As the details emerged about Ariel Castro and his house of horrors in Cleveland where he kept Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight locked up for years, the story sounded unreal.
Could this have really happened? Could three women have been locked in chains, repeatedly beaten, raped and starved for a decade, right in our own backyard?
Things became downright surreal when Castro delivered a rambling statement at his sentencing hearing Aug. 1. "People are trying to paint me as a monster, and I'm not a monster," he said. "I'm sick."
"I am not a violent person," he said. "I know what I did is wrong, but I am not a violent person. I simply kept them here without being able to leave."
And perhaps the most incredulous statement: "There was harmony in that home. I was a good person."
Could he really believe those things?
In a word, yes, according to Joel Mowrey, executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County.
Though he cannot speak about this specific case, Mowrey, with 33 years as a practicing psychologist under his belt, can speak to the incredible capacity for rationalization that abusers can have.
"They can convince themselves, first of all, that they are really not doing anything wrong," he said, "even to the point where they believe that actually the victim wants this, they desire it, it's mutual, and maybe I'm even helping them.
"In their own way of looking at things, they really can justify their behavior and really believe it, not even as an excuse, but as, 'Yes, I believe that they really like being with me, and this is really what they wanted, to engage in these relationships with me, and they were consensual,'" Mowrey explained. "So he's turned these things into ways to rationalize his behavior."
AND THE insidious part of the cycle is with continued abuse, the victim begins to believe it, too.
"A lot of times with abusers, they're making that person feel like they deserve it, saying, 'If you were just doing what I wanted you to do, I wouldn't have to hurt you,'" he said. "They're really demeaning them as a person, and make them feel that they can't survive without them: 'If you leave, you're just going to fall apart, or worse, you'll die without me.' Or the threats can happen: 'If you leave, I will kill you.'
"They're maybe not chained up and locked up, but psychologically, they feel that way. They feel so demoralized and so depressed, they really start believing, 'Maybe I am a bad person, and nobody else deserves me and I'm really lucky to be here, and I just need to learn how to behave better.'"
Through counseling and other support resources, victims can learn tools to strengthen their self-esteem and confidence and to find their voice.
"They learn to say, 'No, I deserve better, I do not deserve to be in this situation," Mowrey said.
Victims, or potential victims, can find strength and hope from others. It is the witness or bystander who often rescues a victim from the abusive situation. If you see something questionable, a situation that doesn't feel right, tell someone.
"Somebody needs to say, 'Something seems strange here, I think I need to call the police and have something checked out,'" Mowery said. "The bottom-line advice is people need to be looking out for each other."
Michelle Knight agrees. In her victim impact statement, she said:
"I know that there's a lot of people going through hard times. But we need to reach out a hand and hold them and let them know that they're being heard.
"After 11 years, I am finally being heard, and it's liberating."
You are being heard, Michelle. And it's our job to make sure that no victim of abuse is ever ignored.