Room is not the kind of movie that leaves you alone once it’s over. The Oscar-nominated film starring Brie Larson and based on the Emma Donoghue novel by the same name practically set up shop in my brain with its unflinching and de-sensationalized exploration of kidnapping and the scars that it leaves. Room sets itself apart from lesser character-driven dramas with deep, layered performances (especially from Larson and her young co-star Jacob Tremblay) and focused, measured direction by Lenny Abrahamson. But the movie is also unique because of its subject matter. Audiences are fascinated by kidnapping survival stories like the one in Room ; real-life cases of similar abductions are favorite topics for morning shows and all-day news channels. This movie zeros in on the survivors, eliminating the chatter that usually accompanies these types of provocative stories.
I wish I could say that Room is a work of complete fiction with no basis in reality. Unfortunately, the movie resembles several real-life kidnapping stories involving a victim and a child (or children) being raised in captivity. Room takes the narrative away from the perpetrator (who doesn’t deserve the focus) and lets the messy resilience of Ma and Jack shine through. These real-life survivors have also shown unimaginable strength in the aftermath of their monstrous ordeals.
Austrian woman Elisabeth Fritzl was 18 years old when her own father lured her into the basement of their home for help with a project, where she remained for 24 years. The Guardian reported that Josef Fritzl explained his daughter's disappearance with several letters he forced her to write, stating that she ran away from home and joined a cult. Even her mother was unaware that Elisabeth was living in squalor right below her. Thanks in part to taped testimony from the victim saying that her father repeatedly abused and raped her, resulting in seven births, Fritzl, after pleading guilty to charges of incest, rape, coercion, false imprisonment, enslavement and negligent homicide (of one of Fritzl's children), was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009.
As for the children, three lived in captivity with their mother, one died as a newborn, and three were raised by Elisabeth's parents after Josef claimed they'd been left at their doorstep. Elisabeth taught her children to read and write, but the children and their mother required extensive therapy after they were freed in order to adjust to light, space, and the outside world in general, according to a follow-up piece by The Independent in 2010. Room has been described as being loosely based on the Fritzl case, especially since a note tucked in the pocket of one of Elisabeth's children caught the attention of authorities when she had to be taken outside for medical treatment. Author Emma Donoghue, however, refuted this claim to the National Post, calling the Fritzl case "much more complicated and horrifying" than the one in the film.
Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry & Gina DeJesus
The most recent and heinous kidnapping case on this list came to light in 2013 in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. As Cleveland.com reported, Amanda Berry's screams alerted her neighbors, who had no idea that three women and a six-year-old girl (Berry's) were being held against their will in the unassuming house next door. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, had captured each woman between 2002 and 2004 by offering her a ride. After their escape, Knight told authorities and Newsweek that she'd been pregnant five times during her imprisonment and that Castro repeatedly beat her to make sure a child wouldn't be brought to term. He treated Berry's daughter as his own, however, and would take her out into the world to visit with his family.
After Castro's arrest (for 329 counts, including aggravated murder and rape), he was sentenced to life in prison in 2013, and a fund was quickly established to help Castro's victims re-establish themselves in the world; Cleveland.com announced that it raised over $1 million before the women even issued their first public statement.
Jaycee Dugard vanished at the age of 11 on her way to catch the school bus. She was kidnapped and imprisoned by Phillip and Nancy Garrido (as reported by CNN) in the shed behind their California home. For 18 years, Dugard remained trapped and a victim of repeated sexual, physical and emotional abuse by both Garridos. At 13, they told her that she was pregnant. Dugard was terrified. Labor was hell, but resulted in new hope for the young woman. "And then I saw her. She was beautiful," Dugard wrote in her memoir, A Stolen Life , according to ABC News. "I felt like I wasn't alone anymore. [I] had somebody else who was mine."
Dugard gave birth to a second daughter a few years later and endeavored to give them both as normal a life and as comprehensive an education as her grotesque living situation would allow. Jaycee and her daughters were freed not long after the disturbed Phillip Garrido brought the children to the University Of California, Berkeley and aroused suspicion with his strange behavior; the officer who questioned him later recounted the experience for ABC News. Upon arrest, the Garridos pled guilty to counts of rape and kidnapping, confessed to their crimes, and were sentenced to decades in jail. As for Dugard, in addition to penning an autobiography detailing her abduction and survival, she has become an advocate for trauma victims and their families through her JAYC Foundation.
Room is a work of fiction, but by telling this story, it lends support and awareness to real-life abduction survivors.
Image: A24 Films