The Cleveland Kidnappings: When Does a Criminal History Cancel Out Heroism?

Via Jennifer S. White
on May 10, 2013
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Charles Ramsey

I’m a recent transplant to the Cleveland area, and, while this sad story has certainly swept the nation, it has more than affected my new part of Ohio.

“Three women, at least two of whom had been missing since they were teenagers a decade ago, were find alive in a residential area near Cleveland,”  read just one of many online sources.

Even the national morning shows are still continually running updated headlines in connection with the kidnappings of these three Ohio women, but it’s taken Cleveland’s local news by storm.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted thoughts that I’ve been disturbed that this neighbor who helped these women escape, Charles Ramsey, has made more news for his upfront statements, infused with personality and honesty, about our nation’s racial divide—and also simply for the way he talks—than he has for his heroic act.

This started a newsfeed of support for him by my friends under my original statement of “I guess I don’t get it. I think Charles Ramsey is AWESOME.”

Just the small sampling of people that I connect with showed up to support this recently deemed local celebrity. So imagine my distress when a friend shared a link to the Smoking Gun, listing this man as a repeat domestic abuser.

I was speechless—and if you spend less than five minutes in a room with me, you’ll understand the level of my unhappy shock.

This, for me at least, brought up a question that I haven’t been able to let go of since checking my Facebook account last night (hence this hopefully conversation-starting article): when is a heroic act trumped by a criminal or shady past?

I’m not approaching this article from the standpoint of a trained psychologist or social worker. (I have a degree in geology and teach yoga, in addition to writing about anything my heart desires.) Instead, I’m offering up my personal insight and troubled inquiry.

When does a criminal history cancel out heroism?

For me, Charles Ramsey is still a hero.

I’m by no means supporting domestic violence, whether occurring on a regular basis or once in a lifetime. However, I am offering, from my humbly uneducated view, that acts of the everyday good Samaritan are not made any less triumphant because of an individual’s additional poor behaviors.

If I was Amanda Berry (and I in no way mean to suggest that I’m pretending to understand how she and the other two women must feel), I have to imagine (again, imagine) that I’d still be thankful to this stranger who heard my cries and came over to help.

What made national news almost immediately were Ramsey’s words that “I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

Blatant? Yes. Far from reality? Unfortunately, no.

Obviously Ramsey does not lead the typical, white suburban life of either the majority of our country’s newscasters or, quite frankly, the target audience for these cutesie, far-from-hard-hitting morning shows. Are people that surprised to hear a statement like this? In a nation still fighting for gay marriage and sincere equality for all?

Charles Ramsey might be far from perfect, but his remarkable act of helping four fellow human beings escape from years of torture is, in my mind at least, deserving of credit regardless of his own personal past.

Again, I don’t dispense of the seriousness of domestic abuse.

However, when one of my friends commented under our little Facebook discussion, “I am so bummed. Can nobody be a hero?” It made me stop and think.

Initially speechless, I’ve thought about this long and hard—I think it might even be one of the reasons I woke up with a headache this morning—and here’s my conclusion:

Yes, we can have heroes. Yes, some deserve to be considered for their own person paths of enlightenment more than others, but where we get into trouble is when we expect our heroes to not be human too.

None of us are mythical Gods. None of us are perfect and free from a history of regrets or wrong doings. Some of us might have a less self-indulgent, negligent or, even possibly, malicious tale to tell, but we are all people with Achilles’ heels (whether the Smoking Gun uncovers them or not).

Not to mention that I’ve written before about our media’s love of fallen heroes. Is this story not perfect? A lone hero exalted and placed on a high pedestal, only to be immediately knocked down and torn apart? Go, U.S. media, you found your ideal character. (By the way, I hope you can taste my sarcasm; my disgust for our national love of a heinous scoop.)

Charles Ramsey might not deserve my original declaration of “awesome,” but his heroism does.

I guess what it boils down to is that I don’t think I can bring myself to so fully judge anyone while I’m walking around with my own plank in my eye.

My first response to this Smoking Gun revelation was disappointment that there are no heroes.

Then I stopped and second-guessed myself (which I think is something we should all do from time to time), because in our own ways we all need help. All of us.

These three women need rescuing in more ways than physically from behind that locked door. Perhaps Charles Ramsey needs to search his own soul. I know that I frequently need to search mine.

I’m not perfect. Can I really expect my heroes to be?


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta


About Jennifer S. White

Jennifer S. White is a voracious reader, obsessive writer, passionate yoga instructor and drinker of hoppy ales. She’s also a devoted mama and wife (a stay-at-home yogi). She considers herself to be one of the funniest people who ever lived and she’s also an identical twin. In addition to her work on elephant journal, Jennifer has over 40 articles published on the wellness website MindBodyGreen and her yoga-themed column Your Personal Yogi ran in the newspaper Toledo Free Press. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in geology, absolutely no degrees in anything related to literature, and she currently owns a wheel of cheese. If you want to learn more about Jennifer, make sure to check out her writing, as she’s finally put her tendencies to over-think and over-share to good use. Jennifer is the author of The Best Day of Your Life, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She's also as excited as a five year old to announce the release of her second book, The Art of Parenting: Love Letters from a Mother, available on Amazon.


14 Responses to “The Cleveland Kidnappings: When Does a Criminal History Cancel Out Heroism?”

  1. Jeff says:

    How long was this guy a neighbor before he noticed this atrocity?

  2. Theresa says:

    On CNN they indicated Charles Ramsey was not the first person on the scene, it was another neighbor who is Latino. Ramsey apparently puffed up his role in the rescue. I think he's a colorful and likeable guy, and he seems to have at least contributed something, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. But I think it's wrong to single out heroes by giving them money and notoriety and offering to put him in McDonald's commercials. People should do the right thing no matter what. A little humility seems in order.

  3. Jennifer White says:

    Have you heard him speak? I don't think he stole the show so much as was willingly given it.

  4. David Foster says:

    I'm a professional comedian in NYC and for 5 years i worked pretty exclusively the black comedy circuit. As far as the "white girl running" into black guy's arms goes, it's pretty clear to me, he was making a very generic, mediocre joke to fuel the fire of attention he was getting. I have no doubt he initially acted upon good-hearted human instinct, but he definitely seemed to enjoy the limelight once it came. Fine, nothing wrong with that.

    I hadn't heard about his past of domestic abuse. Maybe it adds a bit of irony to his new title of hero, but it's only real simple minds who think the presence of irony or some dichotomy creates mutual exclusivity. It does not. If he has hit girlfriends then that is undoubtedly wrong, but so is adultery – so is lying – so is misleading peoples' hearts – and the majority of the population has been guilty of probably one of those three at least. But then when it's judgement time we all like to conveniently draw the line at our own individual standards… which is bullshit.

    it's not even actually ironic. It would only be actually ironic had he been once guilty of a very similar crime, which he is not. Well written Jennifer, thank you

  5. Jennifer White says:

    I very much appreciate your response. Your description of how we all draw the line of inappropriate around where our own flaws lie is so right on, and wonderfully explained. I couldn't agree more. Thanks again for your feedback, David!

  6. Jennifer White says:

    A year.

  7. matt mewhorter says:

    Well said, Jennifer. A life free of sin is no pre-qualifier to perform a heroic act. Human beings are a crazy mix with potential to hurt and help. I think this story should help us better understand heroes, and how even the most "dispicable" among us have the capacity to do compassionate and heroic things. It should remind us, that we too have good in us and can do something good today…no matter our past or present failings.

  8. Randy says:

    What we are this moment is a pure result of our past, the path we traveled since birth and what we were created with at conception when two unique DNA helixes joined. All our traumas, all our nurturings, all our experiences ~ all these things shaped our perspective of life and our perceptions as well. Each of us is unique in this.

    At any given moment, we react in the way we feel is best, based on our past path, what we remember, what we feel, what we know. We make a decision this nanosecond based on that and hope for the best. This is what he did as well. He made a decision that helped others.

  9. Randy says:

    What he did that moment was based on his past. To judge him or to judge anyone for that matter does what? All we have is this moment. All we can do is what we think is right at this moment. Failures can be lessons. Traumas can be teachings. All things in an objective light can create the basis for improvement in our lives. We are a result of our past, good or bad (and that is a judgement), it is who we are.

    Nothing is permanent. Nothing is perfect. If we accept that and stop judging, life becomes much different. For me, it's become a revelation…

    Wishing you all peace in these unusual times ~

  10. Kim says:

    The man is a hero for these 4 humans. What is the point of tearing him down?

  11. Jennifer White says:

    Thanks, Matt. I appreciate your feedback. I couldn't agree with your eloquently worded thoughts more.

  12. He Did What? says:

    The Christian reflex has claimed superiority….wanting the punishment….begging for the person you judge as disgusting to "get his". Very old school folks.
    Dualistic thinking at it's best (worst). Judge On.

  13. Mel says:

    I guess I'm a bit dismayed that others could be dismayed to find out that Mr Ramsey has a "past." If anything, his past and the fact that he still went out of his way to help these women speaks to the capacity we ALL have for compassion and heroism. Neither compassion nor heroism require a lily-white past. He is a flawed individual who STILL did GOOD. A great lesson to us all: we're all capable, and we should all feel an obligation to help one another.

  14. Gishelle says:

    I still think he's a hero. He's also said to give the reward money that was offered to him to the kidnapping victims. Not everyone can be that generous, especially when he could obviously could use the money.