During Mass one day on retreat, the priest prayed for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria; afterward, I remembered a girl named Michelle.
Michelle was born to a single mother and until she was two years old, her life was fairly typical. She crawled, walked and went to the doctor for check-ups.
When Michelle was two years old, though, her mother’s new boyfriend moved in with them, and Michelle was not seen again for the next eleven years. She did not go to school or the doctor or, well, anywhere; she was kept locked in a closet.
Her mother went on to have two more children with this new boyfriend, and those children crawled, walked and went to the doctor for check-ups, too. They went to school and their lives seemed like other children’s lives, except that they carried the secret of their sister.
It is difficult to imagine that no one who knew of Michelle’s existence before the new boyfriend’s appearance did not ask about her or report that Michelle seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps her mother made up a convincing story about Michelle and no one questioned it. But her brother and sister knew and eventually one of them told a teacher and Michelle was rescued from the closet. By then, she was deeply scarred—emotionally and physically.
She was severely malnourished and looked more like a seven-year-old than a thirteen-year-old. Her body jerked and twitched as she adjusted to moving in open spaces. Her eyes were vacant and she was incapable of dialogue. One thing that animated her was food, and she made a beeline for anything edible within ten feet. Clearly she had been starved in every possible way.
To make matters worse, her mother’s boyfriend had beat and raped Michelle repeatedly over the years, and her tiny body bore the marks of that abuse. Sometimes she would drift back to an earlier time with a memory and a mantra: “Get off me,” the only three words I ever heard her string together. Once the memory surfaced, she would get stuck as if in a trance, “Get off me, get off me, get off me,” she would say over and over.
At a hearing to sever her mother’s parental rights, Michelle’s mom demanded to have her daughter back, claiming that Michelle was hers and she could do whatever she wanted with her. Fortunately, the court did not agree and Michelle was placed in a group home for people with developmental disabilities.
Neither Michelle’s mother nor her mother’s boyfriend was charged with any crime.
It is estimated that one in five girls in this country is sexually abused and that three-quarters of them are abused by someone they know. Michelle’s story may be extreme, but it is not unique.
So while it is good to pray for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, we don’t have to look that far away to find girls trapped, imprisoned and abused, girls living nearby who also need our prayers.