Skip to main content

Ohio Kidnapping Survivors Recount Captivity, Escape From Horror

In 2013, three young women who had vanished years earlier escaped from a house where they had been held captive. Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, along with writer Mary Jordan, discuss their new memoir.


Other segments from the episode on April 29, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 29, 2015: Interview with Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus & Mary Jordan; Review of the string quartet, Brooklyn Riders', new CD the Almanac; Review of Karl Ove Knausgaard…


April 29, 2015

Guests: Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus & Mary Jordan

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After 10 years of a search for the missing girls Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, family, friends, the police and Americans who had followed the story were shocked and relieved when they escaped in 2013. Now they are telling their story in a new book called "Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland." Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus are my guests, along with Mary Jordan, one of the two journalists who co-wrote their memoir. A third woman was held captive with Berry and DeJesus and escaped with them - Michelle Knight. She's written her own memoir.

Amanda Berry was abducted by Ariel Castro on the day before her 17th birthday in 2003. Gina DeJesus was taken by him nearly a year later when she was 14 and in seventh grade. Castro chained the girls, raped them - often several times a day - and nearly starved them. He was captured shortly after they escaped and killed himself after about one month in prison. It was only after they escaped that anyone knew that Berry had given birth to a daughter, Jocelyn, fathered by Castro during Berry's captivity. Jocelyn is now 8 years old.

Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Mary Jordan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Amanda and Gina, I'm wondering if it was helpful or awful to go through the process of writing the book and reliving those memories so that you could work on the book. Amanda, you want to start?

AMANDA BERRY: I knew it was going to be a little tough, but I think it got tougher at some points than others that, you know, I just kind of wasn't expecting.

GROSS: What was one of those points for you where it was hard?

BERRY: Talking about the harder things in the house like the things that he would do or...

GROSS: Do to you, yeah.

BERRY: Yeah.

GROSS: And Gina, what about you? Is this like a therapeutic process or a difficult one?

GINA DEJESUS: I was kind of excited to do it. And then, like, a little bit into it, it was just, I guess, too much for me.

GROSS: Mary, why did you want to write this story?

MARY JORDAN: I'm a correspondent, and I've lived around the world and seen really sad, painful tragedies. And, you know, you always wonder how people can get through pain. And here I talked to Amanda and Gina and made lifelong friends and helped them try to explain to everyone else how you do it. And what you do is you find a mental life raft somehow. And they'll tell you, you know, for Amanda and Gina, their life raft was they clung to hope that they would get out of there. They would outlast their captor. And they would get back to their families.

GROSS: We are always told don't get into a car with a stranger. And you each voluntarily got in Ariel Castro's car. But you kind of knew him, and you knew his children. And in that sense, he wasn't really a stranger. I mean, you had no reason to expect that the father of children who you knew could be as horrible and violent and cruel. What made you realize that getting in the car with him was a mistake? What was the first inkling you had that he was a terrible man?

DEJESUS: I was kind of freaking out a little bit when he didn't turn around. But then when he started talking to me about his daughter and how he was going to take his daughter to the mall and stuff, I kind of got a little bit relaxed, but not really because I was still a little scared.

GROSS: And Amanda?

BERRY: He didn't seem - he wasn't mean in the car. Like, he was talkative and he kept the conversation going. And he was talking about his kids and how one of his kids worked at the Burger King that I worked at because I had my uniform on. So that - you know, he was talking about that for a couple of minutes. I mean, I couldn't tell that he was this horrible man talking to him in the van.

GROSS: So during so much of your captivity, you were kept chained to a pole or to a radiator. How long was the chain? Like, how much - how many feet about were you able to walk before the chain ran out?

BERRY: Like five feet I think? It was - it was like couldn't really do nothing. I mean, you had enough room to get up and use the bathroom or something like that, but...

GROSS: When you say bathroom you mean the pot in the room. You didn't - you weren't allowed to really use the bathroom most of the time, right?

BERRY: Oh yeah, no. There was a garbage can in there that I had to use for the bathroom.

GROSS: What happened to you physically being chained that much? Meaning, you must have gone crazy physically as well as emotionally and mentally.

BERRY: Yes, it was - it was tough. And, you know, trying to sleep and the chain was around my stomach, so - and there was a big lock on it, so anytime that I wanted to turn to my side I would have to move the chain to put the lock in the front of my stomach or, you know, I'd be laying on this big chain and this big lock, and it was just uncomfortable.

GROSS: Among the horrible things that happened to you when you were held hostage is that you were raped repeatedly by Ariel Castro - sometimes three, four times a day. He knew he had a sex problem. Amanda, he told you he had a sex problem. What did he tell you about himself?

BERRY: He said it, like, came from when he was younger, and, you know, he said that he was molested as a little boy. And, you know, from there things just - I guess he got - I don't know. Maybe it messed him up in the head or something because he just - he got worse after that. Like, he started noticing, you know, more.

GROSS: Mary, as the journalist working on the story, what were you able to learn about Ariel Castro's sexual problem - his sexual addiction - whatever you want to call it - that led to enslaving three women?

JORDAN: He had a real problem with women, to say the least. He had a common-law wife that he...

GROSS: I'm just going to stop for a second because I said women. I should really be saying girls. I mean, Gina, you were in seventh grade. Amanda, you had - you were abducted the day before your 17th birthday. So anyways, let me let you continue, Mary.

JORDAN: OK. Before he started kidnapping girls, he had a common-law wife. And he beat her. I mean, it was terribly - stomped on her head, broke her teeth. He said to Amanda and Gina in the house that he hated his mother. He also, by the way, went to her house. He was very hard to figure out. But I think the root of a lot of this was, you know, the violence against Amanda and Gina and what he did to his common-law wife. It was terrible - terrible.

GROSS: The common-law wife pressed charges against him. But she eventually dropped the charges?

JORDAN: Because he was so intimidating. He waited outside the court. She finally - his common-law wife finally got the courage to go and try to press domestic violence charges against him. And he waited outside the courthouse and said he'd kill her if she went in there and kept pursuing charges against him - and, by the way, if you don't do that I'll give you a car. Of course he never gave her anything, just threats. It's the real tragedy here that this domestic violence went unchecked and it went on for years and years before he started kidnapping girls.

GROSS: And there were other things that seemed like they could have been clues about how something was terribly wrong with him. I mean, so you have three girls who have gone missing, and in a nearby neighborhood, you have this man who has been charged with domestic abuse. Even though the charges were dropped, I think it was probably clear they were withdrawn under pressure. He has, you know, the windows covered with quilts and other things. He has all this, like, junk collecting in his backyard in a way that looks kind of weird from how it's described in the book. And no one thinks of checking him out as a possibility to see whether there might be girls hidden in there? Does that surprise you, Mary?

JORDAN: You know, he was very clever. You can't underestimate how smooth he was. He was a school bus driver...

GROSS: Well, that's another amazing part of this story.

JORDAN: He was a musician. He kept himself tidy. He kind of was unremarkable. He was the kind of guy that you'd pass on the street. He would say hello. You'd never think about him. He was unremarkable. He almost was like the wallpaper. You know, at the end he said to himself, I can't believe I was able to keep this a secret for 10 years. But really it was a credit to himself. And if you walked down the street, you didn't see that he had put a door and nailed it to those windows and had quilts because he pulled the curtains. He had the curtains inside. And he tidied up his front lawn. You know, his house was a mess because he was a big hoarder. But he was very clever. He was saying hello to neighbors. He was sweet. He drove the school bus. He was good to his friends. He just had a double life. And when he walked inside his front door, he became a whole other violent person.

GROSS: Amanda, Gina, each of you had a TV. Like, that's the thing that he enabled you to do while you were chained up. There was a TV in front of you. And you write about how you'd watch the news reports about you having gone missing. And it sounds just so - like, what a weird experience. You're watching the news. You're seeing reports of how you're missing. You're seeing reports that you're maybe dead. Among the things that you saw, Amanda, was a psychic going on television, on "The Montel Williams Show," and telling your mother that you're dead. You saw that somebody else who had confessed to killing you and who said that your grave - that he had dug you a grave. You saw people go and digging that grave live, broadcast on television. I can't imagine what that experience was like for you to be seeing all of this. Can you give us a sense of what was going through your mind as you saw, for instance, men digging for what was supposed to be your body or watching a psychic tell your mother that you're dead?

BERRY: Well, when I seen it was, like, breaking news that somebody had said that they're digging for my body, and I'm like - I mean, I was happy because I was in the news. And, you know, I was probably going to see my sister or someone in my family. But I was like - it made me really sad because I'm thinking like what is my family going through? Like, what are they thinking right now? Like, you know, they're probably just so upset and crying. And so, I mean, I just felt like really - like just so bad.

GROSS: And then, Amanda, you watched the news that your mother had died. She had had - was it pancreatic cancer?


GROSS: Just another pancreatic illness?


GROSS: Followed by a massive heart attack.


GROSS: Terrible, you know, I'm so sorry that you never got to see her again and that she died without knowing that you were alive. Did you expect your kidnapper to show any kind of emotion or remorse at that point?

BERRY: I mean, I didn't know. I didn't know, like, what he was going to do. I mean, he told me if anyone ever passed, like, you know, someone really important to me, that he would let me go. But, you know, that time came, and he didn't.

GROSS: Let you go free or let you go to their funeral? I guess they'd be the same thing. You couldn't go to their funeral without being free. People would see you.

BERRY: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Did he lie to you a lot?

BERRY: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's just - that was everything. He lied about pretty much everything.

GROSS: Amanda, I think when you were finally free and you emerged with your daughter, who was born while you were enslaved in this house in Cleveland, the world was shocked to know that you'd had a baby. And if you don't mind my asking, when you found out that you were pregnant from being raped, how did you decide you wanted to keep the baby?

BERRY: I mean, I didn't know what was going to happen or what he was going to say or - but, I mean, I wanted to keep the baby. I just wasn't sure what he was going to do.

GROSS: So you raised a baby while you were being held captive. And in that sense, the baby was captive, too. But I think one of the things that really surprised you is that your captor, Ariel Castro, fell in love with the child and was - seemed really happy to be a father and thought of you and him and the baby as being this, like, this family, which I'm sure isn't exactly the way you saw it.

BERRY: Oh, no, not at all.

GROSS: What was the point where you thought your daughter might start to become aware of the fact that things weren't right with how you were living?

BERRY: She kind of - I mean, she saw the chains. And we had to tell her, like, they were bracelets. And she would notice that he would lock the door when he left. And she would ask him, well, why do you lock the door? And why can't you leave the door unlocked or why can't you leave the door open? And he would just come up with a story to tell her. And that would be that.

GROSS: So Castro gave your daughter more freedom than he gave his captives.


GROSS: My guests are Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, who were abducted by Ariel Castro and held in captivity for about a decade until they escaped. Also with us is journalist Mary Jordan, who co-wrote their new memoir, "Hope." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have three guests. Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus were both two of the three women who were kidnapped by Ariel Castro and held for about 10 years. They escaped in May of 2013. Also with us is Mary Jordan, a journalist, who along with Kevin Sullivan, wrote their story in their new book "Hope: A Memoir Of Survival In Cleveland." Cleveland was where they live and where they were held hostage.

Amanda, you were able to escape because one day, Ariel Castro left your bedroom door unlocked. He had been telling you, like, don't worry. This is going to end soon. Do you think he intentionally left it unlocked?

BERRY: No, I don't think he would have - he wasn't going to do anything until he was ready. Like, if he was ever even going to let us go home, like, he wouldn't have just left the door open expecting like, oh, somebody's going to try to get out. Like, he wouldn't have done that.

GROSS: Tell us how you realized the door was unlocked - the bedroom door.

BERRY: Well, it was open because it was a warm day. So when he's home - when he was there, he would, like, leave the doors open so we can get fresh air because, like, our windows were, like, were boarded-up and there was no fresh air coming in, and it would get so hot and so stuffy. And there was, like, a gate that goes there. So we know, like, you don't go in the hallway. You don't go downstairs. Stay in your room. And my daughter had went downstairs to look for him. She couldn't find him. And she came back upstairs, and she told me that, like, he wasn't there. I'm like, no, well, he's here somewhere because the door is open, so he has to be here. You know, just go look again. So she looked again. And she came up the stairs and she's like, no, I think he's gone, and his car is gone. His blue car is gone. And for a minute, I'm like, no, he's got to be here somewhere. But I felt like, oh, well, what if he isn't here? Like, what if this is my chance to do something?

GROSS: So you went downstairs and opened the door and then you just kind of - something you didn't know that was there - which was a storm door that was padlocked shut.

BERRY: Yes. That was, like, that was like, I think, the worst thing because I was so scared of, like, opening - I was like, well, once I open the big front door, like, I'll just open the screen door and, like, that's the easy part. You run out and you're free, but no. There was like - it was a roadblock - another roadblock to my freedom. And I was so scared because I don't know - he could have showed up at any time. And who knows what would've happened to me? Yeah, it was just - it was so scary.

GROSS: So you started screaming for help because you couldn't get through the padlocked storm door. And one or two neighbors came over, do I have that right?


GROSS: And what did they do to help you?

BERRY: Well, the neighbor next door, like, he saw me, like, waving my hand out. And I'm, you know, kind of going crazy in the door. And the neighbor comes next door and he comes up on the porch. And I don't know if he'd - he didn't want to, like, break down the door 'cause I don't know if he knew what was going on or what. But then I'm, like, telling him who I am and please let me out. Like, help me, I can't get out. And he's trying to open the door, but then he realized that there's a lock on there. So he kind of was like just looking at the door to figure out something. So he kind of kicks the bottom because the bottom was, like, a little flimsy, and I hadn't realized that. So once he, like, kicked it a little bit, he's like, well, go ahead, finish kicking it out. And so I kicked it out a little bit more just enough so I could fit through there. And then I climbed out. And then I had my daughter climb out, and we were free.

GROSS: And then you borrowed a phone and - I guess it was your neighbor, who helped you get out, called 911. Is that what happened?

BERRY: Yes. The neighbor called 911, and I called 911.

GROSS: My guests are Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, who were abducted and held captive by Ariel Castro, and journalist Mary Jordan, who co-wrote their new memoir, "Hope." After we take a short break, we'll hear more about that 911 call. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, who were both abducted and held captive by Ariel Castro. Berry was taken in 2003 on the day before her 17th birthday. DeJesus was taken about a year later when she was 14 and in seventh grade. They were chained and repeatedly raped. They escaped in 2013. Berry emerged with a daughter, Jocelyn, who was conceived and born during Berry's captivity. Also with us is Mary Jordan, one of the two journalists who co-wrote their new memoir, "Hope," about their decade-long ordeal. When we left off, Amanda Berry was describing how she escaped Castro's home and managed to call 911 on a neighbor's phone.

So, Mary, you were able to listen to, I guess, a recording of the 911 phone call between the dispatcher and Amanda when Amanda made her call for help. And part of that call is re-printed in the book. Mary, would you - as a reporter, would you give us your impression - like, describe that phone call, and give us your impression of it?

JORDAN: Well, you could hear how desperate and frantic it was. And, you know, if you lived in Cleveland, the words Amanda Berry - everyone knew them. I mean, her face was on telephone poles and bulletin boards. And to hear, help me, help me, I'm Amanda Berry, it was like a ghost had come back. But the desperation in the voice was chilling. It really went through the city - right through the spine of the city. Help me. Help me. I'm Amanda Berry.

GROSS: Did the 911 dispatcher know who Amanda Berry was?

JORDAN: Amazingly, the one person in this whole city that didn't seemed to be that dispatcher - and very dispassionate. In fact, the - he was so kind of lackadaisical and - OK. You know, not keeping her even on the phone the whole time until the police were there. He actually got disciplined for how he handled it. So it was kind of ironic that the one person who didn't know Amanda Berry was a young dispatcher. Obviously, he wasn't there 10 years ago when she was taken.

GROSS: And she kept asking him not to hang up, right?

JORDAN: Right, right. It was incredible. I mean, it was so embarrassing for the police department.

GROSS: What do you know - I know he confessed. What can you tell us about his confession?

JORDAN: He confessed to everything. He said he was sorry. He said he loved his daughters - the one who was born inside as well as the daughters and the children he had from his common-law wife. But it was very rambling and clearly of a man very confused - conflicted man.

GROSS: Mary, the book re-prints a letter that was part suicide note that Ariel Castro wrote in 2004, the year of the kidnappings. And he writes, (reading) the bottom line is, I am a sexual predator who needs help, but I don't bother to get it. I live a private life. I function around others like a normal person. I've been having problems with my head for a long time. I feel depressed, dizzy and short-term memory loss. I really don't know what's wrong with me. To the parents of these three women, I would like to say, I'm very sorry. I am sick. This is a big problem in my everyday life. I just want to put an end to my life and let the devil deal with me.

Now, he wrote that at the beginning of the story of taking them captive.

JORDAN: He wrote that right after he had taken Gina. So he had three women in his - you know, three girls in his house. He seemed to be compulsive and take them, and then he had them. And he didn't want to kill them, but he also didn't want to go to jail. And so I think over time, this double life was harder and harder to maintain, and he had headaches. I mean, there - the whole miracle in this story is that the longer someone is kidnapped, the less likely that they are alive - they're found alive. And that's why, I think, again, the police were literally falling to their knees just shocked that after all of these years, they were alive.

GROSS: It's kind of remarkable, I think, that someone as deeply disturbed as he was, and who knew he had a problem, functioned in the real world to the extent that he did, driving a school bus. He was suspended for 60 days without pay driving the school bus 'cause a parent filed a complaint against something he did to her son. There was a domestic abuse charge against him. He had repeatedly beaten his son and his common-law wife. There was a charge against him, you know, as a school bus driver, and still, just everything kind of continued in his life.

JORDAN: Well, you think about all the what-ifs, and it makes you crazy because, you know, if domestic violence - if that was noted so that a government, you know, or a school office couldn't hire somebody with those kind of charges, maybe he would've - if he had gotten punished then, he would've stopped. If he had gotten punished when he left a little boy on the school bus and drove away, kept him on the bus, yelled at him, called him names, went in and left the poor little kid there when he had lunch - if he had been fired - I mean, there's so many what-ifs.

A policeman stopped him on his motorcycle when he had three girls inside, and he didn't have his driver's license - the correct driver's license. And his license was wrong. It was a pretty big offense, and he just said, OK, well, just don't drive, and just walk your bike home. You know, so many times, if he had gotten called on it - but he was always so polite, always kind of well-dressed, well-kept. He didn't really look like a monster. He looked kind of like a middle-aged guy. He mowed his lawn. He said hi. He was kind of the perfectly boring guy that you never suspected.

GROSS: When you were both released - you know, like, Amanda, you say in the book that you didn't want to become that person who was afraid of everybody, and you didn't want to become the person who was afraid of every man. And you wrote that while you were being held captive and chained to the radiator. But when you were released, was it comfortable being back in the world? I mean, you desperately wanted to be there, but it must have been a terrifying place in a lot of ways.

BERRY: Yeah, it was scary at first. I mean, it still is a little bit. I mean, I kind of had to get used to everything again, and you know, I was scared for a while to even walk outside by myself. Like...

GROSS: I don't blame you. Gina, what were some of the things that you found kind of scary when you re-entered the world?

DEJESUS: Trusting people and walking to the corner store and always looking back to see if someone's right behind you, ready to take you or something.

GROSS: Did you have bad dreams, and do you still?

DEJESUS: I have bad dreams sometimes.

GROSS: Do you dream that you're still locked up?

DEJESUS: Or he's going to take me again.

GROSS: Right. So is it reassuring to know that he can't do that because he committed suicide after a month in prison?

DEJESUS: Yes. Sometimes I tell my mom about my dreams, and then I laugh it off. It was like, ha, he can't do that because he's dead.

GROSS: Amanda, for you, it's very complicated. I'm sure part of you is really relieved that he can no longer hurt you again, but he's also the father of your daughter.

BERRY: Yeah. I mean, I'm conflicted still. But I mean, I will always hate him for everything that he did to my family and to us.

GROSS: But what did you want your daughter to be able to do or to know about him that won't be possible now because he's dead?

BERRY: I just want her to know that he loved her and he still loves her.

GROSS: You wanted her to know that?

BERRY: Mhmm (ph).

JORDAN: And you had hoped that she would have a chance to talk to him and ask him.

BERRY: Oh, yeah. One day, maybe, too, I hope that, you know, if she ever wanted to, one day, go and ask him like, why; why did you do this? You know, and, like, give her answers or - I don't know - any questions that she had about any of this.

GROSS: Amanda, one of the things you did - you tried to homeschool your daughter while you were being held captive. And one of the things you taught her was the Pledge of Allegiance. Was that because you used to start your schooldays with the pledge?

BERRY: Yeah. I just remember being in elementary school, and every day, that's what we did. So I figured that's what I'll do (laughter).

GROSS: What else were you able to teach her? Like, what kind of materials did you have?

BERRY: Well, at first, like, I would make my own worksheets with paper. Like, I would just write down one, two, threes and A-B-Cs and her name and shapes, and she would just trace those. And then, he would, like - he would go to yard sales, and he would find books there. And I would use that. And then later on, he ended up getting the Internet, so he would let me, like - as long as he was sitting there controlling everything - sit there and look through, like, worksheets for, like, her grade. And then I would, like, kind of make my own worksheets based off of that.

GROSS: How old was she when you were free?

BERRY: She was 6.

GROSS: So that's about, like, kindergarten age, right?


GROSS: So did you feel like you'd done a good job, that she was kind of, you know, at the same level as some of the other children her age?


GROSS: Good for you.

BERRY: Thank you.

GROSS: That's pretty remarkable to be able to say that.

BERRY: Thank you. That's all I wanted. I wanted her to be normal.

GROSS: I want to thank the three of you very much for talking with us.

JORDAN: Thank you, Terry.

BERRY: Thank you.

DEJESUS: Thank you.

GROSS: Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus have a new memoir about their captivity and escape called "Hope," co-written with journalist Mary Jordan. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz tells us about a string ensemble that's blurring the line between classical and more popular kinds of chamber music. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Some 30 years ago, the Kronos Quartet created a sensation by releasing an album of chamber music that included an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." Now the string quartet Brooklyn Rider is again blurring the boundaries between classical and more popular kinds of chamber music. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, likes what he's hearing.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Just after New Year's, I heard about a free concert at MIT that I couldn't resist. The Moscow-born violinist Johnny Gandelsman was making his Boston recital debut. He's best known as a member of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, all of whose players are also part of Yo-Yo Ma's immensely popular world music collective, The Silk Road Ensemble.

Gandelsman's program was Bach's "Sonatas And Partitas For Solo Violin." There was little publicity, but the hall was packed. Even Yo-Yo Ma was in the audience. I've heard some famous violinists attempt this epic feat, but none of them gripped me and delighted me as thoroughly as Gandelsman. At the end of this exhausting enterprise, Ma jokingly called out for an encore. Gandelsman happily complied with a couple of bars from one of Bach's "Suites For Solo Cello," a Yo-Yo Ma specialty. Everyone laughed.

A few months later, I found this same mixture of fun and seriousness when Boston's Celebrity Series invited Brooklyn Rider to make its official Boston debut. This concert was entirely devoted to music from Brooklyn Rider's most recent CD, "Almanac," for which the quartet invited a group of contemporary composers, many of them with roots in folk music and jazz, like Vijay Iyer and Bill Frisell, to compose pieces inspired by something outside of their usual field - other kinds of music, art, dance, literature. Iyer's "Dig The Say" was inspired by James Brown.


SCHWARTZ: Among Brooklyn Rider's most attractive qualities are its consistently underlying dance rhythms. It shouldn't be surprising that both violinists, Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, are married to dancers Amber Star Merkens and Maile Okamura of the Mark Morris Dance Group. One piece on the "Almanac" disk is "Morris Dance" by Ethan Iverson, Mark Morris's former music director. It's a delicious tribute to these two dancers and to Morris's buoyant choreography. In a cello solo, Iverson playfully alludes to an appearance Yo-Yo Ma made with the Morris company.


SCHWARTZ: There's an intimate family feeling here. Colin Jacobsen is also a composer, and one of his pieces is on the "Almanac" CD. His brother, Eric, is the group's cellist. Violist, Nicholas Cords, is the brother of jazz saxophonist Daniel Cords, another composer on the album. The players always seem to be having a conversation with each other and making a conversation between classical and contemporary music.

An earlier Brooklyn Rider album called "Seven Steps" focuses on Beethoven's mysterious late quartet, the seven-movement "Opus 131" in the unsettling key of C# minor. For that CD, the group both commissioned a new piece and also wrote the title piece themselves as a group collaboration. Yet, it's the Beethoven that seems the edgiest work. Brooklyn Rider's otherworldly tone gives me shivers.


SCHWARTZ: Speaking of inspiration, the name Brooklyn Rider derives from The Blue Rider, the legendary group of avant-garde artists in Munich, both Germans and Russian emigres, which lasted for only three years before it was interrupted by World War I. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc were among the founders, and they produced a famous almanac that published music and art, including folk art and works by children, and essays on the spiritual nature of art and music. Brooklyn Rider is clearly a direct descendent.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston and writes for the online journal New York Arts. He played music from two recordings by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Coming up, why John Powers is glad he read the first four volumes of all humans of Karl Ove Knausgard's much-talked-about, massive autobiographical novel, "My Struggle." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has won comparisons to Marcel Proust for his long autobiographical novel "My Struggle." This six-volume series is being published in English translation by Archipelago Books. Since 2012, they've been releasing one volume a year. Book four has just come out. Our critic-at-large John Powers has read the 1,915 pages of "My Struggle" published so far, and he says you shouldn't let its length scare you off.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It seems like there's always some writer you're supposed to be reading. These days it's Karl Ove Knausgaard, the 46-year-old Norwegian whose six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel, "My Struggle," has become a literary sensation. Over the last couple of years, I haven't been able to go to a social gathering without someone asking what I thought of his work. When I've said that I hadn't read a word, they would look genuinely startled and tell me, you have to. Well, I finally gave in a few weeks ago and was abashed to discover that one of Knausgaard's trademark themes is his disdain for the sheeplike souls who do exactly what everyone else is doing. Oh, well. Still, I'm happy that I succumbed.

You see, "My Struggle," which is heroically well-translated by Don Bartlett, is surely the grand monument to our selfie-absorbed times. In its ambition, narcissism and exhausting exhaustiveness, the book feels like the culmination of our current obsession with the memoir. Now, one feels a tad silly talking about "My Struggle" in a short review. I have one word for every 27 pages I've read. But luckily, Knausgaard's project isn't arcane. He tells you the story of his life, from his boyhood on a small Norwegian island to his current existence as a writer and married father of four living in Sweden. He gives us his fear and hatred of his domineering father, his feeling of being an unmanly outsider in high school, his love for - and battles with - his Swedish wife, Linda, and much, much, much more. What makes his book extraordinary is not what happens, which couldn't be more familiar or ordinary. It's that Knausgaard aims to capture the unending blizzard of feelings, objects, people and situations that make up a life.

At the same time, like Proust, the inevitable point of comparison, he hopes to shape all this stuff into a form that gives his experience a larger meaning. To that end, he plays hopscotch with time, place and mood. Volume one begins with a highfalutin riff on death, moves into a hundred-page account of under-age Karl and a pal sneaking beer for New Year's Eve and builds to the burial of his father, in one of the unforgettable sequences in contemporary literature. In contrast, the comparatively lighthearted volume four is filled with boozing and sexual embarrassment. No writer has ever admitted to quite so many premature ejaculations. Knausgaard's confident directness has won him raves from scads of star writers, who clearly see new possibilities for their own writing in his books. They especially admire the ways he's not like them. He's earnest, not cute, bouncy or ironic. He's not afraid to use cliches and doesn't polish every sentence like a new Lamborghini. Unlike most novelists, who feel they must compete with video games and "Game Of Thrones," he doesn't kill himself trying to make every moment exciting.

There may be something Oedipal in this. In volume three, Knausgaard revealingly notes that one of his dad's unbearable qualities was purging any situation of everything that had no direct relevance to what they were doing. If they were going somewhere, Dad drove there grimly fast. If they ate, it was only because food is necessary. Knausgaard's own vision of life is almost the opposite. I've never read a good novelist who deliberately included so many things that serve no evident point. For him, such unfiltered inclusiveness does justice to the cluttered density of experience, and it gives his work a strong hypnotic pull. In calling his book "My Struggle," Knausgaard daringly echoes Hitler's "Mein Kampf," which I'm told he talks about at length in volume six. But he's not being flip with this title the way an American writer would be.

The book actually is about his struggle with his father, with death, with his muse, with his feelings of inadequacy, with the dreariness of a daily life that offers teasing glimpses of transcendence. If this sounds a bit grandiose, it is. Yet Knausgaard is not a difficult writer, like Proust, Joyce or David Foster Wallace. He's pointedly unliterary. Anyone can understand what he's writing. And paradoxically enough, his honest, obsessive self-absorption makes his life feel universal. As I was reading, every single subject that came up in my daily living - parents, politics, education, Italian food, trees, even David Byrne reminded me of something in Knausgaard. His work makes you realize that each and every one of our lives contains rich enough material for a long, daunting book called "My Struggle."

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and television for Vogue and He reviewed the four volumes published in English of "My Struggle" by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Tomorrow on our show, we'll talk about the California drought and water wars with journalist Mark Arax, who is writing a book on the subject. His family farmed in the San Joaquin Valley, but his father gave up farming and opened a small chain of grocery stores. Then, he opened a nightclub where he was murdered in 1972. Arax spent years investigating his father's murder. We'll talk about that, too.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.


Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.


Maureen Corrigan's favorite books of the year: 10 disparate reads for a hectic 2022

Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue