Cleveland House of Horrors: Should Somebody Have Done Something?

When news of a horrific crime like the Cleveland kidnappings and subsequent escape and rescue breaks, what follows is a media circus and 24-hour news cycle. It’s not unusual to hear reporters, in their quest to fill space and time, making vapid comments and asking extraordinarily dumb questions. We can always count on Piers “That’s Appalling” Morgan to add to the collective tomfoolery. On Friday night he asked a “man on the street” in Cleveland (in his most earnest, probing voice), “Is there a sense of collective guilt?”

Morgan was referring to all the people who certainly overlooked clues that something was terribly wrong at the house on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland. How could a man keep three young women imprisoned in his home for ten years without anyone noticing? Shouldn’t the neighbors have known that something ghastly was going on there and then done something about it? Shouldn’t service workers like meter readers and mail carriers have noticed signs that this wasn’t a normal home with one resident? And perhaps most disturbing, shouldn’t police have investigated alleged calls by neighbors who reported odd things they saw at the residence?

Somebody should have done something, right?

Our first instinct when we see a crime that lets the mask slip and shows us the true face of evil can be to imagine how the hidden-in-plain-sight sex slave prison could have been prevented with a little more attention from authorities or neighbors.

The day after Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight escaped from their 10-year captivity in the Cleveland home of Ariel Castro, a caller to local talk radio host Mike Trivisonno’s show on WTAM said he worked for the local gas company as a meter reader. He suggested that meter readers had likely been to Castro’s home to read the gas meter and perhaps even to install a smart meter in recent years. Trivisonno asked the obvious questions about why no meter reader had reported anything suspicious. Keep in mind that this was not an official representative from the gas company, but he talked about all the awful, sometimes repulsive things meter readers have to see and deal with when they go into homes. Everything from vicious dogs, to flea infestations, to filth, to borderline criminal activity, to sexual bondage setups, to nude housewives greeting them at the door. He said they learn to have “tunnel vision” so they can go in, get the job done, and get out.

Now, let’s think through this for a moment. A lot of Americans do a lot of bizarre, weird, sick, disgusting, twisted things in the privacy of their homes — things that are perfectly legal when done between consenting adults. These are things that many of us find abhorrent and don’t want to think about, but unfortunately, the poor meter reader, cable guy, and dryer repairman end up stumbling into this dark side of life in the regular course of doing business. Fortunately for those with odd proclivities, their cable installer generally takes a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach (they’re a for-profit business, after all). Also, fortunately for Mr. Weird Obsession, Larry the Cable Guy isn’t a mandatory reporter of suspicious behavior and there is not a government report filed if he “sees something” that just “doesn’t seem right” (at least not yet).

Though I’m no apologist for people doing deviant, twisted things in their homes, I defend their right to do them because there was a time when our family felt the intrusive eyes of neighbors, the cable guy, and our family doctor, who asked a few too many questions for our comfort.

When we first began homeschooling in 1995, there were perhaps a quarter of a million homeschoolers in the country, compared to two million (or more) today. The movement was just beginning its meteoric rise in popularity and acceptance and most Americans had never met a homeschooling family. It wasn’t unusual to be interrogated at the grocery checkout if you took your kids to the store during the school day. Most of the time the quizzes were friendly and the interrogators were merely curious. Other times, the questions were directed at the kids: “Do you know how to spell ‘Afghanistan’?” Because, you know, homeschooled kids are supposed to be smart and know everything by age five.

Not to sound paranoid, but it was tiresome that at every pediatrician visit my kids were quizzed with the standard homeschooler “S-word” — socialization — questions: Do you have any friends? What are their names? What kinds of activities do you participate in outside your home? (Yes, doctor, I know what you’re asking. You know that I know what you’re asking. I resent that you’re triangulating to try to protect my children from me.)

Back in those days (and I imagine it’s the same now), homeschoolers were instructed on what to do if they received a visit from social workers or the police demanding to interview their children because it was a real concern. Presuming the parents were innocent of child abuse, of course, homeschoolers educated one another about our constitutional rights as Americans. Before there was a Tea Party or a liberty movement, there was a homeschooling movement teaching parents that the government did not have a right to enter your home without a warrant and that a warrant could only be obtained with probable cause. If a nosy neighbor who saw your children playing cops and robbers outside during the “school day” decided to call in an anonymous tip to Children’s Services and they decided it was something worth investigating, they’d need more than an anonymous tip to (legally) get through your front door to interview your kids. Even so, groups like Home School Legal Defense Association fought many battles in the ’80s to defend the rights of parents, not only to homeschool legally, but to do so in the privacy of their homes with minimal government interference.

Still, every time the cable guy or the exterminator or anyone else came to our house during the “school day” — and especially if my kids’ learning that day involved running around the woods looking like they were being raised by wolves — I paused, took a deep breath, recited my rights as an American and a homeschooler in my mind, and carried on, hoping he wasn’t some kind of busy body.

So when I hear Piers Morgan talking about “collective guilt” in Cleveland and others asking if “someone” should have done “something” to rescue the young women sooner, I get nervous, because the “something” might take us places as a society we don’t want to go, which might include neighbors reporting neighbors for anything that’s a little abnormal and considering whether service workers should be mandatory reporters of deviant behavior. Because let’s face it, this year, being a member of a “tea party” or “patriot” group is considered deviant behavior. Next year it might be whatever you’re doing in your basement.