Warning: this post will discuss in detail my book Olive Juice. There will be full spoilers. If you haven’t read it yet, and don’t want to be spoiled on the plot, then click away.
I like Wikipedia.
I really like Wikipedia.
I can spend hours going through articles on there, finding myself in a wiki-spiral, starting at one article that interest me, and then clicking on a link within that article, and another link and another until somehow, I might have started with reading about the architectural design known as perpendicular gothic to somehow ending up on a page about the First Congo War. I’m of the mind that Wikipedia is one of the greatest sites on the Internet, and an amazing resource.
(Which, of course, should always be double checked before actually using it as a source, seeing as how it could be edited by just about anyone.)
It was during one of these click-fests that I came across a term I hadn’t heard before: missing white woman syndrome.
I was curious. So, naturally, I clicked on the link.
Per Wikipedia, missing white woman syndrome is defined as follows:
Missing white woman syndrome is a phrase used by social scientists and media commentators to describe the extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases involving young, white, upper middle class women or girls. Instances have been cited in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The phenomenon is defined as the media’s undue focus on upper-middle-class white women who disappear, with the disproportionate degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases of missing men, or women of color and of lower social classes.
I was a little shocked, at first. I think. Surprised. I read through the whole article, wondering why I hadn’t heard of such a term before, and honestly, a little disbelieving. A missing person is a missing person, right? Why would white women and/or girls get more coverage than any other missing person?
As I would quickly learn, it’s because the world is a fucked up place.
There is a racial disparity at the coverage of missing persons. It’s not something just found in the United States. In Canada, for example, there is a high percentage of aboriginal women who disappear in relation to white women, and yet their coverage is significantly less than their white counterparts. When persons of color (POC) go missing, instead of focusing on the actual missing part of it, there is a tendency to focus on the baggage that missing person has.
Men, and especially POC men, tend to not be reported on at all. There is more of a tendency by investigators and media to think that when a male goes missing, it’s because he is running from some aspect of his life.
It’s even more difficult when it’s children versus an adult. I read close to a hundred cases of missing persons. A high percentage of the cases I read where an adult disappeared, there was pushback from law enforcement in filing a missing person’s report at all, because in America, and adult has the legal right to disappear. They can go wherever they want, do whatever they want. But sometimes, even reports of missing children aren’t taken seriously, or, at the very least, investigated right away, especially in cases of custody disputes.
Washington D.C, near where I live, is one of the few places in the entire country that is obligated to take down a missing person’s report during the first contact.
I’m white. I am aware that because of that, I am afforded a privilege that others are not. While I am a member of the LGBTQ community, that does not equate my experience with that of a person of color.
When writing a character of color, I want to do right by the character. It’s not fair of me to write a POC character just because I can. I have a duty to get things right. Any mistakes I make are on me, and no one else. An editor or sensitivity reader can still miss things no matter how careful they are, and I absolutely cannot fall back on them if I am called out on something that I wrote. I need to own my words. Words have power, and if they are carelessly flung about, they can wound quite easily.
I thought for a long time about Olive Juice, even before I wrote a single paragraph. If I should even attempt to write on a topic like missing white woman syndrome. If even reading about it was enough research, regardless of how many cases I had gone through. Or if I needed to do more.
But the idea stuck with me. I was in the middle of the Lightning trilogy, and though I was far, far away in Verania, the topic wouldn’t leave my head.
I made a deal with myself. If I was going to write a story like this, if I was going to try and write about David and Phillip and a girl named Alice, then I needed to understand it from other perspectives outside of my tiny, safe little bubble.
After all, as David says in the book, At least it hasn’t happened to me.
Citizens United Exchange in Support of Missing Persons, or CUE, is discussed in Olive Juice. On any given day, if you go to their website, you can review hundreds of cases of missing persons, their photos, and the circumstances behind their disappearances. Unfortunately, much of the descriptions of what happened are extremely short, because people just don’t know.
Today, for example, as I write this on the 17th of May, here is what I see when I go there, all in different states in the US:
Kareem Ward, age 23. Disappeared on June 1st, 2007.
Lucely Aramburo, age 23. Disappeared on June 2nd, 2007.
Stepha Henry, age 22. Disappeared on May 29th, 2007.
Jerrica Laws, age 24. Disappeared on August 17th, 2016.
Darryl Miller, age 33. Disappeared on July 31st, 2005
Domonique Grishom, age 16. Disappeared on February 12th, 2009.
These are all persons of color. There’s a high chance you don’t know their names before reading this. But if I said Natalee Holloway or Laci Peterson or Madeleine McCann, you probably would know who I was talking about.
This isn’t meant to minimize the plight of any family who has a missing loved one. Regardless of a person’s sex, or the color of their skin, when a loved one goes missing, the hole left is immeasurable. It’s something that can’t be healed, I was told, because there was no explanation as to the why.
In Olive Juice, there are descriptions of support groups for families and friends of missing persons.
These are real things. There are groups that meet to support each other.
I wondered if I could go to one.
I wondered if even thinking about that was way out of line.
Because who was I to encroach on whatever people said during those meetings? I have never had a loved one go missing. I cannot understand the feelings they must have. Would it be wrong of me to even ask? Was it exploitative of me?
I wrestled with it for a couple of weeks.
I called to ask. I figured the worse thing they could say was no.
I explained who I was, and that I was doing research for a fictional story. I asked if it were possible for me to sit in on a meeting or two. I stressed up front that if I did attend, I would sit out of the way, wouldn’t speak, and just observe. And if there was even one person that came to the meeting who objected to me being there, I would leave immediately. Because it’s not about me. I would rather shelve a story than make anyone uncomfortable in a moment of vulnerability.
I was pleasantly surprised when I was told it was fine to attend, just as long as I stayed in the back.
So I went in early 2016 in DC.
The group leader told them who I was, and what I was doing, and that if anyone didn’t want me to be there, I would leave, no hard feelings.
No one objected.
I’m not going to recount their stories here. They are personal and not for me to share, especially without permission. Sufficed to say, I was gutted by the end of that first meeting. The people there had lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. One had a missing grandparent, there one day, and the next just…gone. We think, whether we are conscious of it or not, the same thing when we hear of terrible stories that happen to others: at least it didn’t happen to me.
These people had it happen to them.
I attended one more meeting, a few weeks later. And the one thing I was struck with, the one thing I heard over and over again, was it was the not knowing that was the worst thing of all. That some wounds, no matter how old, can’t ever heal because they don’t know. They don’t know why or who. Many of them know when, but that’s it. And it’s no where near enough.
I was put in touch with a woman I’ll call Mary. She asked that I not use her real name, because she doesn’t want the attention. “I’ve had enough of that,” she told me when I spoke to her on the phone during one of our conversations over a period of a few weeks.
Mary is black. She is older, but sharper than I could ever be. She has this great laugh. It’s really dusky and deep. She likes to cook. She has two dogs and an “ancient cat who don’t like anybody.”
And in the summer of 1992, Mary’s twenty year-old daughter disappeared.
She would take the bus to and from work every day. She worked in a department store. She was saving money to go to college, and still lived with her mom. One night, she didn’t come home.
“There were no cell phones back then,” Mary said. “Not like there are now. Everyone wasn’t connected like they are now.”
Mary was grew more worried the later it got. Her daughter hadn’t told her of any plans that she had after work. On weeknights, they usually watched soap operas they’d taped during the day. It was their “little thing,” Young & the Restless, specifically.
She didn’t know many of her daughter’s friends. She called one that she knew of, but the friend hadn’t spoken to the daughter in a few days.
Mary finally gave in and called the police at 10:14 pm. She’s never forgotten that exact time. Her daughter was almost six hours late.
She was told her daughter was probably just out with friends. To give it a little longer. That she would come home when she was ready to.
Mary called back less than an hour later. She was given the same line. Her daughter was young, but she was an adult. She could do what she wanted.
The next day, her daughter still hadn’t come home.
The police finally sent someone out to take a report.
She remembers them being obviously skeptical, but they took the report anyway.
It took a few days, but eventually, someone got back in touch with her.
“There was no Internet,” she told me. “Now, you can go on the Internet and talk to anybody you want. Back then, everything had to be done by hand.”
Mary, along with some of her daughter’s friends, made missing person’s posters. They handed them out along the bus route. At the department store. To anyone that would take one.
The investigation was…lackluster. No one on the bus route could seem to remember if Mary’s daughter had ridden a bus home that night. Her daughter had been at work, and had worked her full shift. Her supervisor said that nothing seemed amiss. But aside from that, not much else was done.
I asked naively (and, looking back, rather carelessly) if Mary thought race had to do with the sub par investigation.
“Of course it did,” she said. “It always comes back to race, even today. Black kids getting shot by cops, but then the big story is about the white boy using a cop as part of a prank to ask a white girl to prom.”
It would take until 2003 until her daughter’s remains were found, worked out in a plea deal for the man who had murdered her. He’d been arrested in 2002 after a different detective had taken over the case in 1999, and in exchange for a lighter sentence, the man who had taken Mary’s daughter pointed them toward the remains.
Mary grieved, of course. “But it was strange. It was sad, just about the saddest thing in my whole world. But I was relieved at the same time. It was over.”
The man was given twenty years.
He died in 2015 from health issues.
I told Mary I’d finished Olive Juice some months later. I told her I didn’t expect her to read it, but I wanted to thank her again for everything she’d done to help me. “You won’t be offended?” she asked.
“Oh god no,” I said. “Of course not.”
I asked her if I could dedicate the book to her daughter. She came up with an alternative. In her own words, the dedication at the front of Olive Juice reads as follows:
For those trying to find their way home.
She said she had to go after that. It was getting late, and she needed to walk her dogs.
With Olive Juice, I wanted to tell a story.
Of David, and his grief. His anger.
Of Phillip’s strength in the face of something no parent should ever have to experience.
And the fallout.
But I wanted to tell the story of Alice, too. Their adopted daughter who, one day, disappeared without a trace. I wanted to bring attention to the idea of missing white woman syndrome, because I think it’s important. Minorities disappear just as much, if not more, than white people. But if you think about it, when was the last time a POC dominated the news cycle for their disappearance? When was their picture plastered on the cover of People?
It’s so unfair, that even now, even with all I’ve seen and heard, it still makes me very angry.
I understand grief. I do. But not this specific kind of grief. Even as mired in this subject as I was back in 2016, I still don’t think I could ever begin to understand the full extent of it.
But no matter how I feel on the subject, it is nothing compared to those who live with it every day.
After all, it hasn’t happened to me.
Olive Juice, at least to me, is a story of hope. That even when the worst thing possible happens—the not knowing—that we still have people that can pick us up and help carry us when the fire doesn’t seem to burn as bright as it once did.
I’ll be honest. I struggled with the ending. I thought about ending it the next morning with the phone ringing. It would be the detective calling them, saying she had news. Or having a flash forward to a point in the future with some kind of answer.
But it felt…inauthentic. The ending you read is one that I grappled with for a long time. But once I reached it, I knew the story was over.
I don’t think I’ll continue it. Or, if I do, it will be from an entirely different perspective outside of David and Phillip. But right now, I’m not inclined to write it. Maybe one day.
There is always hope, I think. There were those missing women back in 2013, three of them, found in the home of Ariel Castro, who had kidnapped them and held them in his Ohio home for the better part of a decade. They made it out alive by their own strength and sheer force of will. Their captor committed suicide shortly after he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail. The story of these women is tragic, but it shows the power of the human spirit. Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus survived, and by most accounts are thriving.
Another point I wanted to make with Olive Juice, small though it may be in the scheme of things, is that while the fire may dim, it will never go out. That as long as there is hope, it will continue to burn.
I truly believe that.
Thanks for reading,