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Lost and found: why are we obsessed with stories of young women escaping their kidnappers?

From BBC Three’s Thirteen and the Oscar-winning Room to the The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 10 Cloverfield Lane, British and American pop culture has been gripped by the kidnap narrative.

A young woman with long, lank hair appears on a deserted suburban street. She stumbles, and collapses.

A young woman with long, lank hair and no shoes steps outside, tentatively, closing a door behind her. She pauses at the gate onto the suburban street, before breaking into a run.

A young woman runs up the stairs of a dark tunnel towards a chink of light, casting padlocks aside, opening a heavy metal door.

A young woman with long, lank hair and no shoes is escorted onto a suburban street by armed police. She runs barefoot to a police car, screaming.

A young woman with long hair and oddly outdated clothes is escorted from a trapdoor by armed police, while journalists watch, stunned.

These images are each taken from a different film, novel, or TV show. But they’re all variations on the same story. A girl suddenly disappeared. She was just a child, or perhaps a teenager. She vanished from the face of the earth so completely that even her own family have resigned themselves to never seeing her again, and never knowing why. She’s been missing for five, thirteen, fifteen years, alive and imprisoned all the while in a suburban cellar or basement or shed. And then, as suddenly as she disappeared, she is miraculously reinserted into her old life: once lost, now found.

From BBC Three’s Thirteen and the Oscar-winning Room, perhaps this year’s most prominent lost and found stories, to the The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 10 Cloverfield Lane, as well as the upcoming second series of The Missing and novel (soon-to-be-major-movie) Berlin Syndrome, British and American pop culture has been gripped by the kidnap narrative. Young women stare desperately out of skylights or at heavy metal doors, before wrenching themselves through. Their kidnapper has methodically planned their captivity for years, making escape particularly difficult. They often exploit the mental weaknesses in their abusers in order to do so. They struggle to find a psychological liberty that matches their newfound physical freedom, and to detach themselves from the events of their captivity. The same events that contemporary audiences seemingly cannot look away from.

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Kidnapping first captured the popular imagination many years ago. Paula S Fass, in her book Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America”“, pinpoints the 1874 ransom abduction of Charley Ross from his home in Philadelphia as the moment that kidnapping narratives entered mainstream American public consciousness. Charley was never found, and during the search for him and his abductors, the public were bombarded with wanted ads showing Charley’s full curls and cherubic cheeks, newspaper articles and even a memoir from Charley’s father, Christian Ross, that would not be out of place today in the “tragic life stories” section of Waterstone’s. Abduction anxieties have since developed into a fixation on both sides of the Atlantic.

But, as Fass notes, our ideas of what abduction looks like change over time. If Charley Ross was the poster boy of kidnap narratives in the nineteenth century, the Lost Boy who was never found, then the premeditated, sensational violence of Leopold and Loeb’s murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago was the iconic case of the 1920s. The 1930s were shaped by what the Baltimore Sun labelled “the biggest story since the Resurrection”, the Lindbergh kidnapping, in which a toddler was literally snatched from his crib, and found dead over two months later.

Increased anxieties around gender and female sexuality in the 1950s were reflected in a new public interest in the kidnapping of adolescent girls. 14-year-old Stephanie Bryan was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Berkeley in 1955 (the same year Nabokov’s Lolita was first published and met with shock and intrigue), and lead to one of the most highly publicised and controversial trials in California history. The Norrmalmstorg robbery, and, to a greater extent, the infamous Patty Hearst kidnap, saw an obsession with Stockholm Syndrome in the 1970s. A fear of paedophilic abductions of young children peaked in the 1980s following cases like Steven Stayner’s and the harrowing murder of “St Louis Jane Doe”.

Why, then, does our currently dominant kidnap narrative look the way it does? Certainly, the real-life horror stories that have gained the most media attention in the last decade or so have analogues in the stories of Ma and Ivy and Kimmy and Alice: the girl in the basement narrative has emerged at least in part from notorious crime stories of the Noughties.

Room is the story of Ma: a 17-year-old girl abducted by a stranger and imprisoned in an adapted shed at the end of his garden. After years of repeatedly being raped, she becomes pregnant, has his child, and escapes with her son, Jack, after seven years in captivity. We know that author Emma Donoghue was influenced by the Fritzl case when it hit headlines in 2008 (in telling language, she told the Guardian, “it seized me”). Elizabeth Fritzl’s father imprisoned her when she was 18, by luring her into the basement he had been building for the ;purpose over several years. (Perhaps the grimmest detail of this case for me lies in its premeditated bureaucracy: Fritzl applied for planning permission for this dungeon when Elizabeth was just 11 years old, seven years before her actual kidnap.) Elizabeth remained in the 50 square metre underground prison, behind an electronically operated steel door, for the next 24 years, bearing six of her father’s children. As in Room, her eldest child’s illness eventually enabled her escape.

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The Fritzl basement; the set of Room

Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped at just ten years old, and also held captive in an Austrian basement for several years. Like Thirteen’s protagonist Ivy (kidnapped at the age of 13 from her hometown, remaining in captivity for 13 years), she was at first confined to a windowless cellar, just five square metres in size, but was later sometimes allowed to venture into the rest of the house. Also like Ivy, Natasha Kampusch was last seen before her disappearance leaving for school, and then snatched by a stranger on the street. She was found eight years later when she escaped and revealed her identity to a neighbour.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s fictional story is that of “the Indiana Mole Women”, four women kept in an underground bunker by a doomsday cult leader, who told them that the world above ground had burnt to nothing. Despite its surface tonal silliness, it shares DNA with the story of “The Cleveland Captives”: three young women who were kidnapped and kept in an bunker, where they were sexually abused and tortured (sometimes becoming pregnant). They escaped after ten years underground.

These cases captured international audiences over the last decade, and the ripples of their influence have now spread out across literature, television and cinema. But simply playing join the dots with true crime cases can only partially explain the hold this narrative has over our culture. Yes, these cases existed; yes, they were exceptional; yes, they were all nightmarish examples of impossibly protracted abuse. But their narrative similarities, shared themes and ethical dilemmas go beyond their parallels with real life. Thirteen specifies in its dialogue that Ivy’s reappearance in Bristol is an event that has no parallels in UK history:

“What is the precedent on this?” one detective asks.

“There’s no precedent to follow,” her superior responds. “There’s never been a case of an escaped captive in the UK. Plenty enough bones, just nothing living or breathing.” Whether fact or fiction, why does this story haunt us in its specificity?

The victim is always a young woman, usually adolescent either at the time of her capture, or during her captivity. She looks a specific way, too: a pretty brunette with big, round eyes; skinny when first captured, gaunt as her captivity develops; and despite the huge number of missing black girls and women, she’s white. She has all the physical attributes Hollywood and our wider society problematically conflate with innocence, purity and victimhood – and enthusiastically sexualise.

There is a suggestion, then, of something unsavoury in our obsession with the kidnapped woman. When I first started to ask why these stories are so prevalent, one editor thought it was obvious: the damsel in distress. From Andromeda and Sita to Clarissa and Princess Peach, kidnapped women are a very specific staple of the patriarchal canon. When we view the girl suffering at the hands of her abuser, the male gaze functions in a specific voyeuristic way: the straight male viewer can both, on one level, distance himself from (and condemn the actions of) the abuser, pitying his victim whilst simultaneously enjoying the on-screen depiction of transgressive sexual fantasies.

From the plight of the Restoration “ravished women” played by Nell Gwynn and Moll Davis, to the enslavement of Princess Leia and rape scenes in Game of Thrones, these moments allow the male viewer to enjoy non-consensual, predatory sex scenes and still see himself as the chivalrous white knight: he is both rescuer and rapist. A three-minute scene in the final episode of Thirteen sees Ivy’s kidnapper forcing her to undress while he watches, the camera cutting between her naked shoulders, back, ankles, and her kidnapper’s expression of arousal. Which viewers, and which impulses, do such scenes serve?

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But in the current wave of kidnap stories, these scenes are surprisingly few and far between. The majority of Thirteen concerns Ivy’s initial escape from her kidnapper, and we are offered very few details about what her 13 years of captivity were like. Room’s narrative is filtered through the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who is protected from the true horror of events by his mother. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt never dwells or reimagines her sexual trauma; it is dealt early on in the single throwaway line: “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker.” In fact, all these narratives focus not on the immediate experience of victimhood, but ultimately on survival. The singular experience these women share is not that they are kidnapped, but that they escape. Room, Thirteen, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Missing all ask – what happens after the nightmare ends?

This understanding of the young woman kidnapped as a human being with a full, rounded life that both precedes and extends beyond her relationship with her kidnapper reveals a society with a greater awareness of both the extent of violence against women, and its impact. We know now that, for example, 31 per cent of young women in England and Wales aged 18-24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. We know that more than a third of all women worldwide – 35.6 per cent – will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. We know more about the lingering psychological affects physical and sexual abuse have on women, and we also know that the women that surround us are not solely defined by these experiences.

It also reflects a culture more specifically interested in female experience than before, as well as one in which women writers have more creative influence than ever. Emma Donoghue’s Room spends as much of its running time meditating on motherhood as it does Ma’s kidnap, while Marnie Dickens’s Thirteen follows Ivy’s struggle to rediscover both her independence and her position as a daughter, sister, and friend. Tina Fey’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt explores Kimmy’s techniques for dealing with her trauma, but also in many ways aligns itself with modern American sitcoms about women in New York City. We are explicitly interested in women telling their own stories. Arguably, to tell their own nuanced, varied, individual stories, these characters must first survive their kidnaps.

By pushing voyeuristic scenes of violence out of frame to make way for their aftermath, the attacker is also forced into the shadows. In the first three or four episodes of Thirteen, Ivy’s abuser is defined by his absence (this good work is only partially undone when he re-enters the narrative later). We never learn the real name of Room’s “Old Nick”, or even really see his face: the film, like Ma herself, refuses to let his actions dictate Ma and Jack’s life. The cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne remains off-screen for the first eleven episodes of Kimmy Schmidt. The spotlight, for the most part, is wrenched from our violent male kidnapper, working against our culture’s prevailing obsessions with the perpetrator and the specific details of his crime.

Of course, from horror films to newspaper coverage of true events, this is not usually the case in mainstream media narratives. (Even in researching this piece, I was struck by how often sensational stories of violence against women are referred to by the names of their attackers: “the Ariel Castro kidnappings” or “the Burton Abbott case”.) Many of today’s fictional kidnap stories are self-consciously aware of this, dealing directly with the insistent ways our society often wrestles the narrative of the traumatic experience from the hands of the kidnap victim, even when they live to tell their tale. Ivy undergoes a series of aggressive police interviews that consistently victim blame and attempt to contradict her narrative: is she really who she says she is? If she is, was she really kept against her will? Why did she not attempt to escape sooner? Is she lying to protect her kidnapper?

There is a specific rejection of tabloid narratives here, too: Kimmy Schmidt’s first episode satirises broadcast news media as well as the viral parodies that follow. After being introduced on The Today Show as “the Indiana Mole Women”, Kimmy interjects, “Honestly, we don’t love that name–” but is cut off by the host’s question, “So, Mole Women, what are ya gonna do now?” After the press hound her for weeks, Ma finally consents to a televised interview, but cracks under the pressure of repeatedly being told her strategies for coping with their imprisonment, and her escape attempt, were irresponsible and potentially harmful to her child. All these characters struggle with the discord between how they see themselves, and how the media and public sees them, and attempt to reassert control over their own stories.

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But these narratives open out beyond such specifics. They are not just stories of violence against women, and so a greater understanding of female experience, sexual abuse, and the gendered ways we discuss these topics, cannot fully account for the breadth of their appeal. Their moments of reappearance, reunion and rebirth can feel tinged with an allegorical quality. Perhaps the escaped hostage teetering on the brink of adulthood captivates audiences today because her narrative touches on so many of the most prevalent themes of our culture’s most enduring stories: coming-of-age, parenthood, homecoming, mortality.

Each of these stories focus in on the moment the missing girl returns home: parents weep, police shake their heads in disbelief, news reporters shock their audiences with the enthralling tale. She has achieved the impossible, escaped from unimaginable peril, returned from the dead. Donoghue calls Room a “modern myth”, and the kidnap survivor feels legendary: Ulysses and Lazarus and Persephone rolled into one. As one stranger writes in a letter to Ma and Jack in the original novel of Room, she has “been quite literally to Hell and back!” in escaping her personal “Old Nick”. Here, the very real threat of male violence trumps any horror or demon that mythology, religion or fantasy could dream up.

There is also something metaphorical in the way these tales linger on themes of childhood and parenthood. The girl abducted as a pre-teen or adolescent is in some ways caught between childhood and adulthood – unable to return to the innocence of her life before she was kidnapped, but ill-equipped to live an independent, adult life. When she returns, she is no longer the child who disappeared, but has a limited practical concept of adulthood. Room, Thirteen and Kimmy Schmidt all linger on childish things: Kimmy wears youthful yellows and magentas, covets rollerblades and binges on candy. In Ivy’s prison, the camera lingers on one of her only belongings: a dirty, three-legged teddy bear. Both Room and Thirteen have emotional scenes as their protagonists return to their pristine childhood bedrooms, preserved by their parents, where they pour over old photographs and letters. In fact, a promotional image for Thirteen shows Ivy perched uncertainly on the bed, a shaft of light flooding through the window revealing dust hanging suspended in the air. Time both stops and races forward inexorably.

This is similarly problematised from a parental perspective: when your child returns no longer a child, how does your relationship catch up? Would, in some ways, these parents (for example, Ma’s father in Room, who fails to accept his child’s return) prefer that their daughters were still preserved at the age they were on the day of their disappearance? After your deepest fears as a parent have come true, is it possible to relinquish control, once life is back to normal? Both the parents of the kidnapped children, and the children who become mothers in captivity fear the same thing: a world they cannot protect their child from, a threat of violence and fear. While parents on the outside fear for their missing children, in captivity, Room’s Ma also fears it from the inside, looking out at what the return to a now-unfamiliar world could do to her son.

These moments are what turn an inconceivable story into a relatable one. The ordeal of being kidnapped is, of course, so outside of most people’s human experience that it seems unimaginable. But every child knows the terror of being first separated from their parents; every teenager knows the pain and confusion of racing through childhood into adolescence into adulthood, and feeling unable to deal with it; every parent knows the claustrophobia of life with a young child, the constant anxiety, the fear that their wellbeing is utterly outside of their own control.

Of course, all these fictional narratives occur at what Fass calls “the intersection between personal pain and social meaning” – this, for me, is where it becomes ethically tricky to navigate. It’s hard not to feel some discomfort at Donoghue’s explanation of the thought process behind Room:

“Back in 2008 when I heard about Elizabeth Fritzl and her children emerging from their Austrian dungeon, our kids were four and one. My first thought was: how did she do that, how did she manage to mother – and mother well – in a locked room? But my second thought was: aren’t there moments for every parent, and every child too, when that intimate bond feels like a locked room?”

To what extent is it appropriative to take the most traumatic events in a real person’s life and weave them into metaphors for the traumas of coming-of-age, or parenthood? Do we risk hijacking the trials of the Fritzls or the Kampuschs of the world for our own navel-gazing? Turning their lives into a sensational story? Or even cashing in on their pain? (It’s an extremely reductive question, and yet, I still wonder what Elizabeth Fritzl makes of Room.) Or are these simply moments at which the audience is able to better explore the human struggle, and empathise with the characters on screen? Isn’t empathy always a good thing?

These questions niggle at me, but perhaps a strength of these stories is that they provoke such questions. The stories of Ma, Ivy and Kimmy all ask us to look upon the transition from child prisoner to free woman, with all its problematic conflicts. But they also invite the viewer to examine the dynamics of their own gaze. In watching these stories, we are prompted to interrogate why we remain transfixed by the horrors these protagonists, ultimately, escape.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.