It Happened To Me: I Was Kidnapped And Kept In A Room For 19 Months

Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Lee Dugard all went through accusations and questions about why they didn't try to escape. But no one who has never been in that situation can possibly understand what it's like -- to genuinely feel like you will be killed if you leave a room.

Dec 26, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

So, you're probably not going to get kidnapped, but it's never a bad idea to be prepared. The biggest issues you will face are:

  • Food 
  • Toilet
  • Grooming

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Your kidnapper will probably provide you with food, even if it's just the odd carrier bag of crisps and sweets, because there's no point if you're actually dead. But you'll still need to brush up on your scavenging skills. I was not physically locked into the room because the fear was stronger than any lock, meaning I could leave and poke around the rest of the house during the brief periods most evenings when he went to the pub or off-license.

Never anything noticeable. A couple of slices of bread were okay. Better were things from the depths of the freezer, or decades-old tins from the top shelf of the cupboard. Once I found a nearly full tin of strawberry Slimfast on top of a cupboard -- red-letter day! I think I probably cried tears of joy. I don't even like strawberry.

"He" was some random loser guy my mother had been "dating": 20 years younger than her, never had a job, living on friend's couches. My father was out of the picture at this point and my mother was entirely lost to the world.

Years later, she would claim that he'd abused her, too, and that she'd been too frightened to go against him, but that is not my recollection. All my memories are of her getting drunk and enjoying a life of constant partying and no responsibilities.

It happened on 25 October, almost two months to the day before my 15th birthday.

I was not happy about their "relationship" or extreme behavior, and one night I rebelled by throwing things down the stairs in a fit of pique. He got angry, and then he got violent, and then he got worse and decided to start dealing with me himself. By dawn, I was in the room I would spend the next 19 months in.

It took me years to start using words like 'kidnapped" or "prisoner" to myself. I have to state right from the get-go that there were times when the door was not locked from the outside and I could have walked out.

He never raped or sexually assaulted me in any way. I was exposed to a lot of sex and porn, and a lot of verbal sexual abuse. He threatened to rape me or force me to work as a prostitute. He only ("only"!) physically abused me three times during those 19 months, but badly enough to cause some minor permanent brain damage -- probably from the first time, when he smashed a chair over my head -- and other lasting injuries.

One of the reasons I have never told anyone before, apart from the fear of not being believed or of being judged, is because people always want the salacious details. People want to cannibalize me and I'm not on the menu.

Go to any bookshop and marvel at the extraordinary prolificy of the "misery memoir." Less than a tenner will buy you a person’s entire life vivisected to create emotional masturbation material for abuse junkies. The worst kind of battery farm pornography, commodified and packaged in neat color-coded packages for ease of selection. Choose your preference. Sexually abused little Catholic altar boys not quite do it for you, sir? I’ve got a great BOGOFF offer on kidnapped schoolgirls today! Why our society gets off so much on reading about child abuse is beyond me.

What happened to me wasn't salacious or Oprah-worthy, it was just sick and horrific. People don't want to hear about that. I almost feel bad about my lack of "real" abuse, like it invalidates the experience.

Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Lee Dugard (not that I'm comparing their sufferings to mine) all went through accusations and questions about why they didn't try to escape. But no one who has never been in that situation can possibly understand what it's like -- to genuinely feel like you will be killed if you leave a room, and to know that you have nowhere to go and nowhere to turn to.

Those three women at least had loving families out there; my only next of kin took my abuser's side. In the year or so prior to this, I had called the police on four different occasions to report domestic violence and was always treated like a liar or an attention-whoring brat who needed to learn not to wash my dirty laundry in public.

I literally had a police officer tell me some guy my mother picked up had every right to beat me unconscious for having an untidy bedroom since being my mother's boyfriend made him "in loco parentis" and allowed him to discipline me how he saw fit. Why didn't I just stop being a naughty girl and tidy my bedroom?

The police and people in general just do not view wealthy, professional people the same way they'd view the inhabitants of a council flat; the former are treated with contempt and suspicion which is terrible and can destroy lives, but the latter are excused and ignored and that's really no better.

Plus, I did not fit the stereotype of an abused child. I was too mouthy, too self-assured, too willing to speak up. It's the most horrible of ironies that the more willing a child is to speak about the fact they're being abused, the less likely they are to be believed. Society is incredibly wedded to the image of abused children as terrified, helpless victims who are afraid of their own shadows and need hours of coaxing and bad-place dolls before they can be induced to "tell."

But back to food.

Once, I scavenged an old toaster from the bin and hid it -- it had a tendency to burst into flame when left unattended, but it was like a hug from God to be able to have hot food. Cooking was possible but a major risk and I only cooked things that could be prepared very quickly without leaving any trace.

Water was OK, because I had a lot of empty bottles that I'd fill up, as long as I only used them only for drinking. Food did have to be rationed. I got quite used to eating cold, spoiled food and making even a piece of toast last two days. Near the end, when it got harder, there was one time when I really did think I would starve to death. I guess I weighed maybe 6 stone. I felt like I was dying or going crazy and I ripped the room apart looking for something to eat. Finally I found a melted, fluff-covered half-full packet of cherry Hall's Soothers, and devoured them, paper and all.

My toilet system was a jug and a gallon mineral water bottle. Pee in the jug, immediately empty it into the bottle, screw lid on tight. The bottle gets emptied and cleaned out with boiling water and bleach whenever possible, then a small amount of bleach is left in the bottom. Over time, both wound up covered in a white crystal layer which was sort of pretty, actually. For #2s, try to wait for those few evenings to use the real bathroom; if not, use a piece of newspaper, screw up and fling from window into bushes as hard as possible.

Personal grooming was almost impossible. At the start I'd try, using a bowl of water, but it just wasn't practical. I could maybe have a quick wash sometimes, but having a proper bath or shower or washing my hair was just too dangerous -- during those evenings when he left and I could come out, I would keep an eye and ear on the door at all times ready to race back to the room the second I heard anything. I didn't get my period due to being too malnourished, so that was a hassle I didn't have to worry about.

All I can say about grooming is that when I eventually escaped, my hair had to be shaved to two inches long because it was completely matted, and the first time I went to see a dentist I had to have three fillings and two teeth removed.

I genuinely believed that he would kill me if he caught me out. That's the thing I had nightmares about for years afterwards. To this day, the sound of a key turning in a lock, or the sight of red car lights reversing up the driveway in the dark, sends paralyzing levels of cortisol shooting through my body.

I don't quite know how I survived. I lived inside my own head, mainly, which I still do most of the time. I had an inappropriate and utterly obsessive relationship with an older woman on TV. Oh, I did have a TV. What can I say, I lucked out and wound up in the Ritz Carlton of kidnapper's lairs. I remember spending my 16th birthday cuddling a tatty purple facecloth I'd found. The softness was so comforting, and I treated it like a pet. You learn to take or make comfort where you can find it.

I escaped on 15 May, nearly five months after I turned 16. 

He'd had a cold and hadn't gone outside in six days, but was holed up blasting music or movies at top volume all night. I was going stir crazy and had some kind of psychotic break. I don't remember very much of that night except for brief flashes: I remember screaming and jumping up and down, I remember smashing a big mirror, and I remember standing in the hallway in the dark swinging a knife around madly and the streetlight coming through the window casting red shadows everywhere that made it look like the floor was bleeding.

I went to a phone box and called Childline and then the Samaritans, since the phone box had stickers for both in it, but they were both engaged, and then I didn't know what to do. I waited till morning, then I went to a 7/11 and shoplifted a toothbrush.

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I slept in a park for one night, under a big bush. I didn't tell the police about being kidnapped, first because I knew it'd never been reported, and second because I wasn't really sure what to call it even to myself, or whether I could call it that.

Probably some people will object to me labeling it that way now, which is fine, because it's my story. But I didn't have the words to describe what it really was for the police, at 4 am, exhausted and starved and traumatized. They arrested him for physical abuse and some minor sex charges, but warned me it would be my word against his and my general physical and mental condition, plus my mother's earlier police statements, would count heavily against me.

In the end -- this is the part I'm most ashamed of and I've written and deleted it about three times -- my mother's lawyer contacted me to arrange a fairly hair-raising meeting, in which I was offered all my personal possessions, plus the contents of the savings account my parents had started for me when I was born, in exchange for telling the police I didn't want to go to court.

Ultimately, I drifted between temporary accommodations for a bit before renting a horrible bedsit in Watford. Between savings, my father wiring me money sometimes without ever actually acknowledging what the police had told him, picking up bits of work here and there, and some benefits (welfare), I coped okay financially.

Eventually I took a correspondence course to sit my GCSEs and later my A Levels, then I sort of had a breakdown for a few years; then, when I was 24, I applied to a couple of universities in London on more or less a whim. I got in and moved to London a month later, worked during my entire degree, loved my course, moved to a nice house, and progressed on to postgrad school.

I feel fundamentally changed, and sometimes it makes me angry, and sometimes it baffles me that 19 months could dictate the next 15 years. I constantly fantasized about single-handedly saving people from some disaster or armed robber, because I needed so badly to believe that change was fate and had happened for a reason.

But even though I still think I'd cope pretty well in any disaster or violent situation, I look at my life now and I know that it is extraordinary in ways that aren't news-worthy, and maybe that's reason enough. I have a PhD and a very successful career, I travel widely, and I live well.

I am aware every day that I skipped a major stage in development, by essentially missing adolescence entirely. In some ways this is good -- I am more or less completely immune to peer pressure or societal pressure at all; in some ways, it's weird and annoying -- like having to learn how to deal with periods and start experimenting with body hair removal and makeup as an adult. And in some ways, it is devastating.

Although I am quite good at faking being social and well mannered, I feel like I lack some basic ability to connect with others. I've never dated, and I finally have two friends after years of working on myself, but I feel uncomfortable around other people and spend most of my time in my house alone. I feel lonely most of the time. I have fake relationships in my head, which I think hinder my ability to form real ones, but I can't give them up because those relationships were the only thing that kept me alive in that room.

My worst nightmare, and I have a lot of them, is that I wake up in September of that year and have to choose whether to let it happen again or try to intervene. It was the worst thing that could have ever happened, but it made me who I am.

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