When I was 16, a pretty young blonde named Dru Sjodin went missing from the parking lot of my local shopping mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
That following April, her body was found buried under snow only 15 miles from my school.
When you’re a teenage girl, you don’t feel like anything bad can ever happen to you. Your body thrums with the buzz of your glorious youth, your fresh face, your shiny hair. You begin to realize your power, your beauty, the effect you have on men. You’re sick with it, dizzy with it. You have emerged successfully from the chubby, pallid cocoon of 12, 13, 14 and found yourself the most fantastic butterfly. You stare at yourself for hours, wondering how seemingly overnight those curves developed. You notice your peers, your teachers, taking note of this new person you’ve become. You feel like a woman, but you’re not. You’re so far from it.
My flock of cheerleaders, glittered, tanned, oiled and perfect, stalked the hallways of schools like we owned them, ruling the world with our ponytails bopping in time, eyelashes and lips shimmering as sparkly as our pom-poms, building towers on top of each other, showing off. Our tiny skirts flipped in unison, our voices in perfect harmony. My best friends, our jeans slung low, lower, showing off the gems dangling in our navels, our hair pin-straight and shiny, our tee shirts tiny and snug. Drunk with ourselves, drunk with each other. Stealing booze from our parents, tasting the Smirnoff Ices on each other’s mouths, kissing to entice the boys who were so dumb with infatuation seeing us, those girls they’d known from early childhood, bloom into something so lethally lovely. They would protect us. Everyone would protect us. We were untouchable.
Girls were always going missing when I was young. I could name them for you: Polly Klaas. Jeanna North. Julie Holmquist. Natalee Holloway. Laci Peterson. Dru. I’ll never forget their names. Like Dru, Jeanna and Julie disappeared not so very far from my idyllic childhood farm, not far from the small town, population 360, where I rode my bike with my friends and walked to the corner cafe for lunch. Nothing like that was supposed to happen in North Dakota, in Minnesota, in small towns, in summer. The excuses, the reasons we assure ourselves “It couldn’t happen here” fly out the window when one day, it does. One minute you’re there, the next you’re not.
Girls go missing all the time. Some of them might choose to disappear. Others, like Dru Sjodin, are yanked out of their reality by a hand who sees them and thinks, “I want this, this should be mine,” and simply takes what they think they deserve. They take them – who knows where they go. Who knows what that’s like. They are simply taken; forces far beyond their control grasp what they believe is theirs, do what they want with them, dispose of them when they’re done. A girl will go missing today. Tomorrow. Forever.
Some are found, like the Elizabeth Smarts and Jaycee Dugards of the world, while others never appear again. Some become icons. Others are forgotten, dissolving into ghosts and unwatched “Dateline” episodes. Nancy Grace takes up the flag for the pretty and blonde among them, while thousands of others go ignored. It isn’t fair. We lose them.
There was an announcement over the loudspeaker when they found Dru Sjodin’s body. After all, it was only 15 miles from our school. I remember a girl started crying uncontrollably and had to be taken out and I thought that was so strange; none of us knew her personally, so why was she so upset? Perhaps she had been out there looking; many from our small community had. Then I looked at myself and wondered at my capacity for empathy. Because when you’re 16, your empathy for others is slim to none. Sixteen years old, you matter to yourself.
A year later, I interviewed Dru’s mom. She was a lovely lady softening into middle age, with bright blue eyes gone a little cloudy from grief. She told me that it was her crusade now to keep other young women from the fate of her daughter. She worked to make sure sex offenders like the one who had taken her daughter were listed, visible, never able to do what had been done to her family. She pleaded with me, sometimes wordlessly, to stay safe, to remember that bad things happen, that no one is untouchable. Me, with my bursting teenage body, my tight jeans, my lip-glossed lips, tried to remember, but I forgot.
Even something as simple as walking down the street is dangerous. I spent so many years cocky, walking alone at night from Minneapolis to Brooklyn; it won’t happen to me, I said, the lights are on. There are people here. No one can touch me. I am confident on my feet, I’m not scared of anything. I have a phone, I have a Facebook, I have friends who will notice if I’m gone.
But I could’ve been that girl in the snow. So could you. It’s easier than you think to vanish.