Just three miles from the now-boarded-up home where they'd been imprisoned and tortured for years, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were together again July 2 in the offices of Cleveland's Jones Day law firm. Each carried her own handwritten notes, eager to thank friends, family and complete strangers - for the first time in their own voices - for helping the three of them on their road, as Knight put it, "through hell and back." "They were joyous and buoyant and happy over the idea that they were going to be able to say thank you," says lawyer Jim Wooley, describing for PEOPLE the off-camera scene as the three young women gathered to record their YouTube video. "Amanda said to me, 'Jim, here's a rough draft.' I read it, and I said, 'I'm not changing a word. This seems perfect to me.' "
With that, the three women sat before a camera and, in the video posted to YouTube July 9 (which came as a surprise even to some family members), showed the world what resilience looks and sounds like just two months after they dramatically escaped the chains of alleged kidnapper Ariel Castro. "I'm getting stronger every day," said Berry, 27, whose grandma is glad to see her putting on weight. "Thank you," DeJesus, 23, flanked by her protective parents, said simply. And Knight, 32, sounding as defiantly spunky as her short new sideswept bob, said with a grin toward the lens, "I will not let the situation define who I am .... I'm looking forward to my brand-new life."
While Castro, who's been indicted on 329 counts including 139 charges of rape, awaits trial and is barred from seeing the daughter he fathered with Berry (see box), his victims, seeing themselves as forever-bonded survivors, try not to look back. "You read the indictment - it's beyond belief. You'd think they wouldn't want to see each other because of the memories," says Chris Kelly, the lawyer managing the Cleveland Courage Fund on behalf of the women (see box). "But there's a bond there. They cried and hugged, both. They have genuine happiness to be alive, to be out there, to just BE."
The women stay in touch and each is in counseling, says a source familiar with the trio. "Their health, mental wellness and well-being is being taken care of," says Councilman Brian Cummins, who helped set up the fund. Little by little, the women are stepping out more, and when they do, they tend to get recognized—something that can be both bolstering and disconcerting when each still craves privacy. Berry - whose grandmother Fern Gentry says she is making plans to have her 6-year-old daughter homeschooled at first and may even consider college for herself someday - says she wants "time to have a normal life." Still, Gentry adds, "you can see in her eyes that she's been through a lot."
For Father's Day Berry took her daughter (PEOPLE is declining to use her name) to visit their extended family in the mountains in Clarktown, Tennessee, the place where she had been happiest as a child. The visit hearkened back to more carefree days for Berry, who made childhood road trips to Tennessee with her family and friend Lisha Jacome. "She could do things that she couldn't do up there [in Cleveland], like going mudding. It's going on a four-wheeler through mud and getting all muddy. She loved to do that," recalls Jacome. "We would play hide-and-seek, take showers in the creek. It was her favorite place." And it was that feeling of innocent freedom that she tried to re-create for her daughter last month, says Gentry: "Amanda said to her, 'You go play on the mountains.' And they just ran and played." On this most recent visit, Berry picnicked and reminisced with Gentry, 69. "She remembered me and her building a snowman in the backyard in Ohio," says Gentry. "She just laughed a lot and is gaining weight. She was really bony when she walked out [of captivity]... We didn't talk about nothing that happened because she's not ready to talk about that. She don't even name it." Instead Berry focuses on the positive, says cousin Tina Miller. "She's acting like her old self - a regular girl trying to move on and forget it."
As for Berry's little girl, who wore her short brown hair in pigtails, Gentry says the child is smart, friendly, outgoing and nicknamed "Momma." "She knows a lot, so Amanda must have taught her something when she was in that dungeon," says Gentry. Meanwhile mother and daughter are just enjoying their freedom, says Gentry. "Oh lord, they went to the zoo in Cleveland. They go to the park, and they have cookouts in the backyard."
For DeJesus, who is living with her parents and recently adopted a dog, "neighbors drive by every day and honk the horn and wave," says a source familiar with the three women. "She's thankful for the support." Her mother, Nancy Ruiz, says the neighbors in the family's tight-knit community have been key to their recovery: "Every single one, they know who they are - awesome." DeJesus has visited Amanda, whose daughter didn't recognize DeJesus at first. "Gina looked so different," explains Gentry. For the 4th of July, the DeJesus family hosted a backyard cookout bustling with relatives and neighbors. But DeJesus seemed tentative around anyone other than her immediate family, says a childhood friend, who has seen DeJesus walking to the corner store. "She didn't really want to talk a lot," says the friend. "You could tell her nerves are really bad. She just can't look anybody in the eyes for very long."
Knight, who was in captivity the longest - 11 years, since she was kidnapped at age 21 - and is estranged from her family, is living on her own. She leans on God and prayer and hopes soon to be able to see the 13-year-old son who was just 2 when she was taken. "The first time I saw her [after her escape], she was very quiet and kept to herself, kind of overwhelmed," says the source. "Today she's very positive and cheerful." A relative watching Knight on video was heartened to see her looking and sounding so well - from her shiny and darkened, naturally dirty-blonde hair, to how she directly addressed the camera and smiled. "It's amazing - a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful strong, confident woman," says the relative. "Just from that 3-minute video, you could tell she's going to make it through."
Gentry says the uncertain road ahead will surely be rough: "It will be a long haul for all three of them - locked up in that dungeon." But, she adds, the families are determined to see all three women through. Wooley, the lawyer who represents both the Berry and DeJesus families, says the women's thank-you message was just the start. "They were controlled for 10 years. They are now in 100 percent control. There's no basis to be anything but optimistic about the future for these women. It's a future of hope, of sunny days, of good days."
- Reported by Elaine Aradillas,
- Elizabeth Gleick,
- Elizabeth McNeil,
- Jeff Truesdell,
- Caitlin Keating.