Michelle Knight swipes through the 2,035 photos on her giant Samsung smartphone, going backward in time.
Some pictures show her at Cleveland's zoo, posing languidly amid the RainForest's ferns. "Model shots!" she jokes. Next, she's taking a selfie in a shiny red Chinese dress.
She scrolls on, giving me an unguarded tour of her summer, narrating each picture with an enthusiasm her 4-foot-5-inch frame can barely contain. At a costume store, she's the short one wearing a tiger mask, posing with a friend disguised as a monkey, then with another dressed as a purple giraffe. A swipe and she's at Cleveland's Puerto Rican parade, wearing a red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag dress. With affection and excitement in her voice, she identifies the friends posing with her, including a local boxer and a reggaeton artist.
Another picture catches her eating a slice of pizza. A red and blue Icee cup stands in the foreground. It's not just any lunch, but another little victory, the moment she gained control over another memory of captivity.
"In the house, he fed me pizza from the garbage," Knight says, her voice suddenly flat and matter-of-fact. She knows she doesn't need to identify him or the house.
She is collecting joyful memories by the hundreds, even thousands — her answer to the 3,910 days Ariel Castro imprisoned her at 2207 Seymour Ave., days of isolation, death threats and unspeakable torture.
In the journals Knight kept as a captive, she wrote about all the things she wanted to do once she was free: run, shoot a bow, learn to swim and box, and see Joey, the son she gave birth to at 18. "Someday," she wrote then, "I will live my life like it's my last breath." Now she's plunging into adventures, pushing her freedom as far as her body will take her. She's experienced some of those dreamed-of moments, such as riding a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster (Cedar Point's Magnum XL-200).
Knight shows selfie after selfie from a trip to Kelleys Island. Her blond hair flies in front of her face, then flutters back, as the enormous blue Lake Erie horizon flows behind her. From there, she swipes over to a pencil sketch, a skillful self-portrait. I recognize her right away: the round cheeks, the big smile, the ring through her lip.
She presses play on a video of herself singing at a House of Blues karaoke night and sings along with the clip, creating a duet: "Far across the distance and spaces between us ... I believe that the heart does go on."
The song she's singing — Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" — is special to her. It came on the radio inside Castro's house one night, seven years after Knight was kidnapped. The lyrics, Knight says, talked her out of suicide.
"I thought there was no hope," she recalls. "I didn't want to live on.
"That song happened to come on, and then I couldn't do it. I told myself I wouldn't want my son to know me as a person that failed in life, a person that gave up easily."
This spring, in one of the many extreme reversals Knight has experienced since her rescue, she met Dion backstage at one of the singer's shows in Las Vegas.
"Thank you for helping me in my darkest time," Knight recalls telling her. Dion responded that Knight was an inspiration to her as well. "That made me smile but cry at the same time," she says.
Two years ago, Knight was the forgotten woman among Castro's captives, the missing person whom no one was looking for. Liberated, she is embracing the sudden notoriety she didn't choose and living a very active, public life in Cleveland. Seventeen months after emerging from 2207 Seymour, Knight has written a best-selling book, traveled to four countries and conducted numerous TV interviews.
Because of a troubled childhood that included years of sexual abuse, Knight has chosen not to reunite with her family. Instead, the 33-year-old is creating a different life for herself: the single woman in the city. She has moved into an apartment downtown, enrolled in cooking classes, adopted a puppy and made new friends. Self-reliant, she has covered her arms with tattoos, reminders of her resolutions about how to react to hardship. She has changed her name to Lillian Rose Lee (Lily for short), part of her effort to move on from her past — though she still goes by Michelle Knight as an author and in media appearances (including, at her request, in this article).
Knight is constructing her future in public, in sometimes awkward but often poignant ways. She has embraced her strange celebrity as a sort of talk therapy, a path to self-empowerment and a way to deliver an inspirational message to a mass audience — and she's done it remarkably soon after escaping Castro's hell.
Despite her new freedom, and many moments of joy, Knight's life is difficult. Castro's abuse inflicted serious physical injuries. Terrible memories return. She is still learning how to trust. She's often out meeting people, and though many strangers are kind and encouraging, some are intrusive and disrespectful of her boundaries. She has the support of friends and advisers, but Knight is forging much of her new path on her own.
France and Germany were hard, with their strange food and languages she didn't understand. London was easier: friendly people speaking English, willing to help. On a bus tour, Knight marveled at London's sculptures and architecture, how it all fit together in a way she hadn't seen before.
Knight spent three weeks touring European cities this May to promote her book, Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed. Her lawyer, former judge Peggy Foley Jones; her lawyer's son, Mack; and the Rev. Angel Arroyo, a member of the Cleveland chapter of the Guardian Angels, came along as advisers and supporters.
The Paris leg, often overwhelming, came together for her one night during a cruise on the Seine River. The City of Light's gold-topped buildings dazzled. As she snapped photos, some music she liked came on. "We got up in the middle of the floor and we started dancing," she recalls, "and everybody on the boat was looking at us." She didn't care.
The trip, which also included a stop in Toronto, underscored the reversal in Knight's life: She traveled across borders and an ocean to tell her story of nearly 11 years trapped inside a sadist's barricaded house.
In Finding Me, Knight answers nearly every question the curious might have about her experience of survival. She describes the chains, the death threats at gunpoint, the physical degradations: eating spoiled food or a single daily fast-food meal, going months without a shower, sleeping on a filthy mattress. Some details she recounts about Castro's sexual assaults are too graphic to bear. She describes her pregnancies and the beatings that caused her to miscarry. She tells how she delivered Amanda Berry's daughter and revived the baby when she wasn't breathing.
Knight explains how she endured. She consoled herself by writing in journals, imagining conversations with her son and exchanging encouragement with Gina DeJesus, her cellmate in a tiny pink room.
The memoir also reveals that the trauma in Knight's life didn't begin when Castro kidnapped her at age 21. She grew up in a transient family in Cleveland, and she suffered years of sexual abuse by an unnamed male family member. She ran away for three months at 15, lived under the Innerbelt Bridge in Tremont and was taken in by a marijuana and Ecstasy dealer, who taught her to shoot a gun and had her run drugs. Her memories of life with the dealer and another 15-year-old are warmer and more poignant than her accounts of home. "They were there for me," she says. "They were more a family than my own family."
Knight has kept her distance from family since her rescue. "I still don't want contact with them," she tells me. "As much as I tried when I was little, I think there's no hope for the future for me and my mom and the family, 'cause I've still got that fear factor of being hurt over and over again."
The book is dedicated to Knight's son, Joey. She describes his birth, when she was 18, as the happiest moment of her life. She lost custody when he was 2, she writes, after her mother's boyfriend broke his knee and Knight lied to cover it up.
On Aug. 22, 2002, the day Knight accepted a fateful ride from Castro, she was trying to get to a meeting about regaining custody of Joey from foster care. The book describes how Knight's thoughts of her son sustained her in captivity. She talked out loud to him as if he were with her, addressed journal entries to him, dreamed of him at night and imagined their reunion.
Afterward, she learned he'd been adopted at age 4. Her book opens with the moment last year when she first saw pictures of him wearing a suit at age 7 and a baseball uniform at 14. But Knight has deferred to his adoptive parents' fear that a reunion might be too disruptive. She doesn't even know if Joey is aware that she is his birth mother.
"They want me to give him peace," she says. She hopes to reconnect with him once he's an adult. "I chose to let him, as he gets older, make the decision on whether or not he wants to see me."
Knight's book also describes her bittersweet reunion with the city of Cleveland. Four days after her May 2013 rescue, she moved from MetroHealth Medical Center to an assisted-living facility and saw downtown for the first time in almost 11 years. She cried when she realized how much had changed, from new buildings to new buses.
The city had moved on without her.
Knight is wearing green, size 2 1/2 bowling shoes and staring down a shiny lane at downtown's Corner Alley. Nicho, a shy, dark-haired 5-year-old boy who is the son of a friend she met at a wedding, stands next to her. She hands him a 6-pound green ball. "Throw it as hard as you can!" she says. When he knocks down six pins, she cheers.
She shows him how to "throw like grandma" by holding the ball in the air between her feet and chucking it forward with both hands.
Knight greets some Corner Alley employees by name. It's one of her favorite spots in Cleveland. She lives downtown, and she sounds as excited about its revival as the residents who watched it evolve. "You can bowl down here, you can karaoke down here, you [can] dance," she says. "There's so many things that you can do now."
Knight is extremely social. She attends Trinity Cathedral and sings in its choir. She's gone to Cavaliers, Browns and Indians games. She's met Kyrie Irving downtown and befriended local boxers.
"I feel most at home when I'm with my friends," Knight says. Staying home alone, she gets bored, feeling she's holding herself back. "Doing fun and joyful things, that makes me feel more alive."
She's adopted an adorable off-white, 2-month-old puppy she's named Snow White. She's reunited with a few old friends and made new ones. "My friends," she says, "are my chosen family."
She has even run into Charles Ramsey, the Seymour Avenue neighbor who helped Berry escape Castro's house. But she found Ramsey overwhelming. She says he saw her at the Corner Alley, invited himself to bowl with her and dropped an extraordinary number of curse words. Ramsey's recent claim on Reddit that he sees her around town "several nights a week" isn't true, she says.
Today at the Corner Alley, she's taking it easy, bowling two-handed because she's wearing fake nails. The lane bumpers are up to help Nicho. "He's like a child to me," she says. "I go over to the house, we chill, we have fun, we watch movies. It's awesome."
Since gaining her freedom, Knight has been drawn to friends with children. She's watched a friend's son pitch a high school baseball game — the next-best thing to seeing her own son play.
"It's amazing to be able to do something that you [weren't] able to do for a long time," she says, "even if it ain't with the person that you really wanted it to be with."
Arroyo, the Guardian Angel, says Knight has gotten to know his wife and children, including Angelise, born in winter 2013. "She got to see my daughter grow up," he says. "She loves children."
David Rosa, a cable TV supervisor and music promoter, met Knight at a fundraiser. He's taken her to a World Cup party at the Horseshoe Cleveland and to the park with his teenage daughters and introduced her to the Grammy Award-nominated hip-hop artist Fat Joe, a client of his, via Skype.
Since Knight doesn't have a driver's license, Rosa drives her around on errands. "She needed help, because she didn't have nobody," he says.
Foley Jones, a former judge, has been Knight's lawyer since September 2013. Knight chose her quickly. She walked into her law office, asked questions about pictures of her family and hired her.
"It told me she had a good gut instinct about herself and about life," Foley Jones says. "She's smart as a whip. She's got street smarts."
Foley Jones' role goes beyond normal legal advice. "For a very long time, she didn't really make any decisions about her life, because she couldn't," she says. "Now she has to make a lot of decisions, and she needs — I don't want to say motherly help — but guidance. She asks for guidance."
Foley Jones has helped Knight find her apartment, get to medical appointments, enroll in culinary school and write her book. "She's getting more and more independent, though, which is great."
Knight has always been the most public of 2207 Seymour's three adult survivors.
On the video they released in July 2013, Knight spoke the longest, announcing she would "help others who have been in the same situations I have been in." She was the one victim who spoke at Castro's sentencing the next month, where she memorably warned him that while she had spent nearly 11 years in hell, he would face hell for eternity. On the morning Castro's house was demolished, Knight handed out balloons on Seymour Avenue, dedicating them to still-missing children. Last November, a mere six months after her rescue, she described the tortures of the captivity on Dr. Phil McGraw's talk show.
Berry and DeJesus have reunited with their families and chosen to recover in private. They've granted no interviews and are working together on a memoir scheduled for publication in 2015.
But seclusion and quiet do not fit Knight's outgoing personality. Since May 2013, she's been living with gusto, charging into new experiences, figuring out life as an independent adult at age 33. Her goal of finding herself — announced in her book's title — includes developing her personal strength but also finding ways to help others.
When she's out in Cleveland, Knight tries to balance her desire to connect with people and an insistence on boundaries. The public's role in her recovery is more complicated than simply leaving her alone. She often meets people who thank her for inspiring them. Some tell her their stories of abuse and ask for advice. Many cry.
"Grown men and women give her high-fives and ask for help," Arroyo says, "and say, 'I respect you, Michelle. You're my reason for moving forward.' "
Others snap smartphone photos, hug her and kiss her without permission — perceived as invasive behavior toward anyone, especially a sexual assault victim. "The only thing I ask for is the respect that I deserve and need to heal," she says.
She doesn't go out alone. "I don't want to be treated as a celebrity," she says. "I don't want to be treated as somebody that is broken that needs to be fixed. I don't want people to feel sorry for me."
She prefers people call her Lily, her new name. She doesn't mind talking with people about their lives or how she has persevered. But she won't answer certain prying questions.
"If it's not in her book or on the TV show she's done, she probably didn't want to speak about it," Arroyo says. "Sometimes people become rude."
Strangers ask her about Berry and DeJesus, presuming that she is in touch with them. She isn't. They were last in public together in February, when all three received the Ohio Courage medal from Gov. John Kasich.
In Finding Me, Knight says she and DeJesus spoke on the phone several times after their rescue. Knight, lonely while recovering in the assisted-living home, wished she could talk with DeJesus every day, but the calls dwindled. Eventually, she writes, "I had to respect her choice to move on."
Knight wants to leave it there. The public may think of Knight, DeJesus and Berry as a trio, but that's only because Castro forced them together. "That's a subject that's not really good right now," she tells me.
Knight rolls up her red sweater's sleeve and shows me one of her many tattoos. A green dragon, with red eyes and a fiery belly, stretches up her forearm.
"My protection dragon is for everything that's darkness in my life," she says. It is there to drive the darkness away, to bring her life back into balance.
Her resolve, her positive thoughts and the affirmations inked on her skin cannot always protect her from the memories of trauma. When Knight postponed our meeting one afternoon this August, Foley Jones arrived instead to say that Knight had been awake all night, dreading the impending anniversary of her kidnapping.
We met a few days later instead. "Sometimes," Knight tells me, "I pull myself back, 'cause I need to take time for myself to heal." When a rough day comes, she needs to understand and overcome it, she says, "before I'm able to talk to somebody else and I'm able to say what I need to say."
At Castro's sentencing, a trauma specialist, Dr. Frank Ochberg, testified that Knight, Berry and DeJesus would all face flashbacks of traumatic memories and difficulty knowing who to trust. "With the love and support of this whole community and what they bring to the table, they have a good chance of a good life," Ochberg said, "but that doesn't mean they will ever be free of the damage that was done."
Without prompting, Knight tells me she reads people carefully, listening for lies, watching for changes in facial expressions. She's questioned the motives of some old friends who've asked her for money or support.
"[They] used to treat me like a trophy," she says. "They showed me around to people. They really didn't care about how I felt. I need people to understand that I'm not a trophy. I'm not a victim. I'm not a diamond ring that you can just pawn off to your friends. I'm somebody."
She struggles with physical limitations because of Castro's abuse. "I can't eat right," she says. She had a stomach infection when rescued. Now, there are many foods she can't tolerate. She no longer eats meat.
Her hands shake. "My nerves are shot. I have a lot of trouble writing and drawing, and writing and drawing is my favorite thing to do."
Her eyesight deteriorated during the almost 11 years she went without glasses and saw little sunlight. As we talk, her gaze is off to one side, not quite focused. "I'm going partially blind in one eye," she says. "It's harder to be out in the sunlight. ... It's like somebody burning your eyeballs."
She's not looking for pity. She rolls up her pant leg to reveal another tattoo: two Old West-style revolvers, barrels lined up back-to-back, on her shin. "Know me as a victor," read the cursive letters, bent like hooks, "not a victim."
Knight's financial security is sound for the foreseeable future. The Cleveland Courage Fund, created to support Knight, DeJesus, Berry and Berry's daughter, has raised donations of $1.4 million, so her one-quarter share is at least $350,000. Donations to her through the Dr. Phil Foundation, after her appearances on his talk show, topped $400,000. Royalties from her best-selling book, which debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times best-sellers list in May, are unknown but almost surely into six figures.
In a year and a half, Knight has gone from no freedom to many opportunities, including travel and a large amount of money. I ask what advice people have given her.
"Even though you have this amount of money, don't treat anybody any different," she says. "And don't ever regret what happens in life, 'cause it helps you down the line."
Knight has an unusual way of talking: halting but fast, full of digressions. She can seem scattered. But a careful listen usually reveals that she's very self-reflective. I ask again about advice, and her answer is that of a 33-year-old woman who feels she's often not taken seriously enough and who shrugs off overprotective concern.
"To be honest with you, I really don't listen to most of them," she says. "I want people to understand that the choices I make are the choices that are best for me. Like, if I buy a dog, it's for my companionship, for me to have somebody that's there when nobody else is. Or if I want to go out to see a movie, I want to be able to make these choices without somebody saying, 'Well, this is something you shouldn't go see because of this reason and that reason.' "
A friend warned her not to see the movie If I Stay in which a teenage girl, the only survivor of her family's car crash, has an out-of-body experience and weighs whether she wants to live. "But I found it to be liberating and quite good," she says.
Like a college freshman, Knight is trying on ideas about her future. She'd like to own a restaurant someday. For now, she wants to resume cooking classes, which she didn't finish due to her travels. She is recording a song she wrote, "Starlight," about her experiences. She wants to be a boxer, even though she's only 4-foot-5.
"I'm really not afraid at all," she says. "The person I was held captive by was taller than [me], and I took him down."
Knight still aims to help others who've endured suffering like hers. "I want them to know that they can have the same courage and strength that I did to overcome anything, no matter how hard it is," she tells me. "And life is hard."
She doesn't just mean missing people. "I'm talking about everybody that has pain," she says. "I know what it feels like to be trapped, mentally and physically, to where I can't move, I can't function."
Other well-known former abductees have emerged as advocates. Jaycee Dugard, rescued in 2009 from an 18-year captivity in California, now runs a foundation that helps families recovering from abduction, natural disaster and difficult transitions from military to civilian life. Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped at age 14 in Utah and recovered nine months later in 2003, has testified before Congress and advocated for sexual-abuse victims and the prevention of crimes against children.
Arroyo, the Guardian Angel, says he hopes Knight, Berry and DeJesus all become advocates for the missing someday. "Those are the people who are able to tell police and organizations what to look for," he says. "Their advice is more important than any other specialist." But, he adds, if Knight "wants to be good ole Lily from the neighborhood, I'll support her."
One of Finding Me's most disturbing revelations is how frequently Knight says Castro took her from his house into the backyard, where her chances of rescue were greater. In one harrowing scene, Castro dressed her in a wig and huge sunglasses, slipped his gun into his back pocket and took her outside. On a cold day, she wasn't wearing a coat. A neighbor saw them both but said nothing. Knight hoped the strange scene would bother the neighbor enough to call the police, but nothing happened.
Knight tells me that Castro would send her behind the house to work on the yard or on his cars. She says he guarded her closely, always carrying his gun, sometimes standing just inside the door and listening in case her creaky pushcart stopped moving. She says she tried to signal neighbors to call 911 — flashing nine fingers, then one finger, then one finger, then pantomiming a phone call by raising her hand to her head with her thumb and pinky finger out. But if anyone saw her — and it's hard for her to say, given her bad eyesight — no one rescued her.
I ask Knight the question that haunted Clevelanders after Castro's crimes were exposed: How could someone be held captive in a city neighborhood for nearly 11 years?
"We overlook things that we can't explain," Knight says. "You don't want to ignore anything that you see odd or out of place."
In her book, Knight recounts being chained and gagged in the basement and hearing relatives visit Castro, one of whom asked him to unlock the basement door. She wishes his family had read the signs and called the police: "the boarded-up windows, the chains, the alarms, the couch cushions and couches sitting in a hallway, crammed up in one area so you can't get into a place, doors locked."
Knight wants to help police get better at finding the missing. She, better than anyone, knows what Cleveland learned after Anthony Sowell's serial murders, that missing adults are not searched for as intensely as missing teens and children.
"They need to understand an adult could be missing the same way a child can," she says. (Cleveland deputy police chief Ed Tomba, who took a leadership role in the Castro investigation, says Knight is "more than welcome to help us out and provide any type of insight she may have.")
Knight still wants to be a motivational speaker, a goal she announced on Seymour Avenue the day Castro's house was demolished.
"Slowly but surely, I'll start to talk to people," she says.
Her song, "Starlight," is meant "for every person out there that ever felt bullied, mistreated, abused," she says, "to understand that they've got the same strength to overcome those obstacles, like I did."
Knight's message is a simple one, learned by many people who have suffered before her: Even those who cannot escape suffering can choose their answer to it.
"Terrible things can strike at any point in time," she says. "So live your life while you can, and always remember that it's not the situation that happens to you in life, it's what you do about it. Because if you choose to live in the darkness, you're going to let it consume who you are."