I've recently gotten sucked into the recent news stories surrounding the new developments in the long unsolved mystery of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey - and this has been very unhealthy for me.
Even though her story is one of murder and not true kidnapping, it is too closely linked to two of my greatest fears (I'm even considering them phobias, except phobias are illegitimate fears): intruders and kidnappers. Since I've become older (to an unkidnappable age) the fear of kidnappers has died down, and since moving to Greenock, I've become a bit more mature and logical about the very real possibility of intruders to the point that I am less afraid and more prepared. But the JonBenet headlines have reawoken my latent fears.
Ever since I was a very small child, I have had this very genuine fear - maybe I'll call it a terror - of intruders and/or kidnappers. I don't have any recollection of why this subject in particular was of such a terrifying nature to me (and I really do mean terrifying, to the point of an obsessive and crippling paranoia that interrupted many daily activities - most of all, sleeping.) My parents were aware of my terror of these subjects. Our family used to gather around the television every Tuesday night to watch Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries; yet, if an episode were going to deal with intruders or kidnappings, my parents warned me so I could leave the room until it was over.
So I'm not sure how I managed to see the made-for-TV film I Know My First Name is Steven. Perhaps my parents wanted me to see it for very real educational purposes. Maybe I just walked in on it while my parents watched it. It came out in '89 so, assuming I saw it when it first aired, I would've been only seven. Yet this film has stuck with me my entire life.
All I could remember about it was that a young boy had been kidnapped and raised by someone else for many, many years until at some point he uttered the phrase "I know my name is Steven". (He actually said his "first name" was Steven.) I also remember the utter fear that gripped me as I tried to sleep that night.
While reading up on the JonBenet stories that are currently recirculating, I remembered this film and decided to look it up. It was easier to find than I expected, and I've learned a bit more detail about the story. (Thankfully the sexual abuse content of the true story of Steven Stayner went over my head at that tender age of seven or so. Though it hits me very hard now.) I decided after reading review after review of how important this film is for parents to watch, that I would order the book off amazon.co.uk.
This may have been a very unwise decision on my part. Yes, I am technically an adult now, and I am about to be a parent. But I don't believe my unhealthy obsession with fearing kidnappers is exactly the right preparation for how to handle teaching my kids about strangers. The last thing I want to do is instill the same terror of strangers in my kids that left me unable to sleep at night and produced nightmare after nightmare of burgulars in our hallway or kidnappers peeping in my window.
Plus, I think one thing that the passage of time does to us is lessen the negativity and sincerity of many of our previous experiences. We tend to look at our pasts with more acceptance and perhaps less seriousness in hindsight. I know I tend to lessen the reality of negative things in my past by assuming I'd just been overdramatic or too 'in-the-moment' to really see the truth. So because of this, I may very well think that my fear of kidnappers was so overexaggerated that teaching your kids 'Don't talk to strangers' is a bit pointless and silly. But the truth is, it is not.
I remember very specifically one frightful afternoon when I was quite young - nine or ten at the oldest. We lived out in the middle of nowhere at the time across from my grandparents. The only thing separating our yard from theirs was their cow fields. In distance, the fields were probably no more than two or three acres, so we often crawled through the barbed wire fences and cut straight across the fields in order to see them.
However, if the cows were out, we would have to take the road. The road was a quiet, lazy country road with very little traffic. We were also surrounded by relatives; at one point, not only were our grandparents across the field, but one aunt and uncle lived at the top of our long driveway and another aunt and uncle lived at the top of the driveway and across the road. Several of the houses along the road in between were owned by my grandpa. So I can perfectly see why my parents believed we were quite safe. I myself can see that we were quite safe. I also think maybe my irrational terror of intruders and kidnappers had to be quietened a bit by my parents as I remember them telling me all the time that we were 'too far out to be bothered'. And whether they told me this because they believed it or to help calm my fears, I don't know, but they were probably quite correct. At any rate, I naturally hated taking the road, especially alone, because the road involved possible strangers. I'd usually run along the road until I got to my grandparents long driveway, or I'd pray the whole way down the road, or I'd try to think of other things until I was off the road. But rarely did I let my guard down while I was on the road.
So on this particular day, the cows were out and I wanted to go to my grandparents house. I don't know where my brothers were, but for some reason I was on my own. As usual, I tried to forget the fact that I was on the road where strangers might be, but that day I couldn't forget. Because as I was walking, an old beat-up car pulled over to the side of the road and a man rolled down his window to talk to me.
He said something to the effect of "Hello, Miss, can you give me directions to the gun shop?"
I was quite literally paralysed with terror. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind, the most urgent one being "RUN RUN RUN!!!!!!" and the second most urgent one being "IF YOU RUN HE MIGHT GRAB YOU!" I backed away from the road as close to the fence as I could and tried to respond in a not-afraid manner.
"I do not know where that is", I responded as I backed further away from the direction his vehicle was facing. GUN SHOP?! the voice in my head screamed. HE WANTS A GUN!
I don't remember what else happened, if he asked another question or let it be. I just remember inching away away away and trying to be as not-afraid-looking as possible. He finally drove off. I ran for my life.
I was understandably genuinely shaken by this experience. Yet thinking back to that day, I now tend to soften the memory by thinking things like, He probably really was looking for a gun shop, not a little blonde girl to kidnap. I had no real reason to be so scared. What's the likelihood that he actually stopped to see if I'd get close enough for him to grab and throw in the backseat?
Until I started reading all this Steven Stayner and JonBenet Ramsey stuff.
On the livesecure.org website, there is a list of safety tips for parents and children. It talks about the most common lures a kidnapper will use to get a child to trust him - looking for a missing pet, giving or promising candy, threatening to harm family members, asking for directions.
I'm an adult now. I'm also an overdramatic drama queen, I won't deny this. But those words sent a cold shiver throughout my body when I came across them. Asking for directions. I began to wonder (with the same old terror rising back up into my heart) what if...
There's no sense in enumerating the 'what ifs' because they are pretty obvious. But the biggest one was, What if my unnatural terror of kidnappers saved my life that day?
And as a child, I just didn't want to be kidnapped and raised by strangers. As an adult, I am far too aware of the other, more realistic, dangers that accompany kidnappings.
This topic terrifies me. I hate it. But it's a real thing that happens to real people, so to what extent should I concern myself with it? Will reading this book only bring back the nightmares and paranoia of my childhood? Will it enlighten me as to practical ways of preventing this from happening to my own family? Will I wake up in the middle of the night and be totally convincned someone is in my house to the extent of calling the police? (That's a rather humorous - though not at the time - story that I'll tell another day, when I don't feel so intense and serious.)
I don't really know. But I think this fear must be confronted, if only for sake of teaching my kids proper stranger safety. I'll have nightmares the rest of my life, as long as it means I am able to teach my kids to be safe - and they stay safe.