The story of Jaycee Lee Dugard – abducted at age 11 from her school bus stop and reunited with her family 18 years later – is hailed as a miracle, a reason to hope for those few but anguished families who, each year, lose children in so-called “stereotypical kidnappings.” A “stereotypical kidnapping” is one in which a stranger steals a child, takes the child away at least overnight, presumably with the intention of keeping him or her. In more than half of those cases, the outcome is tragic: Not only is that child destined never again to come home, like six-year-old Adam Walsh, wrenched away from a Florida shopping center 1981, the ending is a lonely death.
These cases are so very few. Given the media coverage that surrounds them, they spark much greater fears than are warranted. In truth, every source I’ve ever found places these terrifying, strange cases at fewer than one percent even of “stranger” abductions.
But they haunt us all, with good reason.
Jaycee Lee Dugard, now 29, was healthy in body when she saw her mother face to face in California, but the facts of her 18 years of captivity by a convicted rapist and his wife proves the adage attributed to St. Teresa of Avila – that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. At 14, the young Jaycee became a mother for the first time, impregnated by the man who kept her – and the two babies she bore, now teenage girls, prisoners in a shack in his yard, sound-proofed so no one could hear their cries. Emerging news shows that the children did go out, had something of a social life and that Dugard was polite and well-spoken.
This means nothing.
Abused women chair meetings in board rooms, teach classes, appear on film, make art and tell stories every day in America. Appearing normal is part of the captive’s mandatory disguise, the one necessary to survive.
Fourteen years ago, when I wrote my first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, it was loosely based on a similar case I covered – and became obsessed with – as a young reporter. Steven Stayner was kidnapped in Merced, California, in 1972, but I first met his family – along with a gang of other reporters – when, at the age of 13, he walked away from the home of pedophile Kenneth Parnell when Parnell snatched another boy, Timothy White, 6. Parnell assaulted Steven daily, sometimes involving a woman, while also treating him with “fatherly” concern. When he walked
into a police station holding the little boy’s hand, Steven Stayner said, “I know my first name is Steven.” When I wrote my novel, critics scoffed at the notion that an abducted children could be found just blocks from where his parents grew up. Yet, truth is stranger: The cabin where Parnell kept Steven was only several hundred feet from Steven’s grandfather’s home.
A teenage Tim White would ultimately be a pallbearer at Steven’s funeral, when Stayner, who was good-hearted but chronically in trouble with drunk driving, was killed when he (this time innocently) drove hi motorcycle out of a parking lot and was struck by an oncoming car. Married and a father, he had been restored to his family for just ten years.
But worse was to come for the anguished Stayners, a troubled family from the outset.
Unbeknownst to the family, the mental volatility of Steven’s older brother Cary was a darkening spiral: Cary reportedly felt – and some suggest may have been, in part – responsible for Steven’s abduction. He later was jealous of his parents’ grief and the media circus that surrounded his brother’s return. Now, he is on California’s Death Row, convicted of murdering a woman, her daughter and a teen foreign exchange student, as well as a guard in Yosemite National Park.
Not only do the rip tides from these blessedly unusual events spread far and fast through a family, the child returned is not the child taken – at least from the point of view of the families I’ve interviewed, whose privacy I will honor here. They have seen too much, endured too much, lost faith in too many promises and, most importantly, relinquished the one thing children have a right to deserve – a sense of safety.
Even Elizabeth Smart, who at 14 was abducted and found nine months later just 18 miles from her family’s home, who seems to be thriving as a music major at Brigham Young University, will seldom speak of her ordeal with Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. In interviews, she has suggested that it is unfair even to question her and says she speaks of that period of her life only to try to offer solace to other children who have been through a similar ordeal. She has offered a single detail -- that her captors forced her to write daily in a diary. Smart used English and French. In English, she wrote about how happy she was and how much she liked her new home. In French, she recorded her true feelings, that she hated Mitchell and Barzee and longed for her parents. If she didn’t live in squalor, as Jaycee Lee Dugard did, she lived in fear.
So rare as to be statistically invisible, according to many sources, including FBI statistics, are kidnappers who take children simply because they see a baby or a lovely child and want to be that child’s loving parent. People who take children they don’t know usually take them to use or to destroy them. I created the scenario of the loving (albeit unstable) kidnapper in my first novel to cut against type, to ask what if?. And even in the case of the fictional Ben Cappadora, returned unscathed emotionally and physically to his family, he had no memory of them: His identity had nothing to do with them. Though he had been well-treated, the happily-ever-after reunion was fraught with pain and isolation. In a continuation of the Cappadoras’ story, my current novel, written a dozen years later, I tried to project how such a child would feel, in but not “of” the family of his birth. The adult Ben still uses the name “Sam,” given him by the husband of his kidnapper, whom he still regards as his true father.
This is the true damage that the child thief does, whether brutal or superficially kind, steals not only the child, but a part of the child’s future, even if she survives. It is the reason we tell our children don’t always be “nice” and polite if a voice inside you says to be scared. This is why experts tell us to teach our kids to fight like a tiger – never to believe that if they obey, they won’t be hurt, even if the person trying to lead them away is a so-called friend or a relative.
The story for the pony-tailed innocent who was Jaycee Lee Dugard 18 years ago when her stepdad witnessed her abduction (who, until days ago, still tormented himself in the belief he was a suspect) has had a better ending than most like her. But no amount of media manipulative
can make it anything but bittersweet. Homecomings such as these might look like a fairytale ending to a nightmare.
But fairytale endings are just that --- fairytales.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place