a uniquely generous bunch. They’re splendid at organizing and effectuating aid, at answering a call to duty and committing acts of pure heroism. They rushed toward exploding bombs to save bleeding victims in Boston, drove across the country and inhaled poisonous debris for weeks at a time to sift through the rubble at the World Trade Center. They organize search parties for missing children and walk all night in mud and sleet, put their Ivy League educations to use in refugee camps and war zones. They’re good at donating and raising money for just about any cause.
Then the battle is won, the search is over, and the once-formidable army of selfless and valiant givers breaks back up into a thousand lonely, self-sufficient cells. The lucky ones go home to a nuclear family — a spouse, a couple of kids who’ll leave home the minute they turn 18, maybe an aged parent. The rest have no one, or no home, to go back to. They might have saved 100 strangers from death or heartache, but they have no intention of saving themselves or each other from the neverland between intimate relationships and institutionalized charity. It’s the old pioneer spirit — break with the familiar, pack up your wife and children in a wagon, and do or die alone on the prairie.
But the pioneer, make-it-on-your-own, build-a-new-world-or-kill-yourself-trying spirit, while hugely liberating and uniquely empowering, has its downside: Sit on the porch with a shotgun on your lap long enough and you’ll end up defending an empty, forgotten shell of a home separated by desert from other empty, forgotten shells. Or approach the lunatic on the porch and get shot at enough times and you’ll go home and put a dozen locks on your own door, live and let die.
I still care about what happens to the “stranger,” but I know better than to step up and offer a hand. I find it at once sad and telling that the neighbor who responded to one of the women’s cries is being hailed as a hero. As if he did something most other normal beings wouldn’t do — aren’t expected to do. As if the normal course of duty is to hear a call for help and, because it comes from inside someone’s house, walk away.
It would be easy for me to condemn such callousness except that I fear I’m increasingly guilty of it myself. I haven’t forgotten the awkward reactions or outright rejections I received from people when I believed we’re all bound together by our humanity. The woman crying about her husband in the parking lot never spoke to me again after I said, “I’d like to have you and your kids over for Shabbat dinner some time.” The neighbor with the son who was in a coma dialed the wrong number (mine), mistook me for someone else and said, “My neighbor called to ask if I need help; I wonder what she wants.” These days, I reserve my expression of empathy for close friends and family. I donate to charities and nonprofits knowing that this kind of aid, while important, is no substitute for a personal connection. Yes, it makes me less of a person. I believe this kind of detachment diminishes all of society, allows crimes large and small to go undetected.
The only thing is, I’m still haunted by the anguish of the abandoned woman, the suffering and confusion of the old lady in the grocery store, the unjust firing of the colleague. I would much rather have had a part in helping heal the wound than spend years wondering what became of those people. I do see the distrustful neighbor from time to time, and though we only exchange polite greetings now, I can tell you that she seems no happier for all her well-guarded boundaries.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.