Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus: How Friendship Saved Their Lives

Michelle Knight, speaking to the court (Photo: Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk)Kidnapping victim Michelle Knight stood in front of a judge on Thursday at the sentence hearing of her abductor Ariel Castro and delivered an emotional speech detailing her decade spent imprisoned, raped, and beaten.

“Good afternoon. My name is Michelle Knight. And I would like to tell you what this was like for me,” she said.

At the hearing where Castro was sentenced to life, plus 1,000 years for his crimes, Knight, 32, spoke to the court about how during her capture, she missed her son who was only 2 ½ at the time of her abduction, and described how Christmas’s spent apart from him were “traumatic.” However, Knight also took the time to underscore her remarkable friendship with Gina DeJesus, 23, a fellow hostage, who (along with 27 year old Amanda Berry), spent the better half of a decade trapped inside Castro's home.

Knight said, “Gina was my teammate. She never let me fall. I never let her fall. She nursed me back to health when I was dying from his abuse. My friendship with her is the only thing that was good out of this situation. We said we would some day make it out alive, and we did.” You can read the entire transcript here.

Her statement was not only brave, it shed light on a friendship born from an unbearable circumstance. “This is a woman with incredible resilience and warmth and she took that moment to show her capacity for love,”  Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, and a psychiatric expert for the prosecutor, told Yahoo! Shine.

The bond between the three women has long been hailed as their saving grace. In May, People magazine reported that DeJesus had visited Knight in the hospital shortly after the three women were released and that Knight’s brother described the occasion as that of “two best friends.” There was even talk of DeJesus’ parents taking in Knight, who had strained relations with her own family, and a city councilman close to the DeJesus family told the magazine that the women are like sisters.

“These women were in an extraordinary situation where they depended on each other for survival, which is a common response to life-threatening situations,” Clinical psychologist Lauren Gooin, PhD, told Yahoo! Shine. Knight, in particular, fulfilled a maternal role for Berry and De Jesus, and in many cases, intervened when one was threatened, even offering to take on the abuse herself. They were heroic efforts and according to Gooin, a biological response to terror. “Guarding one’s family or tribe is basic human instinct,” she said. “We know from reading accounts of how 9/11 survivors escaped the burning buildings that some took on caring or leadership roles—even for strangers—while others were more obedient.”

The type of attachments people form as a result of trauma are ripe for research. We know about Stockholm Syndrome—a condition in which a person forms an artificial affectionate or romantic attachment to their tormenter. These cases usually arise when the victim misinterprets any absence of abuse as love. “When you remove someone’s basic life necessities and then return them, even for one day, the person is so grateful for any sense of normalcy that they develop a bond with their abuser,” says Ochberg. 

But the bond between Knight and DeJesus, two fellow victims, suggests a different kind of survival instinct, or perhaps, even a profound selflessness. Still, as significant as the relationship is between these women, whether or not the friendship will last is unknown, says Ochberg. “In cases of family incest, often times sisters go through a period of protecting each other and then separate when the trauma is over,” he said. “It’s too early to know right now how these women will relate to each other.”

Still, Knight's statement is a testament to their remarkable strength. "Research has shown across populations that the humans response to trauma is resilience," said Gooin. "These women are the ultimate example of that."