One can only hope that the arrest of Joran van der Sloot means that Natalee Holloway’s family will be allowed the grace of burying whatever remains of her body.
The events in Peru that marked the 5th anniversary of Natalee’s disappearance have consumed the media. The focus of my thoughts and conversations has been less about the punishment that may or may not be meted out to this young Dutch psychopath—although I think a few decades at least in Castro Castro prison seem appropriate—and more about the nature of young people and particularly young women.
There has been much hand-wringing over whether Natalee was in fact the sweet girl of her parents’ imaginations, questions about her behavior in Aruba where she frequented a casino and drank in bars. People have questioned whether any parent should allow teenagers to celebrate their liberation from high school and childhood with a barely chaperoned trip beyond our nation’s borders.
All this has certainly been on my mind. After all—although my Tattooed Boy may find it unimaginable—I was once a teenager. I was, in fact, a girl much like Natalee Holloway. I was certainly not as pretty; my grades were not as stellar. I was, however, a “good girl.” I was responsible, intelligent, and reasonably sensible. I was not a rebel; following the rules was no particular burden and for me, hewing to the straight-and-narrow was also to stroll happily along the path of least resistance.
Because I was a good girl, the privileges I requested were almost always granted. At boarding school I was allowed to leave campus with a friend or two to see a film and get a cheeseburger when classmates were confined to after-dinner study halls. During my year in England as a participant in an English-Speaking Union exchange program, there were days and even weekends spent in London on my own. I also had boyfriends at Oxford and Cambridge whom I visited with sufficient regularity that my headmistress suggested I might be “mixing my blues.”
The summer following that English school year, I traveled for five weeks around Europe with a girl, a friend-of-a-friend, on the same program. Pin and I were just eighteen. We were both good girls, practical and capable, but unquestionably innocent and gullible. Most of the traveling was done by thumb. We headed for Copenhagen and after stops in Stockholm, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Paris and some empty terrain in-between, we were back in London for our scheduled flight back to the United States.
I was used to independence.
I remember an Ohio afternoon in May, 1963; I was eleven years old and in the sixth grade. I was barely through the door, having just walked home from school, when my mother said, “Finish up cooking supper, everything is started, I’m going to St. Paul’s to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. Before I had a chance to say, “Sure, Ma” or “I’m too busy with homework, Ma” or even “Huh?” she was gone. Dinner that night was unmemorable so I must have done an adequate job.
Summers were spent on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. My favorite summer was 1962. I rose, had breakfast, did my bit of sweeping and other chores, then loaded up our six-horsepower putt-putt with bait, snacks, a book and extra seat cushions and went fishing. In those days, life-preservers were an option not an obligation. Extra flotation cushions upholstered the center seat so I could recline and read, my rod propped on the gunwale between my feet. Technically I was breaking one law. Children below the age of twelve were not permitted to operate boats except under the direct supervision of an adult. I was tall and looked at least twelve, so I never was challenged. More importantly, I had passed my mother’s extremely difficult swimming test which meant, more or less, she was entirely confident my safety would never be an issue. If I disappeared for six or seven hours at a stretch, no one worried. If I was gone long enough to be late setting the table for dinner, that got me in trouble.
In later years a fragmented and single-parent family meant that I spent a lot of time on my own. I traveled alone back and forth between home and boarding school. By sophomore year, “home from school” meant a Belmont, Massachusetts, apartment shared with my sister that was within walking distance of McLean Hospital where our mother was under therapeutic commitment. I still got my summer reading done despite hours idling in Harvard Square and evenings drinking coffee in the old Blue Parrot. The “T” in those pre-Charlie-Card days got me where I needed to go and home again usually for less than a dollar. I met all manner of disreputable types, had wonderful conversations with them and was still on time for dinners at McLean with Ma.
Which brings me back to my point.
Despite my youth, vulnerability and gullibility, nothing terrible ever happened to me. Yes, there was one truck driver with his apparatus hanging out his pants. Yes, one ill-chosen companion in Amsterdam liberated my wallet of about $40, a minor fortune at that time. But I was never personally attacked or harmed.
I was very, very lucky. Natalee was very, very unlucky.
Predators like Joran van der Sloot do not choose their victims from the ranks of the promiscuous, criminal, and badly behaved. They target the innocent, the honest, the good girls. I never once imagined that any person I encountered could want to do me harm. I still have trouble understanding that there are people whom I should not trust, who are likely to cause me grief given any opportunity. I think Natalee was the same kind of person.
In the end, we cannot keep our children tethered in order to keep them safe. We do, however, need to remember that “stranger danger” continues past the point our children emerge from elementary school. We need to explain that the most dangerous strangers look safe and appealing rather than threatening and unattractive. And most of all, we need to teach our children that the safety of their friends is in part in their hands.
Natalee wasn’t safe because she was in a group of friends one-hundred-strong; she was at peril because she left that group and no one knew to insist that she stay.