Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker: True crime you simply must read.
31 July 2015
by Robert Kolker
I know, I know, nobody really wants to read True Crime.
And yet, people do. I do. And when I come across True Crime books that I think you should read, even if you have an aversion to the genre, I feel I have to tell you about them.
One such book is Robert Colker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.
The book originally began life as an article in New York Magazine, about the Long Island serial killer and his victims. It's a complex story, making it a complex book: Kolker opens the narrative by describing five of the killer's victims (the four whose bodies were found on a New York barrier island off the shore of Long Island, in similar burlap sacks, and another victim, whom authorities can't confirm was or was not killed by the same perpetrator) and their lives, most of which were filled with details of complex and abusive family relationships, struggles to find "honest" work, eventual turns to escort services and prostitution to make money, addiction problems, and a host of unstable relationships. I found this part of the book the most challenging one to read; all of the women advertised their services as escorts under different names, so keeping their stories straight was a bit of a challenge.
Kolker structures his narrative a bit differently than most True Crime narratives, which tend to be very straightforward and story-driven. In this book he starts with the character portraits and narratives of the victims, and from there he works outward to consider their family circumstances and how their bodies were eventually found. In the latter half of the book, he examines the community life in the gated community of Oak Beach, on Jones Island, near which the remains (and the remains of several other unidentified individuals) were found, focusing particularly on the residents who have come to be viewed with suspicion by other residents, the police, and the media.
It's a challenging read, and it's a really sad read, but I still think you should look into it. Just to look through this window of how so many people (women, in particular) live their lives constantly at the edge of despair and bad luck and no good choices is educational, and important. Here's one thing that struck me about the book: Kolker (and many others) make the point that serial killers often target prostitutes and other individuals at the edge of society, because they have such tenuous connections and are often "not missed." To me this always made it sound like sex workers had no connections. But what is really clear in this narrative is that they DO have connections to other people--a ton of them. They've got parents and stepparents; siblings and step-siblings; often they have babies or children of their own; they've got friends; they often have pimps or boyfriends or guys who drive them to jobs. The greater problem is that those connections often exert pressures of their own: at least one of these victims was working to give her mother and family money; they are trying to support and raise children, and this job seems to offer the most pay for the fewest hours; they develop drug problems because of friends and pimps and dealers they know, and because johns often request drug use at the same time as escort services. So they're not really alone--they're just with all the (arguably) wrong people, all the time.
For some reason that gave me pause.
I also liked Kolker's writing style. It's direct. And I thought one of his conclusions was about as much as you could hope for:
"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on." (p. 381.)
Yes, it's hard to read. It's a heartbreaking story, and a heartbreaking book. You should read it.