(Originally published in Main Line Life 11/13/08)
It’s their smiles that haunt you. Smiles frozen in time, in photographs from better days. Days when what lay ahead was not yet known. Could not be known.
It is nearly the two-year anniversary of the horrifying, and as yet unsolved, story of four women found murdered and left in an Atlantic City drainage ditch. At the time, I felt safely removed from the story. That would never happen to me, or one of mine, I thought to myself. The women were described as having been previously arrested for prostitution, and they were all involved in the drug culture, so they had many opportunities to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Then their photos were published in the newspaper, and suddenly they were real. In their photos, the women are all smiling. They look like the girl who lives in our neighborhood, like someone we could know. Somehow their lives intersected and they ended up forever connected in this gruesome way. But on the day those photos were taken of them, they were smiling.
For a number of years I was on the fundraising board for a domestic violence shelter. The stories we heard, often directly from abused women themselves, were gut-wrenching. I’ll never forget going up to the shelter one year to decorate it for the holidays. There we were, a group of well-meaning suburban women wanting to reach out in some small way to women not as fortunate as ourselves.
The first person I saw when I checked in at the reception desk, was a client who had recently been beaten. Her face was twice the size of a normal face, with bruises the color of the sky when summer thunder is moving in. Her left arm was in a sling. She sat there in her ratty parka talking to the receptionist about whether or not she should go back to her husband. It was the holidays, after all. What would her children do in a shelter during the holidays? He had promised her in the hospital it wouldn’t happen again.
The image of that face has never left me. Not when we were putting up the tree in the common room of the shelter, helped by a somber eleven year-old boy. Not when we left and went back to our own families. And now all these years later, seeing those women in the newspaper.
Those of us who are grown women with daughters worry. It doesn’t matter what your social station is or how much money you have or don’t have. During my life I have been in situations I shouldn’t have been in, and was just plain lucky. I tell my own daughter to be careful. I don’t want her to be afraid of men, but let’s face the facts. Men abuse and kill women at a significantly higher rate than the other way around. It doesn’t matter if you are a prostitute or a “good girl.”
When you look at the photos of those murdered women, it is difficult to judge them. They look too much like our sisters and cousins, and maybe even our daughters. They look normal. They look like anyone with the hopes and dreams we all have. How they ended up in the lives they ended up in was a matter of choice, but who are we to know what led them to that place. They once had families, like we all do. And now those families have to live every day with unimaginable grief.
A friend of mine once asked how I could volunteer at the shelter. “I could never deal with seeing that kind of thing,” she said. We all have our own stories, and reasons for helping others. My story is this: I am the oldest in a family of six girls and one boy. Two of my sisters ended up in terrible situations with men that were abusive. They had children with those men, and were often about as down and out as people could be. I never could save them, nor could anyone in my family. They were estranged from us at times, even though we fought for them. They have both depended upon the kindness of strangers, have relied at times on shelters. When I help a stranger, I feel I may be helping someone else’s sister. Someone who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take help from her own family.
That’s why on the two-year anniversary of their deaths, when I see those beautiful girls staring out at me with smiles curving their lips and life in their eyes, it breaks my heart.