In the formative years of my life, a girl not much older than I was, not too far from my hometown, was abducted. They found her bike less than a mile from where she lived–she had been riding it back to her house when he took her. She was almost home. Three years later, a man confessed to sexually assaulting and killing her with a blunt object before burying her in a shallow grave. He was convicted, but refused to disclose the exact location of her remains. Her body was never found.
She was taken two weeks before my 10th birthday, and the story of her disappearance and the subsequent search was a constant part of my early adolescence. My parents had always taught me not to talk to strangers. To never tell people I didn’t know my name. To go in the other direction if I ever had a gut feeling that something didn’t seem right. Even when I was young, they told me to trust my instincts. We had a code word so I would know that someone outside the family could be trusted, if necessary. I took the instructions seriously, but I wasn’t genuinely concerned about what these precautions implied. It was something that happened in other places, to other people. At that age, my anxieties were focused elsewhere.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the AIDS epidemic was a prominent issue, often in the news. The stigma and culture of fear that surrounded the disease was palpable, even to a child, though the specifics of how it was transmitted were beyond me at that point. I only knew that people were dying, and everyone was afraid. Before turning ten, it was thoughts of accidentally contracting HIV, flying squirrels (there’s no logical explanation), and the train-battered body of Ray Brower in my closet that kept me up at night.
And then she was kidnapped and it became a reality. It was still a thing that happened to other people, as I, unlike her, was home and alive. But suddenly I understood that if it could happen to her, there was no reason it couldn’t, or wouldn’t, happen to me.
It’s not very often I feel like a victim of misogyny. I am a feminist, but in my normal interactions, the thought that I am being treated a certain way because I am a woman is almost never my first. If I am not being taken seriously, I tend to attribute to the fact that I look younger than I am or that I often have difficulty speaking authoritatively. If a man is condescending or rude to me, my opinions of him tend to be larger than his treatment of me as a woman, but focus more on his treatment of people. I don’t usually think, “wow, what a misogynist.” I more often think, “wow, what an asshole.” It’s a minor difference, but it exists. I have no doubts about how women can be treated or mistreated by men (or other women, honestly), but in my own experience, possibly due to blindness or possibly by attributing such treatment as a character flaw and not as something created by the male/female dynamic, I haven’t noticed it much in my own life.
It’s not that it never happens to me, or that I never notice it, only that it’s not the first place my head goes. Now I see it as naivete, but when I was younger and strangers (men) commented on my appearance, I took them at face value, generally pleased, and went about my day. Among the other sides of myself, I like my femininity. I like dresses and makeup. I don’t often wear heels because they are brutally painful, but still take pride knowing I can run in them when necessary. When time and energy allow, I enjoy making the most of my physical appearance, as I would any other part of myself. While my body is not my only or nearly my most important aspect, it is a part of me. I am it, and it is me, all tangled up with every other thing that comes together to form the woman I know as myself. I like being a woman–vastly imperfect, but also capable and competent. The idea that anyone might treat me otherwise based solely on my gender is difficult, even now, for me to get my head around.
This likely has to do with the way I was brought up. My parents taught me how not to feel helpless, and never expected me to conform to certain gender norms. A sense of independence was instilled from a young age. As a child, I was expected to help. I did chores. Once I was old enough and my brother moved out, I mowed the lawn. My father, who had his own gym set-up in our garage, often encouraged me to come out and lift weights with him. I spotted him when he needed it, but was mostly interested only in hitting the heavy bag until I ruptured the blood vessels in my knuckles. My mother and I pulled up and replaced the kitchen floor just before my 16th birthday, with blowtorch and trowel, loosening each tile and working it up before carefully laying the new ones. I’ve known the names of all the basic tools one should have in their home since I was a kid, and have owned them since my first apartment.
My parents always treated my older brother and I as equals. When I was very young, my father almost threw his own mother out of our home for favoring my brother and referring to me as “just a girl.” For my future, I could have been or done anything. They would have supported any career path I chose, and done whatever possible to help me achieve it. There was one difference, only one, in the way we were treated, and it came down to personal safety. When I protested in my teens that my brother had enjoyed greater freedoms when he was my age than I did at that point, I was informed (with obvious regret) that it was because he was male. “I don’t have to worry about him in the same way.” I learned as a teenager that my life would be more difficult in one way–that as a girl, and eventually as a woman, I was more likely to be made a victim of violence.
Due to that one crucial event in my childhood, the culture we live in, the common stories of sexual assault and violence in general, I now feel like a potential victim of rape or murder on a constant basis. I almost never completely let my guard down. I always check my surroundings when walking. If I am stopped at a red light at night (or a train, living in Columbia, South Carolina), I look around my car (doors locked, of course) in constant sweeps, ready to peel out if anyone approaches me. I always have an exit plan, and if for some reason I don’t have easy access to one, the stress levels rise in the back of my head and I criticize myself for not being attentive enough. If I am spending the night alone in my home, I booby trap the doors and windows, in addition to the regular locks and alarm system. In my first apartment, living alone, my father insisted I keep a shotgun and five shells with me. I grew up shooting, and with great aim, so I learned early how to handle and use a gun safely. His demand was only slightly outside of normal to me, and to be honest, I felt better knowing I had it.
It is difficult to reconcile being taught that my gender means nothing in terms of what I can achieve, while it also puts me in potential danger. I often wonder what they would have taught me if she had made it home that day, put her bike away, and gone inside. What would her life have been? Would I have a different understanding of the world? Would my fear be less?
After the abduction, when I was 10, or maybe 11, my father told me something that will stay with me until my death. I don’t know if he only said it once, or if it was something he repeated to me on multiple occasions to make sure I understood. As an adult, I don’t disagree with his reasoning, but it’s something a child should never have to hear, and I have only recently come to understand how deeply it affected me. I still can’t decide whether I think he was right in telling me or not. But I understand the urge to force his daughter, young as she was, to comprehend some of the unthinkable realities of the world we live in. How do you sleep if you send her out into it unprepared?
I was told by this man who loved me dearly, despite his temper and his own emotional damage (a legacy he passed on in full-force to his daughter), a man who spent every waking moment worrying for the safety of his children, whose life would have simply ended had anything happened to either of us–that should it ever come to it, it was better to fight and die on the spot than allow myself to be kidnapped. “If anyone ever tries to take you, and they threaten your life and say they’ll kill you if you don’t go with them, you fight. You scream. You try to get away. It would be better to die right there, and quickly, than go through the torture you would experience for days or weeks before they most likely killed you anyway.” I can’t remember if he explicitly told me I would probably be raped if abducted, but if he didn’t say the word, I read it between the lines. And I understood. Run. Fight. Die if you must, but never let them take you.
I know that women and children are not the only victims of violence and abuse, but the thought of her, combined with the stories of violence against women that I’ve heard since I started listening, have left something inside me that will never leave.
It’s been over 20 years since she disappeared, and her death has been affecting my life for almost twice as long as she lived her own. To add a smaller tragedy to the larger, the fact I never knew her means I have no concept of who she actually was. I have only the idea of her and her victimhood. What he did to her made her name widely known–not as a fully formed person, but a cautionary tale–one that will stay with me forever. I can still see her image, the one they used on all the “Missing” posters, clear as day in my head. I hear her name bounce around my brain with no warning every now and again. These days I walk with the points of my keys clenched through my fist. I plan exit strategies. I sleep with a weapon by my bed. I keep a hammer within reach of the seat of my car. I know which items would wreak havoc on the human body in every room of my house. I am no longer a child, but still a woman, and a person, and I live with the potential for violence daily. I will never think that it won’t eventually be me. That I won’t one day become a cautionary tale, or worse, just another statistic. I wait–undeniably damaged–but hopefully prepared, knowing that if the day does come, I will go down fighting.
by Amelia Williams