Behind Closed Doors

Do you know your neighbor?

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Photo by  Daniel von Appen

Today my stomach is in knots.

I’m finding it hard to let go of the details of torture, abuse, imprisonment and malnourishment from this week’s horrific account of the parents of 13 brothers and sisters, who are charged with holding them captive in dreadful conditions in their Riverside County home.

“There are cases that stick with you, that haunt you. Sometimes in this business we are faced with looking at human depravity,”

said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin when he announced the charges the parents are facing that could keep them in prison for life.

The only reason we know any of this took place is because one brave 17-year-old girl, who’d plotted her escape for two years, climbed out a window with a phone and told her story to police. I can only imagine what it was like for those first officers on the scene, finding children and young adults chained to their beds.

Reporters have swarmed the neighborhood to try to figure out whether there were any signs. But because the parents so carefully kept their kids from contact with anyone, it appears that no one heard, saw or suspected anything was amiss. The few encounters, when the children rushed away from a stranger, didn’t prompt any intervention. Even aunts have told the media they were prevented from seeing the family, so no one outside this nuclear family knew the horrors that were taking place next door.

I live in a neighborhood of tract homes similar to the neighborhood where this family lived. I like to think I know my neighbors on both sides of our house, across the street and behind the alley. Many have become friends. We go to their houses for dinner, they come to ours. We sit together in the front yard and hand out Halloween candy. We share fences and stories and pick up each other’s newspapers and mail when we go on vacation. But beyond a certain range of my ‘hood, I don’t know who lives in most of the houses I pass when I walk our dogs every morning and evening. I don’t know what is happening behind the closed doors and drawn blinds. I choose to think that nothing this heinous is taking place, but one never knows.

Since there’s no one who witnessed what these parents did to their children between the ages of 2 and 29, authorities will have to glean all their information from the kids themselves. Apparently they were allowed to keep journals that have been taken into evidence. Oh, the stories they may hold.

There will be questions about whether someone should have known there was trouble. But what’s the answer? Knocking on doors for no reason? I doubt any of us would be willing to go that far.

That’s why I’m knotted up. There is no swift solution. Sometimes we have to sit with a nightmare like this and accept the DA at his word, 

“this is depraved conduct.”

I can’t imagine the strength it took for one girl to leave. And tell the story. And save her brothers and sisters. Amazing courage. What kind of lives will these siblings lead? Only time will tell.

So today I hugged those in my household. I had coffee with someone I hadn’t connected with in some time. I called and texted my kids. And I walked across the street to find out how my neighbor is doing.

At times like this, I cling to the words a wise woman said to me after her apartment was destroyed by a rocket launcher in the Bosnian War in 1995.

“What other way is there to look, but up?”

I’ll try that Jasna. 

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