The benefits of nosey neighbours

As events in Cleveland Ohio unfold and take centre stage on the world news platform, I’m left wondering what my neighbours are up to.

For more than ten years, Ariel Castro, 52, registered owner of 2207 Seymour Ave., Cleveland, allegedly held three women captive in full view of his neighbours and friends and family. His is not a secluded country cottage at the end of a laneway, or a manor house set on ten acres with a mile-long avenue from gate to front door, or a remote mountain residence in the middle of nowhere. It’s an ordinary house on an ordinary street in ordinary America.

That he might have kidnapped Michelle Knight, then 21, in August 2002 and held her captive until last week boggles the mind. That he might have abducted Amanda Berry, then 17, in April 2003, beggars belief. That he might have spirited away his daughter’s friend Gina DeJesus, then 14, in April 2004, is beyond comprehension. But that he might have held them all, in his house, for more than ten years without anyone suspecting a thing … that’s the stuff movies are made of.

Call first

Castro has nine siblings, an extended family, and a love for classic cars. Friends and relatives have variously described him as ‘smart and funny’ and ‘quiet and private’. Yes, he had some strange habits, like only entering and leaving his house by the back door and not encouraging people to stop by for a coffee. But that’s America.

In the ten years I was Stateside, my ingrained Irish habit of popping in for a cuppa unannounced was quickly replaced by the need to ‘call ahead’. I soon learned that while the Statue of Liberty might have welcomed the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses who were yearning to breathe free, suburban America was a little more guarded about whom it let in its front door. But to each their own. I took it simply as a way of living and soon adapted.

In Ireland, by noon, the village knows what you’ve had for breakfast. The churchyards and corner shops are the nexus of the gossip mill. Any strange or peculiar behaviour is noted in the Captain’s log to be trotted out and appended to the next entry when it is made.

Of course, this is changing. The influx of global immigrants has shifted the balance and this neighbourly nosiness is waning. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t see how Castro could get away with it for so long.

Business as usual

The victims were reportedly kept in chains in the basement and then later moved upstairs to live behind secure doors. Fed through holes in the doors, they report being subjected to beatings and sexual assault.  Surely some family member would have noticed the new décor? Can it be that none of his kids ever stopped by? Did no one have a spare set of keys?

Neighbours are now claiming that they did, in fact, call the police over the years to report unusual sightings such as a naked woman on a leash in the backyard or a child at the window in a house with no children. And yet until Amanda Berry escaped last week and famously ran into the arms of Charles Ramsey, no one other than the girls and Castro apparently knew what was going on.

Drawing parallels

Are we so wrapped up in what’s going on in our own lives that we fail to notice something’s amiss? Are we so self-centred that anything which doesn’t revolve around us is not deserving of attention? Fed as we are by a constant diet of social media updates, have we lost our powers of observation, our ability to spot something out of the ordinary? Have we lost our ability to think? To reason? To deduce? Have we lost whatever innate curiosity we might have been born with? Has it been replaced with an unquestioning acceptance of what is?

Admittedly, I’ve been pretty wrapped up in the Holocaust lately with visits to the camps at Terezin and Salaspils and I’m more than slightly worried at the apparent lack of indigenous concern about what I see as a visible increase in overt anti-Semitism in Budapest, so I can’t help but draw a parallel, however much it might be a figment of my imagination.

Back then, some people also claimed not to have been aware of what was going on in nearby camps. They said they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. And what they did notice could be plausibly explained. The odd comment here, a throwaway remark there – there’s a fine line between quiet castigation and blatant defiance. If our neighbours and friends are behaving oddly, do we not owe it to them and to ourselves, to ask why?

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Cleveland had one of Casto’s neighbours or friends or even one of his extended family members been a little more curious, a little nosier … perhaps Michelle, Amanda, and Gina might have seen the light of day a little earlier.

Last week, I might have bemoaned the fact that my neighbours could report chapter and verse on my comings and goings. This week, I’m strangely secure in the knowledge that at least they’re paying attention.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 May 2013

3 Responses

  1. Certainly one would never get away with a life of crime down here in Zánka – people that I scarcely know sometimes seem to know a lot about me, and the watchful old lady next door is well aware of what I’ve been doing – though she’s starting to forget what I tell her that I’m going to do!

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