Marisol Bello,USA TODAY
Michelle Knight's short stature, spiky red hair and lip and nose piercings belie the backbone of a fighter who can teach others how to survive in the worst of circumstances, say mental health experts who work with trauma victims.
In her first public interview, Knight describes to TV celebrity counselor Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil) in graphic detail how her kidnapper, Ariel Castro, abused her and tied her up "like a fish." The interview will air in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday.
Psychologists who work with trauma and sexual abuse victims say the Cleveland woman is an example of resiliency.
"She's a survivor," says Charles Figley, professor in disaster mental health at Tulane University and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Trauma. He says she took charge during her captivity and bore the brunt of Castro's attacks, and survived.
"Now that she's out, she's taking charge again," he says. By telling her story her way, it's clear that Knight doesn't want to be cast as a victim, he says.
"Here's an audio visual aid of someone who had been a punching bag and here she is standing on her feet," Figley says. "We should sit at her feet and learn from her and ask her to tell us what it is like in hell and teach us to be able to survive."
Knight, 32, was 21 when Castro kidnapped her in 2002 and kept her in his east Cleveland home. The following year, he kidnapped Amanda Berry, 27, who was 16 at the time. In 2004, he abducted Gina DeJesus, then age 14.
Castro chained, tortured, beat and physically and sexually assaulted the women in what has been described in news media reports as a "House of Horrors." Berry had a daughter while in captivity.
The trio escaped May 6 when a neighbor heard Berry's screams for help.
Castro pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, but he was found dead in his cell Sept. 3.
McGraw says he was astounded by how Knight has been able to pull herself together.
"She's doing amazingly well given what she's been through," McGraw told WKYC in Cleveland. "This is not a woman playing like a victim or feeling sorry for herself. This is a woman who gets offended if you treat her like a victim."
Knight, who suffered the worst of Castro's abuse, was described as his "punching bag" by Cleveland police.
Her history is complicated. Before she was kidnapped, she was estranged from her family and lost custody of her 2-year-old son.
In the seven months since she and the other women were found, she's been the most visible, speaking at Castro's sentencing and making public appearances at various events.
Both DeJesus and Berry also plan to tell their story, but the two plan to write a book with Washington Post Pulitzer-prize winners Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.
Figley says taking bold steps to share their experience in their way is therapeutic for abuse survivors.
Patricia Saunders, a New York clinical psychologist who works with abuse victims, says in the best case scenario, Knight is speaking out to help others who've been abused. She says in the worst she could be turning to the media for attention in place of a solid support system.
There is no way to tell what Knight's recovery will be like, she says.
"It depends on the person and who's helping them," Saunders says.
But one thing is clear, given that Knight suffered the worst of the abuse, was estranged from her family and lost custody of her son, Saunders says: "I would want to watch her carefully. ... She's had huge losses."
Saunders says Knight's apparent adjustment since she was found may be genuine and lasting or it can crack at any moment.
"I hope she's in intense treatment because she really needs it," Saunders says.