‘After 11 years of rape and torture hell, I found peace — now I have found love’

Lily Rose Lee is laughing, a sound so big and gleeful it hits you in waves.

Standing at just 4ft 5ins she may be tiny, but this is a woman who knows how to make herself heard.

She talks happily about pets and people, art and travel. But ask what happiness means to her and she stops, choosing her words carefully.

Lily says: “From the people I see walking down the street to the animals I meet in my back yard, everything on Earth is happiness to me.

“Because I’m able to see the sky and hear the birds, smell the trees and the freshly cut grass.

“Happiness means everything that was taken away from me for 11 years.”

Those were the years she was held captive by kidnapper Ariel Castro, years of unimaginable horror.

In August 2002, aged 21, she was lured into 2207 Seymour Street in Cleveland, Ohio.

For almost 4,000 days she woke up to torture, near-starvation and daily beatings, poisoning and rape.

Five times over the years Lily became pregnant and five times evil Castro forced her to miscarry, jumping on her stomach or beating her with barbells.

The physical damage was so great she won’t be able to carry a baby.

Castro tried to destroy her in every way possible. But she refused to break.

And now, six years after she was freed in May 2013, she has found another form of happiness too, in the shape of Miguel. The man who made her believe in love again.

Lily adds: “When I first got out of the house, one of the things that really haunted me was thinking I wouldn’t be able to trust again.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to love anybody. I didn’t think that marriage and love would happen to me.

“Somebody even told me that I was used up goods and that no guy would ever love me.”

But Miguel did and slowly Lily began to open up and finally agreed to marry him.

The couple haven’t looked back since, and while 38-year-old Lily’s past will always be there, they are determined to look forward.

It’s something she has done since her ordeal. Even trapped in that nightmare she imagined a new life and a new name – she was then Michelle Knight.

She chose Lily for her favourite flower, Rose for the mother of a childhood friend who cared for her and Lee, the middle name of her estranged son.

I first met Lily in 2014, a year after she and fellow Castro kidnap victims Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus – who had disappeared aged 16 and 14 – were freed.

She testified at Castro’s 2013 trial. He was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years but hanged himself in prison a month later.

Lily had taken her first steps to a new independent life, flying for the first time and recording music.

Now, she is just as funny, focused and fierce. She has added one more tattoo to the 17 she proudly showed back then.

There’s a calm to Lily now, a sense of peace. Partly because, although she tells her story to help other survivors, she doesn’t look back.

She says: “I really don’t think about the past any more; I’m moving forward.

“Simply having the sheer joy of life. I’m able to sit outside and watch the sunrise, to be myself and not somebody I don’t want to be.

“I did equine therapy and it helped me a lot. Animals can listen, they don’t judge you or make you feel bad for what happened.”

Lily has created her own coping strategies. Painting and poetry to process her thoughts. Lighting candles and aromatherapy in her new home.

Humming or pushing the wall when she’s feeling frustrated.

She adds: “When I don’t want to hear something and want to calm myself down, I will plug my ears for 10 seconds. After that I’m fine.”

Certain smells are triggers but she says: “I have to let myself know he’s no longer here. Nobody is going to fully get over what happened to them.

When she escaped, that new world was filled with people who didn’t always have her best interests at heart.

Then Lily connected with Miguel through mutual friends on Facebook .

She says: “We were both at a difficult time in our lives and needed someone who loved us for us. Not for our story, or what we went through.”

But after six months of messaging and a few phone calls they still had not met, until Lily bumped into him at a ­restaurant.

She knew he was someone special. Lily, who appeared on ITV’s This Morning with Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby in 2014 to promote her book on the kidnap, adds: “I held back my ­feelings, I didn’t want to rush into things.

The first time he told me I was beautiful I didn’t believe him. When I was a child, I was told I was ugly.”

A year and a half after their first messages, Miguel whisked Lily to Tennessee and proposed. She walked down the aisle on the third ­anniversary of her rescue.

Lily has faced death threats and had a stalker, things that have made her nervous to leave the house.

But she says: “I also enjoy ­travelling. Maybe one day I won’t have to be afraid to go outside without somebody.”

Her organisation Lily’s Ray of Hope helps those who have suffered domestic violence, human trafficking and abuse.

Every year on the day she was rescued, she lights a candle “for the hopes of another family to have the same joy of their child coming home”.

Through it all there is Miguel. They waited to marry before moving in together and now spend their time cooking and taking care of animals Lily rehabilitates for adoption.

She says: “Now I’m a strong and powerful woman.

“I always tell people, ‘I have my flaws, I have my fears, but I am not going to let them determine how I live my life. I’m a survivor.’”

  • Visit lilysrayofhope.org

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