In 1991, I was ten years old. I lived in a tiny, picturesque mountain town on the north shore of Lake Tahoe—the kind of place with a definable “tourist season,” the kind of place where “nothing” ever happened. I hated it for that reason, and often schemed with my friends about how we would make it out of the smallness and the silence. It was June when the snow was finally melted. School was nearly over, and I could smell summer on the pines, in the mule ears baking in the high altitude sun. My life was about to get free. On the other side of the lake, less than forty miles from me, a girl my age was about to lose everything, and become a prisoner of a kidnapping rapist for the next twenty years.
On June 10, 1991, Jaycee Lee Dugard was abducted from a quiet street on her walk from home to the bus stop. Her stepfather saw the abduction, tried to chase the vehicle that carried her away, but only had a bicycle. It was a nightmare—no leads, no explanation, middle of the morning, bright sunlight.
Jaycee Lee was gone.
I remember her kidnapping specifically because of her proximity to me. I remember her kidnapping because I also walked a quiet mountain street to and from school, and I remember it because she was my age, her blond hair bleached from the high altitude like mine, her freckles from the sun like mine. I remember feeling, at ten, that she could have been me.
Her story went on, became more horrific, but for twenty years none of us knew exactly how or where Jaycee had gone. I knew something bad must have happened after she was abducted. I knew people don’t take children for good reasons. I knew that whatever had come for Jaycee Lee—death, rape, child pornography, all of the above—she would not survive it the same. Her taking was a death, and yet there was hope for a long time that she would be found. The hope kept her pictures on fliers around town, on the sides of the milk cartons I used in the mornings to wet my Raisin Bran. Those eyes staring out at me, that hair. Reminding me how close I had come. How small the gap between her fate and mine. How narrowly I’d been missed.
Like my sexualized body, my vulnerable body was not innate. It was encultured, put on me, handed to me, passed down, a shitty legacy of unknown origin. I know this because I have a four-year-old daughter who has not yet realized that her body will be vulnerable, that her body will be sexualized, that she will have experiences that she will not consent to. I know that she hasn’t realized this yet, because she still walks up to strangers (adults, children, dogs) and tells them her full name: first, last, and nickname. She does this without fear. She does this without checking her face first, with muffin crumbs dotting her chin like acne, a smear of chocolate across her nose, and she sidles up to strangers and proudly, loudly proclaims herself present.
She doesn’t worry about what might happen if the strangers mean her harm. But I do.
In my thirty-seven years, I’ve imagined myself murdered a thousand ways: raped, carved into trophy pieces, fingers cut off, teeth gone. I’ve imagined my body a discarded piece of evidence. Chilled in the mortuary. Angry red lines running across my flesh where he cut me. The skin of the murderer under my nails, his hair caught in my thigh crease, his DNA the most important part of my body. Now photographed in cold blue light, arranged to show the damage. Not because they care about what happened to me, or to my body, but because certain acts are evidence of certain crimes, and they damn well better document them while they can. I have imagined my mother screaming in grief, and my husband dropping to his knees.
Maybe I am dramatic, and maybe I do have a good imagination. Maybe I write prodigious fictions in my own mind. But I do this because this is what I have been told to expect from the world. Every form of American media has this storyline: girl is raped/kidnapped/almost killed/killed. The camera lingers on her, as though her battered body was a pleasure to behold. If she dies, she makes a hero of the detective. If she doesn’t, she rises from the ashes of her trauma as a dangerous, invulnerable phoenix. And she’s usually good with weapons, cold as ice and hard as steel.
What happened to me, what really happened, was quieter than any of this. When my body was the body of evidence, it wasn’t up to snuff. It would have been better if he’d raped me by jumping out of a dark alleyway, left his semen inside me where I could use it as evidence of harm. It would have made a better story, and a better prosecution. It would have left more evidence. It would have rescued the whole thing from the he said/she said.
I had so many disadvantages as a victim witness. But I also had advantages: I had the privilege of being white, of having the police care about my case at all, even if I wished they hadn’t. Too many women in America have none of these. Racism erases the faces of black and brown girls from the posters. White girls like me, like Jaycee, and our trauma, seem to capture the hearts of America. We were raised to be lambs in a world that wants us to believe in our innocence, our vulnerability, our total powerlessness. Our blond hair and our freckles make us America’s daughters. I know there has never been a black girl abducted who was treated by the press with the same breathless dedication as Jaycee, as Elizabeth Smart, as Polly Klaas. These are the little white girl victims of my lifetime, held in high regard, on altars, lambs. These are the girls whose cases were solved, whose bodies were found, some alive and changed forever, and some, like Polly, dead. Their posters and images and faces went around the world while other black and brown faces have never been broadcast, will never be known outside of the small circle of family who remembers.
I’ve seen them in the post office, or stapled to utility poles, fluttering in the evening breeze. I’ve read them, some on templates, some in handwriting. Some color printed, and some black and white. The pictures of the missing flattened, xeroxed onto plain paper, stained by rain and bleached by sun. The missing posters made with brokenhearted hands of mothers, fathers, family who take on the search themselves because they can’t get detectives to care.
When white girls go missing, they belong to the millions. By the time her body was found, two months after her abduction from Petaluma, California, Polly Klaas’s photograph was distributed over two billion times worldwide. Cases involving white women not only draw more attention, but more intense coverage, or what Gwen Ifill once coined “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” When black and brown girls go missing, there is media silence. There are so many missing black and brown girls that when authorities found the body of a black or biracial girl between twelve and seventeen years old in Georgia’s Yellow River, in March of 2018, there were thirty-nine missing children that fit the description, and not one national news story about any of them. It took a national outcry to get the media to cover the disappearance of twelve black and Latina women from Washington, DC in March of 2017. It took a resolution from the Congressional Black Caucus to ask the Justice Department to get involved.
In 2016, a criminal sociologist named Zach Sommers authored a study whose focus was to determine whether “missing white woman syndrome” was a reality or a perception. He used FBI missing persons data, and coverage data from four major online news sources. Sommers found that there are, in fact, race and gender disparities in news media coverage for missing persons consistent with Missing White Woman Syndrome that manifest themselves both in whether a missing person receives any media attention at all, and in coverage intensity of those who do end up in the media.
Women are just slightly over half of the American population, and appear just slightly under half of the time in FBI missing persons files. Yet the media coverage focuses on missing women well over half of the time, and once a missing woman is in the news, she is three times more likely than a man to have her story covered intensely. The camera lingers on her. When Sommers looked at the difference between black and white women, he found that while white women make up one-third of the population of the United States, but over half of the media coverage of missing persons is about missing white women, and that once a white woman was in the news, she was also likely to be covered more intensely.
In her memoir, California Calling: A Self interrogation, Natalie Singer writes about living in Mariposa county during the Yosemite murders (when Cary Stayner killed three white women and one Argentinian near the park in 1999). I spoke with Singer recently, and asked her about the tie between the murders, her theme of interrogation, and the way we value women’s bodies. Her answer linked her daughters’ approaching puberty to the idea of the near miss. She spoke of how dangerous it becomes to inhabit the body as a girl approaches womanhood, how each small act of violation begins to form a spectrum of violences, and how the Yosemite murders ultimately fell on that spectrum for those women. She said:
I started to think about those women can be any of us. They could have been me. We’re all sort of navigating this world benefiting from narrow misses, narrow misses of being accosted now, misses of being breached, narrow misses of being murdered.
I scribbled the phrase “narrow miss” in my notebook. It haunted me for days. I realized that I know exactly the feeling Singer described, and that I walk around full of fear for my vulnerable body. I wanted to know why.
Looking at the data about how much more often women, and particularly white women, are covered as victims of kidnapping, I felt rage and recognition. Is my sense of vulnerability just another tool of the patriarchy? Is it any accident that I am afraid in the dark, that I don’t go out running if the sun’s down, that I hold my keys like so many women do—gripped between knuckles—when I walk to my car? Why wouldn’t I worry about myself when my raped or murdered body is covered with that breathless newsroom intensity? When the weakness of white girlbodies drives the plots on the television and in the movies, in the paperback books I read under the covers with a flashlight. A girl’s violation shows up as the subplot, the setup, the inciting incident that sends a girl to madness and turns her violent, seeking revenge. I carry the constant worry that my body will be bound and gagged and tossed in the back of a car, in the bed of a pickup truck, in the cellar below a cabin, in the tent in the backyard, if I walked on the wrong side of the road at the wrong time of day.
I’m not saying that anyone sat down and plotted this out, but it can’t be accidental that white women, the second-most powerful Americans, who typically have proximity to the first (their husbands and fathers and brothers and sons) are constantly told that we’re vulnerable, weak, victims, at risk. It makes white women into damsels on the tracks, and it allows white men the heroic role of untying us before the train hits. It makes white women afraid of what’s out there, and more willing to believe in the racist rhetoric that it’s the marginalized men who are doing all the hurting. It is not an excuse for accepting the racism. It is not an excuse for continuing to believe the narrative. But the narrative itself serves the racist hetero-patriarchy. There are more men and boys in the FBI’s missing persons file than women, but we hear about them far less. Is it because the narrative of fragile white men and boys doesn’t serve their storyline as heads of households, as strong?
White women, how can we begin to undo this? Can we find ways to embrace more than our vulnerability, to reject the narrative of our fragility and begin to claim our strength? Perhaps that sense of the “narrow miss” is not only about seeing the spectrum of violence against our bodies, our daughters’ bodies. Perhaps it is also perpetuating a narrative much older and bigger than any of us: that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves, and are not, in fact, expected to. That we need providers, rescuers, good guys in white hats to show up and save us from whatever is lurking in the parking lot. And yes, there will be violence, and some of it will hit us in the guts, form that cold pit of fear that impacts the ways we navigate the world. But the stories around our violences can change, from breathless coverage of blond hair and freckles to something about our strength and resilience.
Jaycee Lee survived for eighteen years in her abductor’s captivity. When her liberation finally came, it was through the instincts of a UC Berkeley employee and campus cop—both of whom were women.
This is not a metaphor.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.