a stranger calls

by Megan Abbott

On book tour of late, I visited Michigan and, for the first time, talked about my novel, The End of Everything, in the world that inspired it—suburban Detroit.  It was a strange feeling, seeing many old friends stretching as far back as elementary school.

After the reading, a trio of these friends—three women, all looking incandescent despite the humid weather and the clambering hands of their downy headed children—came up to say hello and pointed out that I had in fact used the actual names of my high school chemistry teacher and middle school math teacher (both unusual names) in the novel.

I can’t account for the fact that I’d forgotten this entirely, can’t even say I was ever aware I’d done it.  It was an uncanny feeling, like being caught. Like a dream when someone says to you, “I was just on the third floor of your house” when you know you only have two floors.

This episode was followed by an after-party in which several folks, including Eric Peterson, asked if my novel was inspired by the Oakland County missing children cases of the late 1970s. I am, let it be said, a true-crime junkie, which is why I cannot rightly explain the blank face I gave in return. What missing children?

Because my novel is centered around a missing girl, I have spent the last several weeks talking about missing-children cases (with both tragic and happy endings) virtually everywhere I go. One of the reasons I set the novel in the early 1980s was because I remember distinctly the changes in my community in terms of child safety. After the Adam Walsh case (1981),  I remember a distinct feeling of hysteria over “stranger danger” and the way that made me feel as a kid. To me, everything felt like an enticing, half-hidden mystery. But to parents, teachers, everyone else but we kids, it felt quite intensely like a place of peril, especially to children.

So, as I’ve visited bookstores, others have shared similar tales of the Walsh case, and other ones. I know for Sara, the Etan Patz case in New York had a similar impact. And, amid all this, there was both the terrible Brooklyn case and the Caylee Anthony phenomenon (what do you do when the danger is within your own home, which, statistically, is usually the case?).

Amid all these conversations, though, I continually asserted it was the Adam Walsh case that I remember so vividly, in large part because everyone saw the TV movie and the graphic details of Adam’s death scattered through our school with abandon.

But an Oakland County case? I didn’t recall it one bit.

For some backstory, I grew up in Wayne County (Detroit lies at its heart and my town, Grosse Pointe, serves as its upturned chin), the direct neighbor to Oakland, where we might go, when I was a kid, to the movies, or their mall. From what I’ve since learned, over a 13-month period in 1976-1977, four children (ages 10-12) were abducted, held for several days, and murdered. In the grim way of media spectacle, the perpetrator was dubbed the “Baby Sitter” because he kept the children alive for as many as 19 days, feeding them and bathing them before killing them. No one was ever convicted, though there are strong beliefs in the identify of the perpetrator.

I would have been five or six at the time, which is probably why I don’t remember them as they were occurring. But not even in the intervening years?

At the after-party, when discussion of the case came up, I asked my dad if he remembered the case.

“Oh yes,” he said, “of course.”

I’s so interesting because clearly, as a child, I must have felt it—the sense of attenuated fear, anxiety, terror. The dread that must have stretched for years with no suspect found, no justice served. In fact, especially in light of new DNA analysis, there continue to be stories (and stories) about the case, as recently as two weeks ago.

But I have no conscious memory of the case at all. And yet how much it must have impacted all our lives.  Both my brother and I just five years younger than the Oakland County children, abducted in daylight, after buying candy at a pharmacy, coming back from the 7-11.

I am sure my parents shielded me from the specifics, and I do remember all the steps taken in my elementary school to alert parents to “stranger danger.” And I remember afer one such school assembly being particularly frightened to walk the single block home. But as much as I recall countless other missing child cases, I never, ever came upon the one in my own backyard.

It makes me wonder how much I did know about the case, in whatever ways a five or six year old can, but somehow I forgot it, the way we forget things we want to, need to.

I should add, The End of Everything bears no similarity to what happened in  Oakland Country, in facts large or small. I can’t say I even consider it to be a novel about a missing child precisely, but instead about an enchanted family and the power we invest such families with. But it is inspired by that feeling so specific to the late 70s-early 80s. The sense of the world changing, abruptly, even over night, because all the adults were suddenly terrified and that terror painted the entire world of my youth (many of our youth’s) with a powerful menace. The message was: You are not safe, and you never were.

But even adult fear couldn’t stop us. We still needed to discover, to push through to adulthood, to find, on our own, the peril and beauty of the world. We did.

And hat tip to Eric Peterson, who first suggested a connection between my book and the case and who provided great insight into the case that night.

13 Responses to “a stranger calls”

  1. I remember getting fingerprinted in 1982 because of child abductions. The Adam Walsh case both opened our eyes to the dangers outside the home and blindered us to the dangers within.
    I enjoyed your book immensely, and I’ve lent and recommended it to many readers. You expertly captured the dreamlike state of a child at that age.

  2. Thank you so much…
    I don’t remember getting fingerprinted, but I suddenly remember at one point our school issuing “id tags” (to us, they looked like dog tags from M*A*S*H) so that if were lost but also if we were abducted and escaped….?
    Where did you grow up?

  3. have you seen the Doc Cropsey yet? I watched it this past week and it’s harrowing and haunting look at missing children cases on Long Island in the 70s and 80s. Thanks for the mention as well, did you get a moment to look up the Sean Moore case at all? Any one else recall this case? It was big news in Ann Arbor, where I live. (http://www.johndouglasmindhunter.com/research/synopsis_journeydarkness.php for more info)

  4. I’ve been wanting to see Cropsey since I first heard of it (two years or so ago at Tribeca Film Fest?) — next on my queue. And I *knew* the Shawn Moore case rung a bell! I was just a year older and recall that it was a few weeks of wondering before the terrible news….I have to check out the Douglas book again.
    As for Oakland County, I see now there’s still two different “suspects” in the mix?

  5. I’m a child of the 70s and 80s myself, but my experience is so different. We didn’t have TV or anything (well, we did have two channels, but neither one came in worth a damn, and we couldn’t get any kind of cable at all out to where we lived until I was into my high school years), so I was unaware even of the Walsh case. In my rural Montana upbringing, I never feared being abducted; never even considered it a possibility. I remember hearing about Son of Sam, and the Manson murders, stuff like that, but that’s about it. My mom had Helter Skelter and that freaked me out, but all that stuff was really like hearing of things happening on another planet. I can clearly remember regularly walking the two miles from our home into “town” (really just a tiny store with a gas pump next to an outhouse-sized post office; and three bars and two churches, of course) by myself when I was all of seven or eight, crossing the highway (the same Interstate 90 that will take me all the way to Detroit) over the overpass, with $1.50 in change. That change would get me a soda, a bag of chips, and a comic book that I would lay in the grass near the stream that undercut the railroad tracks and read, before walking home again.

    When I got out of high school and moved to the Seattle area, it was all about the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy, and those guys really aren’t necessarily viewed as child abductors, though given the age of some of their victims some consideration could be given that they are. So it wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I ever really had a lot of thought to the dangers children face, because it was never part of my world. Of course now it’s a different story, though I admit that I don’t follow any of these current stories and events with any real attention either. So given it wasn’t anything I grew up thinking about, never faced personally, or never had anyone I know actually involved in anything like that, it is a little difficult to relate to. I grew up more worried about the family dog being attacked by coyotes than I did anything related to people.

    Oh, and we had a couple banty roosters I was terrified of, because those little bastards were diabolical. And my sister had a gelding named Sparky for a while that I’m quite certain was carnivorous.

  6. That’s so fascinating, Chris–because I think our experiences were not *that* different though they likely were for our parents. Other than a few PTA-induced shivers, I can’t say I felt it could touch me–both because, clearly, my parents shielded me from the Oakland County case and also because we kids treated these stories almost like spook tales. There was an adult hysteria swirling around us, but we never let it stop our own explorations….journeys into the forest.

    But now I *am* afraid of Sparky!

  7. Believe it or not I was just talking about Etan Patz with a mutual friend on Sunday morning. And as an aside I would like to say how much I love that illustration! Don’t worry, that little girl is protected–she has her ID tags on!

    Interesting given how much we’ve talked about secret influences–that you weren’t influenced directly by this whole deal but it’s after-ripples may have penetrated your territory. And I think you hit the (or *a*) nail on the head when you point out that the most dangerous place for a child is, of course, in their own home, and the people who “love” them are far more likely to hurt them than a stranger. We have all this machinery to educate us all about child abductions but if you’ve ever tried to intervene in an actual incident of child abuse happening in front of you, well, see what happens!

    I could go on forever about this!

  8. We have all this machinery to educate us all about child abductions but if you’ve ever tried to intervene in an actual incident of child abuse happening in front of you, well, see what happens!

    Ain’t that the truth.

  9. @irenzero: The Cropsey case was actually on Staten Island, not Long Island. I grew up on SI and remember hearing the stories when I was a kid. Along with stories of the Willowbrook State School, Cropsey was the urban legend on SI in the 70’s and 80’s.

  10. Sara and Megan, I wonder if you would consider blogging about how you feel about writing about such difficult topics? I have just written a post about how one book made me feel (disturbed), and pondering the role of fiction in shining a light on the darkness in the world. It’s not an area that I normally blog about so my take on things is pretty clumsy but it’s something that I can’t really shake or stop thinking about. I read a LOT of crime fiction (although for some reason I have only recently discovered you both) and I guess I have started to need to think about that.

    Reading your blog as I have been for a little while now I reckon you’d do an amazing job of unpacking this stuff and I’d really love to read it. Sorry if that all sounds garbled; it might make more sense in the context of my post: http://tortoisetales2.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/on-literature-gratuitousness-and-things-that-make-you-squirm/

    Anyway, I’ll also take this opportunity to say how thrilled I am to have discovered you both as authors and bloggers. Carry on 🙂

  11. Thank you! It’s funny: I think this has been one of the themes of the blog in many ways—even though we didn’t intend it to be so! It came up most directly for me here: https://abbottgran.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/she-couldn%E2%80%99t-have-she-must-have/
    and here:
    Because it’s in understanding why we read it and write it that we understand that darkness doesn’t reside in some distant space–On the other hand, I think gratuitousness is how things “read” to us when we feel there’s no purpose to the exploration other than to be shocking. when a scene doesn’t feel organic to the story, important to it—when it just fees dropped in, and thus feels cruel. I think dark things are often, as you say, illuminating, and, despite how dark, need not ever feel or read as gratuitous, as excessive, or, worst of all, as unsympathetic. I think one of the gifts of crime fiction is what it shows about humanity, survivors, saviors…and how rich and complicated we all are.
    what do you think?

  12. Discovered this blog way late it seems, but just wanted to share some thoughts. This post resonated a lot for me as well because although I grew up somewhat later (early/mid 90s) I distinctly remember the whole ominous idea of “missing children” always hanging there in the background of childhood. The books very much like the one you feature above, the TV shows & news stories that gave me nightmares, the constant suspiciousness of strangers. And yes, I also remember that mixed sense of fascination and terror as a kid: the idea of “disappearance” (where did they go? how did they vanish from this familiar safe world) and the chilling half-understood knowledge of what was implied to have happened to them. And yet as other commentators have pointed out, what I look back and actually remember incidences of abuse among people I know it was always from those close to them, usually relatives. They didn’t disappear, they went on living – often in various modes of silence, shame, or other less dramatic emotions. One doesn’t of course want to go to the extreme of marking it completely as a myth – obviously people are killed or hurt by strangers, precautions must be taken, etc. But when these things capture the public imagination it’s always interesting to pull back the curtain and look at what they were concealing.

    Incidentally, I discovered this blog in an unusual roundabout way which you and/or Sara might appreciate. I have been working on a mystery screenplay and figured I should read up on mystery books, old and new, to refresh my sense of this storytelling mode. One I picked up at the library, without knowing anything about it, was Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway I think simply because the binding – bright blue, with the image of a yellow key – caught my eye. I recently started reading it, and have been really enjoying it especially the whole background mythology of Jacques Silette and his intuitive mode of detection. Right away I was reminded of Twin Peaks, Cooper, and David Lynch (I am a massive Twin Peaks fan) and since the author’s name – Sara Gran – rang a bell I wondered if she had written the Twin Peaks article I remembered from last fall (about the show’s influence on an author’s mystery novels). Turns out she hadn’t – but you had! And that lo and behold, you had shared a blog. Small world!

    Anyhow, that’s a long way of saying next time library trip I will be checking out Megan Abbot novels as well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: