Cuyahoga Falls -- Once she was lost, stopping by a store to ask directions when a chance encounter with a friend's father led to more than a decade of captivity and abuse. Today, Lily Rose Lee, the woman formerly known as Michelle Knight, has found her way as an advocate for other victims. Lee says she shares her story as a means of encouraging them to hold on and hope, even when the odds seem impossible. "They have the strength," she says, "it's within."
Lee spoke at Cuyahoga Falls High School on April 28. The Cleveland kidnapping victim says she is compelled to speak because, in doing so, she may be a life line for someone else. Half of the ticket sales from the event, which was hosted by the Six District Compact's Criminal Justice program, will be donated to the Battered Women's Shelter of Summit & Medina Counties. Lee answered questions submitted by the audience. Afterward, there was an opportunity for photos with her and she also signed copies of her book, "Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings," for those who brought along a copy.
Issac Baez, a specialized outreach advocate for the Battered Women's Shelter, said 20 people per minute in the United States are victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence or stalking. Lee recounted her first-hand experience. She was 21 when she became the first of three women kidnapped and held prisoner by Ariel Castro. At the time Lee had a 2-year-old son and she says Castro offered her both a ride and a promise of a puppy for Joey. The years ahead would be an endless cycle of sexual abuse, assault and torture; Lee confides there was one thing which helped her endure: "My son was my inspiration to stay alive. There were times I wanted to kill myself and wanted to give up on myself, but I chose not to because I felt within my heart if I gave up, I was giving up on my son. Surviving was thinking of my son and how I was going to come back to him and how we were going to have a happy life."
Lee and the two other women she was imprisoned with, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, escaped in May 2013. Castro was arrested and pleaded guilty to more than 900 counts, but just one month after being sentenced to life plus 1,000 years, he hanged himself. In transitioning back to "normal" life, Lee says she has discovered a passion. "I want to try to reach battered women, abuse victims, missing and exploited children," Lee says, explaining, " They know that I can understand better than anyone. I actually want to be a therapist."
Since her release, Lee says she has chosen to move forward in life focusing on promise, not pain. While she doesn't want the ordeal to define her, Lee says she believes God brought her through it so she can use her experiences to help others. Lee has found a unique way to express her resiliency over the past: tattoos. For instance, the five roses on her left arm, she said, represent the five times she was impregnated by Castro, who then beat or starved her into miscarrying the babies. "Each one was more horrible than the first," she said, adding Castro told her, 'You done this to yourself -- you shouldn't have got in my car.'" But Lee says the message she wants every abuse victim to know is, "It isn't your fault and you have nothing to be ashamed of." She described her most precious ink as a two-word reminder: "Faith and Hope." No matter what you're enduring, Lee says, there are support systems and people willing to help. You may reach a 24-hour domestic violence hotline by calling (888) 395-4357 in Summit County or (877) 414-1344 in Medina County.
Lee wrote and drew in a journal while she was a captive and says she continues to express herself artistically through painting and drawing today. "I was abused as a child -- sexually, mentally, physically and emotionally -- and during that time I used to hide under my bed with a flashlight and I'd just draw ... It helps you release in a positive way instead of a negative way."
Lee has dreams of getting married and having a family one day; for now, that niche is filled by a handful of dogs, including a rescued pooch that is especially dear to her heart.
"Now that I am free I'm going to try my hardest to live the life the way it should've been before I was taken ....," Lee says. "Some people tell me I've changed their life for the better and I want to keep doing that. I want to make sure that each and every person knows that they've got the strength, just like I have, that they are important, and that there's somebody out there that cares-- and that's me."
Twitter: @ EllinWalsh_RPC