Editor’s note: Angela Rose is founder of PAVE: Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a non-profit that works to prevent sexual violence. She started the organization after having been abducted and sexually assaulted as a teenager. Rose is the author of “Hope, Healing & Happiness: Going Inward to Transform Your Life.” She is on Twitter.
When reports of rescued abduction survivors Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight flooded my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fateful sunny evening in a suburb of Chicago when Robert Koppa, a man on parole for murder, kidnapped me from a shopping mall.
I was 17 years old, and I found myself bound and powerless in a stranger’s car. The perpetrator had taped my eyes shut and further concealed my vision with sunglasses. He didn’t know it at the time, but from the corners of my eyes, I was able to consciously remember details about our route as well as identifying features of his car and his face.
Working to regain some sense of power, I took control over the one thing I could: My thoughts. I thought to myself, “If I get out of this situation alive, he is not going to get away with this.”
I was extremely present in that car — I noticed every detail, every sound, every move. It almost felt like an out-of-body experience, and I made a vow to do whatever I could to make it out alive.
I can only imagine that the three Cleveland women felt similarly — that they would do whatever they could to keep themselves alive to see tomorrow.
A powerful lesson to be learned from the Cleveland case is that of support. I believe the Cleveland women benefited greatly from having each other for strength. After I was kidnapped, I met the family of two other victims of Koppa — one of whom was a 15-year-old he murdered — and meeting them helped give me courage. We bonded, created a petition drive and helped drive the change to Illinois state law.
Funneling my anger into activism helped me heal.
Another thing to remember is that we must always believe the person who discloses sexual abuse. The night I was released, the responding police detective assigned to my case didn’t believe me. It was very re-victimizing to go through something so traumatic and not be believed.
Along the journey, I learned how widespread sexual abuse is and that the person who commits it is usually someone we know and trust. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
We need to educate ourselves and our children about the prevalence of sexual abuse. While these cases of “Stranger Danger” and abduction make headlines, it is usually a trusted friend, family member, date or acquaintance who commits these crimes.
I commend the women in Cleveland for their resiliency — their ordeal is an inspiring testament to the strength of the human spirit. Healing is possible, and their loved ones can play a crucial role. Studies show that if the first person a survivor tells their story to reacts well, the healing process can be positively impacted. Removing the silence and shame can significantly help a survivor heal.
Some advice for their loved ones: Please be good listeners when they want to talk and process the trauma. And for the media: Please give them the space and grace to heal.
In addition to supporting survivors, don’t forget about the importance of bystander intervention. If it weren’t for the neighbor who helped rescue the courageous women, their story could have had a very different ending.
It is incredibly important that we listen to our “gut instinct” and intervene when something doesn’t feel right. By doing so, you can literally save someone’s life.