“What you call a mystery, I call my story / You call it mythology, but I call it my anthology.”
“This is the condition of your circumstance / You are the radius, you are the nucleus, you are the most pivotal point—the axis.”
Iasia Sweeting stunned the room and received a rousing standing ovation in the David H. Koch Theater after a powerful recitation of her spoken word poem about what she calls her “journey of discovery.”
Moderator Mary Jordan, national correspondent for The Washington Post, spoke for the entire crowd: “Wow, now that is a strong woman!”
The 24-year-old Sweeting’s path to the stage was one of extraordinary hardship. At 17, she was kidnapped and held captive for more than four years in an extended-stay hotel outside Atlanta, Georgia. Abused, tortured, raped, and starved, she bore two children fathered by her captor, Calvin McIntosh. She was rescued only after McIntosh took the older child—then 15 months old and weighing only 7.5 pounds—to a hospital, where the toddler was pronounced dead on arrival. Soon afterward, authorities found Sweeting, catatonic and emaciated.
Sweeting initially encountered McIntosh through his son, a friend of hers who promised that his father would help her publish her poetry. When they met, she says, McIntosh locked her in a bathroom, threw her in the trunk of a car, and took her to the hotel room that would become her prison. McIntosh and his daughter Najlaa McIntosh, who was complicit in the crime, were charged with felony murder, malice murder, first-degree cruelty to children, and cruelty to a physically disabled adult (based on Sweeting’s condition when she was found). Calvin McIntosh also faces charges of rape, incest, and aggravated sodomy. Both he and Najlaa McIntosh pleaded not guilty; their case has not yet come to trial. The motivations for the kidnapping are unclear, but the McIntoshes have been linked to the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a cult.
To survive her hellish years in captivity, Sweeting turned to her strong Christian faith and her love of poetry, which she began writing when she was only four years old. To get through the days, she wrote poetry in the margins of the cult propaganda she was forced to read. “I had to continue to remind myself through my poetry that I know who I am and I’m completely different from the person [McIntosh] thought I was,” she said. “Writing gives me the chance to freeze-frame everything and sort it out on the paper. I get to slow down the fast pace that is life.”
Sweeting doesn’t sugarcoat her words for her audience—in fact, she believes that it’s impossible to lie in a poem. “Maybe we should have poetry contests in the White House,” replied Jordan, to knowing laughs from the audience.
The biggest adjustment for Sweeting came after she was rescued. She literally had to learn how to walk and talk again in order to reenter the life she once knew. “I was expecting for the world to be as it was when I was 17,” she said. “That room was almost like a freezer; it froze me in time. The rest of the world was going on and there was nothing I could do about it.”
All things considered, her recovery has been remarkably swift. Just 18 months after her rescue, Sweeting graduated from the DeKalb School of the Arts, the Georgia high school she attended prior to her abduction. Motivated by her experience delivering two children without medical assistance, she hopes to become a midwife and plans to attend Spelman College in Atlanta.
“We are humbled by your resilience,” Jordan said, speaking for the rapt crowd, before asking Sweeting for her advice to other people who might be experiencing difficult situations. Sweeting was characteristically wise beyond her years: “I make sure I never go to sleep sad or angry or in too much pain, and I always remind myself that just like I can cry, I can also smile, and that I’m still here to be able to smile.”
“I need my poetry in order to survive. Just like I need oxygen and I need food, I need poetry. It’s more deeply rooted in me than I ever would have thought.”
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.