What Does Cleveland's House of Horrors Reveal About Us?

BlogHer Original Post

Funerals were held this weekend for four of the 11 women whose bodies were found in a Cleveland, Ohio row house earlier this month, apparent victims of convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell. Sowell, 50, has been charged with multiple counts of rape and murder as investigators continue to dig around his former residence. Meanwhile, the gruesome discovery has sparked questions and soul-searching in some corners - and protests over excessive media coverage in others.

But for a few hundred people in churches across the city, the dead were remembered as people. According to news report on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's website, LaShonda Long, 24, loved to braid her daughter's hair. Crystal Dozier, mother of seven who had been missing since 2007, was quick to say, "I love you."  Amelda Hunter, 47, was going to beauty school and had an adoring younger brother who remembered a time when she nursed him through a serious illness.

The residence of 50-year-old convicted rapist and alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell is sealed off with police tape on November 4, 2009 in Cleveland, Ohio

I'm glad that a public record is emerging about the people these women were, because for the past two weeks, they have been objects -- objects of pity, curiosity, horror and debate. Some of that is inevitable, given the horrific circumstances of their murders. But some of it reflects upon our understanding or ignorance of the struggles that families endure when someone they love has fallen prey to addiction. And yes, there is the fact that these women were black and poor.

Michel Martin devoted a segment of her Nov. 4 show to the murders, asking a Cleveland-based NPR reporter Bill Rice and  city councilman Zack Reed how in the world so many women from the same neighborhood could go missing for so long. Reed speculated that it had something to do with the reports that some of the women had drug problems:

"[I]n our families we don't like the aspect that they come around because we know they steal. We know that they do things that we don't like. When they go missing, they go missing sometimes for three or four days because they're out looking for their addiction tools."

Reed also confirmed that neighbors had complained for more than a year about a stench of decaying flesh hanging over the  neighborhood. While the smell had been blamed on a nearby sausage factory, Reed said he told the Health Department that neighbors said the odor reeked of decaying human remains.

Plain Dealer columnist Connie Shulz has been writing steadily about the murders for the last two weeks, and drawing plenty of fire because of it. On Nov. 4, she wrote about the murders as an example of the larger problem of violence against women:

"[...H]ere's the question that haunts: Why do we continue to allow sexual predators to terrorize women?

 

"...For all our activism, all our vows to Take Back the Night and End Domestic Violence Now, we are still the weaker sex, and too many of our sisters pay the price."

Some of Schulz's commenters argued that the victims bore part of the blame for what happened to them. This one's a pretty good example:

It is undeniable that EVERY ONE of these women had certain behavioral characteristics. That's their choice. What makes me fuming, fuming mad is that many of these women had children they abandoned to relatives or foster homes so they could smoke crack and drink 40s with some random guy they don't know from Adam who turns out to be the Grim Reaper. Then the paper has the gall to call them "caring, wonderful mothers" and delete posts of those who inject truth into the coversation.

Last week, Schulz reported that some readers had been complaining about the the paper's prominent coverage of the murders:

As Managing Editor Debra Adams Simmons told me, the theme has been essentially this: Stop putting these stories on Page One. They are not relevant to the majority of your readers.

She went on to explain why she thought those readers were wrong:

"They" are poor black women who ended up dead and buried at the home of Anthony Sowell because of addictions, troubled pasts and lousy judgment. We are white suburban women who'd never dream of becoming addicted or succumb to mental illness. And we certainly would never let ourselves be lured into a false sense of security by a man with ill intentions.

No elixir is more intoxicating than self-delusion. It's so comforting to think life metes out justice according to one's privilege and smarts. So dangerous, too.

This time, the criticisms didn't just come from commenters. Cleveland Scene columnist Frank Lewis accused Schulz of race-baiting:

"Despite the headline — "When other women join in blaming the victims of a killer, we're in real trouble" — Schultz never states or even implies that the callers in fact blamed the victims. Nor does she give any indication that they mentioned race. But this does not slow her rush to judgment. Her take on these people she's never met, whose backgrounds and true feelings she's guessing at based on the area codes and exchanges that showed up on caller ID — as she revealed later in a comment on the web site — is that they're cold-hearted bigots."

And Lewis goes on to argue that the compaining readers have a point:

"The callers, Schultz writes, complained that the coverage is "not relevant to the majority of your readers." And her loathing aside, that's correct. This isn't an election or a government corruption scandal; there is very little to be learned from endless reporting on Sowell and his deeds. We all know that at the fringes of society are the poor and addicted and mentally ill, and the soulless creatures who prey on them..."

Permit me a digression so that I can explain my revulsion at Lewis' words?  I read Schulz column and was haunted by the memory of a young woman who grew up in the suburb in which I now live. She was a star at the local high school and came to our college with thousands of dollars in competitive scholarships she'd won, to no one's surprise. Talented, beautiful and popular, she fell in love with the wrong person -- a person who introduced her to heroin, among other things. She tried rehab, then relapsed. She went missing. Nearly two years later, the police turned her skeletonized remains over to her family. She was 21 years old when she died.

So the stories of these women in Cleveland have an uncomfortably familiar ring to me.

Columnist Richard Prince reported the concerns of Cleveland journalist Justice Hill about the fact that it's took so long for the story to become national news:

"[H]ad they been white women who disappeared in Aruba or in Beverly Hills, their stories would have dominated national and local news."

Meanwhile, veteran journalist Jill Nelson agrees with Schulz that this bizarre episode has a sad familiarity to it:

Invisible and erased, alive or dead we hardly matter. How else to explain Anthony Sowell, a registered sex offender who served 15 years for rape and after his release in 2004 killed at least 11 black women in his home on a busy Cleveland street? Some of these women were never reported missing by their families. One woman who Sowell beat and attempted to rape escaped, went to the police, and was ignored.

There will surely be investigations of whether and how the police and the health departments responded to information that they might have been given earlier in this case. I hope that there will also be more discussion about how we deal with the serious problems that led these women down the path that ended in the house of horrors on Imperial Street. There are many more women like these 11, no doubt with families in crisis, in neighborhoods that can't provide the services they and their families desperately need. This is our challenge, and it won't go away just by turning off the news.

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