I went to high school with Charles Ramsey, one of the men credited for helping to rescue Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, three Cleveland women who had been missing for 10 years. We didn't know each other as students at Charles F. Brush High School, even though we graduated the same year. It was only after fellow high school classmates posted on Facebook this week that I learned our lives had intersected then.
Charles F. Brush High School yearbook, Image Credit: Leigh Goldie
Like many people who watched the media reports this week, I regarded Ramsey as a stranger. I marveled at the sight of this McDonald's-lovin' man recounting the extraordinary experience of holding a half-eaten Big Mac as he helped a woman kick through the door of the house she was trapped in. Although I didn't know Chuck Ramsey, something about him seemed so familiar. Maybe it was the way he wore his Cleveland Indians baseball cap in one of his local TV news interviews. Maybe it was his cadence and storytelling style.
Local and national media proclaimed Ramsey a hero. First, he was an Internet sensation trending on Twitter with his interviews autotuned and remixed. Then, reports surfaced of Ramsey's criminal record and domestic violence convictions. The media coverage was fickle, building him up one day and tearing him down the very next.
It reminded me of a passage from Cleveland writer Dan Chaon's short story "Prodigal":
"It doesn't matter what you do. In the end, you are going to be judged, and all the times that you're not at your most dignified are the ones that will be recalled in all their vivid, heartbreaking detail. And then of course these things will be distorted and exaggerated and replayed over and over, until eventually they turn into the essence of you: your cartoon."
My husband, a native Clevelander and fellow Brush High School alumnus, and I observed the media storm from afar, thousands of miles away in California. We remembered the last time Cleveland was in the national news for a horrific crime story. Nearly four years ago, Anthony Sowell made the news for killing 11 women and hiding their remains in and near his house. This week, Ariel Castro was charged with kidnapping and raping three women in another Cleveland neighborhood where he reportedly ate ribs with neighbors like Ramsey.
In both cases, a man held women captive in his home and sexually abused them. In both cases, the media referred to the home as a "house of horrors". Both times, media reports depicted impoverished Cleveland neighborhoods. In this week's case, reports stated that Castro's house is valued at $36,100 and flagged for foreclosure.
"They make Cleveland look so bad," my husband said to me. "It's embarrassing."
It was beyond embarrassing; it was outrageous. Yes, Cleveland is a gritty city in stark contrast to the sunny Silicon Valley suburb we live in right now. But it is our hometown; it is in our hearts. And it is incredibly frustrating to see Cleveland depicted as a place where people barbecue while women disappear and go missing for years.
Clevelanders love deeply and fiercely. We actively seek heroes and causes to celebrate. So we rejoiced when the media named Chuck Ramsey a hero, even though he dismissed the notion and said, "I'm a human being. I'm just like you. I work for a living."
It's easy to see why national media swarmed to cover this story. There was drama, mystery, sex, violence, good guys, bad guys, tragedy, triumph. But eventually, the reporters will move on to other stories. In the quiet, there will be much healing that needs to take place. We will need to connect to each other more meaningfully to strengthen our communities. And in that process, maybe we can be our own heroes.
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