Essay: Lost Girls
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It’s been a long hot summer literally: Widespread drought, fierce and uncontainable wildfires. We’ve watched the country burn. We have also watched the stock market bounce up and down, carrying our stomachs with it, while we’ve kept an anxious eye on the Middle East and the wrenching carnage there.
But floating above into all those images are the angelic faces of America’s snatched pixies — taken from bedrooms and yards bodies found and not found. Must they be so cute, so full of that newness? Must they with each and every photo break our hearts, rile our rage and stir our parental fears?
No question it has been the summer of the lost girls. We know their names; we hung on their sagas. Seven-year-old Danielle van Dam abducted from her San Diego bedroom — her body found days later – her neighbor tried for her murder; 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart taken at gunpoint right out of her bedroom in Salt Lake City, never to be seen again; five year old Samantha Runnion, kidnapped from her front yard in Stanton, California, her small body laid out, sexually molested, found 24 hours later; six year old Cassandra “Casey” Williamson, taken from her own kitchen in St. Louis, found dead within hours in an abandoned factory near her home.
Again in California two teenage girls kidnapped from their cars at night and raped before being rescued 12 hours later. There was one happy outcome. In Philadelphia a little girl did manage to get away from her kidnappers and get home.
So what is this — an epidemic of predators? Record keepers say no, that the numbers are holding steady at 200-300 kidnappings by strangers every year — most of the victims eventually found alive. Children are much more likely to be taken by a parent than a stranger — much more likely to be killed riding a bike or playing with a gun. But this haunts more than those — the randomness of it, the predatory, sexually perverse nature of it. Some sick something doing something to these girls and the images haunt, try as we might to block them.
REPORTER: We’re back with more on the search for Elizabeth Smart.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Of course the media, particularly the cable channels, have kept our imaginations riled, even as arguably all the publicity helped catch some of the kidnappers, but there was the now usual sense of sensationalistic overkill. Both Fox and CNN carried the Crystal Cathedral funeral of Samantha Runnion live. Voyeurism and exploitation doing a devil’s dance with legitimate grief.
But there is something else: this summer’s rash of horror stories has followed on the revelations about another roster of predators, priests no less, and more kids, mostly boys this time, being used and abused sexually by men carrying the patina of goodness. So what is the compulsion, the inverted perverted need of some to prey on children, and is it unique to our culture, our complicatedly puritanical, yet sexualized society? Or are we just more self revealing?
The answer is we really don’t know. We just don’t get enough information from other parts of the world. There’s also the sense that we don’t really listen to children, don’t believe them. Kids and priests is a tough match up; who is going be believed.
SPOKESMAN: You’re charged with murder of Samantha Runnion.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Samantha Runnion’s alleged killer was acquitted two years ago of molesting two nine-year-old girls. No questions we have complicated feeling about kids and their charges of molestation, especially after the preschool scandals in the 1980′s when a whole range of small children prompted by therapists accused daycare workers of outrageous acts — most now disbelieved.
Yet we do sexualize little girls in this culture. Less than two weeks after Samantha Runnion was murdered, two days after Casey Williamson was killed, this fashion spread appeared in the New York Times magazine. We ourselves cast doubt on the innocence of young girls, their reliability. When should we really listen? When must we listen to them? Could we somehow have saved Samantha Runnion or any of the others?
There are as always in the aftermath, a host of questions, the desire to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, or that violates every sensibility we have. Mostly though there are tears for any parents who have to bury a five-year-old, a brutally murdered, sexually assaulted five-year-old or to live in the hellish limbo of not knowing where their little girls have gone. I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.