CLEVELAND – Michelle Knight has discovered that the fame that followed her escape from Ariel Castro’s house of horrors cuts both ways.
There has been some obvious good. The girl who grew up without a toothbrush and spent nearly 11 years in captivity can provide for herself. She has her own apartment. Her book, “Finding Me,” spent five weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List. She and the other two women kidnapped by Castro split $1.4 million in donations collected after their escape. Phil McGraw of “Dr. Phil” television fame presented Knight with an oversized check for more than $400,000 from his foundation.
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Knight said she is ready to assume a normal life and, with it, a new name and identity – Lily Rose Lee.
“I’m not a celebrity,” said Knight, 33. “I don’t want to be. I want to be me.”
Fame has brought some frustrations. Knight becomes frightened when crowds sometimes gather around her as she walks alone. She finds it annoying when people snap cellphone photos without asking.
And people from her distant past have reappeared, feigning friendship but ultimately seeking money, she said.
“You have to be careful every day because of the book and the money and the 'it' factor of who you are,” she said. “They’re not coming at me to be my friend. They want what I have.”
Knight writes in her book that she grew up under less than ideal circumstances. Food and clothing were hard to come by. Strangers drifted in and out of the house at all hours. She said her mother kept her home from school for days at a time to care for her twin brothers and assorted cousins who lived there.
She ran away from home at 15 and lived beneath a highway underpass and then with a drug dealer for a few months. She said in the interview that it was the most nurturing period of her early life.
Knight was 21 when Castro lured her to his home in August 2002. Amanda Berry was abducted in April 2003 just a day shy of her 17th birthday, and Gina DeJesus was 14 when he kidnapped her a year later.
The women escaped from Castro’s home on May 6, 2013. Castro took a plea deal to avoid a potential death sentence and received life in prison plus 1,000 years. Knight said he violently aborted five of her pregnancies by kicking, punching and stomping on her abdomen after impregnating her. He ended up hanging himself in his prison cell a month after sentencing.
While Berry and DeJesus were reunited with loving families who had prayed that they would someday return, Knight refused to meet her mother who had flown to Cleveland from Florida. Knight spent the first four months of her freedom in an assisted living facility because she had nowhere else to go.
Knight said her 3,911 days in captivity have helped instill in her a deep appreciation for what’s good in the world.
“It’s just the little stupid things, like picking up a phone or writing in a book or looking out a window or just seeing a bird fly by,” she said.
These days, she waits her turn at a local bar for karaoke night. She’s trying to write and record songs. While she has been befuddled by some of the new technology that didn’t exist in 2002 – like flat-screen televisions – she has no problems pecking away at her over-sized smartphone.
She also has a growing collection of tattoos, including an image of a pretty young girl on her left bicep. She said the tattoo represents the babies Castro killed.
“They are my little angels,” she said.
Knight has an infectious giggle and is quick to smile. She has a few phobias, like always keeping her apartment drapes open after living in boarded-up rooms inside the Castro house. Having lived in filth for so long, she said she’s become a compulsive cleaner.
The course Knight is setting means leaving her family behind. She said she forgives them but doesn’t want anything to do with them.
She also has decided to not pursue visitation rights with her son, Joey, who is now 14 and lives with adoptive parents. Knight said he doesn’t know she’s his birthmother and she doesn’t want to disrupt his life. She knows he’s happy, and that’s good enough for her.
As for the future, she has a number of aspirations such as becoming a chef and owning a restaurant and recording music. What seems to excite her most, at the moment, is the prospect of soon visiting Disney World.
Knight said she believes God has a plan for her life.
Her Facebook page, which has nearly 24,000 likes, has become a support group for trauma victims. Discussing what she and others have endured has been therapeutic for her, she said. What pleases her most is having a positive effect on the lives of others.
“If I can help more than a million people or just one,” she said, “I did my job.”