On Missing Girls & Why I Can’t Listen to Eric Clapton

The Back to the Future soundtrack is the sound of happiness.  If you don’t love “The Power of Love” than you are an inhuman monster and we have nothing to talk about.

But on a weirder, darker note, I can’t listen to Eric Clapton’s “Heaven is One Step Away,” on the A-side.  It’s a halfway decent song (I’m not a huge Clapton fan anyways) but it’s linked in my brain, the way that music gets, with two tragedies.  The first, knowing about Clapton’s son Conor, who died in a fall from a window and was the inspiration for “Tears in Heaven,” a song that I feel bad for deeply hating.  The second is an incident that had a fundamental impact on my life, one that has stayed with me well into adulthood.

I was 10 when Sarah Ann Wood, 12, went missing in Frankfort, NY.  Her poster was everywhere; I can still see her photo as clear as though it’s in front of me.  A few months later, Polly Klaas, also 12, would be kidnapped from a slumber party in her mother’s house, her body was recovered months later.  Their kidnappers were eventually caught and sentenced to prison, but Sarah’s body was never recovered.

1993 was a big one for me.   I’d had my adenoids out and tubes put in my ears; a big surgery for a 10 year old (I was out of school for a week).  My mom had remarried and my baby sister Beth was due in September, and I would discover both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Star Wars, films that would define my adolescence.  The Back to the Future soundtrack was my favorite cassette tape, the soundtrack for my summer.  But Clapton’s “Heaven is One Step Away,” with lyrics like “We searched all through the night/I couldn’t find it/and I knew then something wasn’t right,” combined with the idea of Heaven being the place you go after you die, all linked in my brain with Conor, Sarah and Polly’s deaths.

10 is the age of beginning independence; when I was able to go to the movies or walk to the pool with my sister Hilary and our friends Trista and Paulina. But with those posters everywhere I went, as well as the ubiquitous warning to watch out for lurking white vans, instilled a certain sense that the world I had been brought up to believe was safe was, in reality, far from it.  I remember Trista and I trying to solve the case ourselves, applying Nancy Drew logic to what we heard on the news.

Those anxious memories inspired my short story “White Van Summer.”  It’s very possible that this was the inciting incident to what would become a life of crime writing.  But even as an adult, just thinking of “Heaven is One Step Away” (let alone hearing it; I almost always skip it) still gives me a hard, anxious pressure in my chest.  I know that it’s not about missing girls, but in my mind, it will always trigger memories of those posters.  Their faces and the knowledge that someone deliberately brutalized them has become a part of me, a ever-present anxiety that I have more or less overcome, but one that colored a good part of my childhood with fear that me, or my sisters or my friends, could suddenly become one of those girls on the poster, a body they pull battered from the ravine.  I was lucky that this was never the case.

It’s very easy to be afraid of everything.  To this day, I have intense and specific fears about my own violent death, inspired by stories on Gawker and the Huffington Post and the occasional crime under my own byline.   But I try not to let fear ever get in the way of my life.  It’s not always easy.  Crime writing, for me, is not about seizing control or even some sort of fetishy save-the-world bullshit.  It’s about exploring the complex nature of criminal acts, of the character’s reactions to them, whether the main character is the victim, the detective or the perpetrator.

These cases — and others since — have affected me deeply in ways I am still trying to understand.  They’re closed cases, for the most part, although cases against Sarah’s killer, Lewis Lent, are still being investigated even as recently as last May.  But I cannot untangle that summer, those posters, from my psyche.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s why I write crime, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t at least a small piece, the original inspiration.


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