by Camille Louise Goering
Glass Figurine, Paris, France by Roger Camp
A girl goes missing sometime in August. She is on a road trip with her fiancé, driving across the country in a van, documenting her journey on Instagram—#vanlife. She uploads her last post in August. She smiles, holding a crocheted pumpkin. Her milky white teeth betray innocence; her fine blonde hair frames a delicate face. In the background, a butterfly mural. Happy Halloween.
They find her on September 19th in Wyoming, bruises around her slender neck, her body decomposed beyond recognition. Days later, the fiancé disappears into the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park. He shoots himself, a confession scrawled in a tattered notebook. Two people are dead. Gabby Petito is no longer missing.
In this same sometime, I take my old car on a road trip from Louisiana to New York. I listen to the radio—the honeyed warbling of Lionel Richie, the strident accusations of Baptist ministers, the story of a girl gone missing somewhere in the wind-swept Midwest. I reach my fingers out the window, combing through thick ribbons of late summer heat. Something about driving with the windows down feels like living in a story.
The car stops somewhere in the lush, wet leaves of northern Mississippi.
Dark pines obliterate all sound; the world is thick with underwater silence. No cars pass. I am alone. Fireflies blink into existence and are gone again. I imagine snakes slithering through the heavy greenery, inching toward me. No cars pass. I am alone.
I open the hood of the car. I don’t know why I do this, since I know nothing about cars. Inside, I find a green rubber ribbon, frayed to the bone. It reminds me of a story about a girl with freckles who wore a green bow around her neck. Her husband yanks the ribbon, and her head rolls onto the floor. Scary stories to tell in the dark.
The sun relents. Insects come alive under the cool shroud of dusk. Still, I’m not worried.
When the tow truck finally arrives, squealing like a wounded animal, it’s a woman who steps out of the cab. “Fuck,” she says, her voice like a handful of rocks, “Fuck. My cigarette broke.” I laugh. She is small and brittle-boned, flitting around like a manic hummingbird. She wears a large mechanic’s shirt with “Hogan” embroidered in crooked orange thread on the breast.
“Crystal,” she says, extending her hand. Her sleeves are pulled up to reveal pale, freckled, sinewy arms covered in soot and oil. She must be in her fifties but gives off an impression of youth: black makeup melting from the heat of her bright blue eyes, thin lips pursed in a tight, contemptuous smile like a little girl with a secret. Her cheeks are round, glistening apples, pale skin stretched out over the prominent bones, wrinkled only about the mouth, the muscles of her jaw over-developed in the telltale manner of a speed addict. Also, there are tiny, delicate scars on her arms. I get the sense they might spell something out if I caught her from the right angle. I am reminded of how devastatingly easy it is for me to write stories of strangers’ lives.
Crystal chatters riotously while she works the hook onto the hitch, talking to me about her daughter, her sister, her friends. She tells me about her visit to the dentist and his instructions to quit smoking, brandishing another pack of cigarettes.
“I’m not one to take a man’s orders,” she says, laughing. Looking at her stained teeth, I wonder what else her resistance has cost her.
Her earnestness is palpable. Southern friendliness manifests in several different ways. Some women are reserved, polite—bless your heart. Others, like Crystal, are flung open like Venetian blinds, revealing the obscure interior of a cluttered home.
I take it, though I’ve promised myself I’d quit.
“I figured you didn’t smoke,” she says, and I laugh.
I want to tell her other things about myself, things she might never guess. I want to tell her that I was bullied, that I’ve been in foster care, that I don’t hate country music like everyone else who looks like me. I want her to see me, though I’m aware I haven’t extended her the same grace.
“Thank you,” I say instead.
She chatters the whole way to the body shop—the only one for forty miles. She tells me about her daughter, about her baby—the one she was raped into having.
“I never thought it would be Carissa,” she says, “out of all my daughters, not Carissa. She was an honors student, you know. You just don’t expect that kind of girl to end up in this kind of situation.”
That Kind of Girl. I try to assemble an image of her: the kind of girl who doesn’t deserve to end up a victim. The kind of girl who does.
“Let me tell you about my sister,” Crystal says.
Crystal’s sister Amber was forty-nine years old. She was beautiful once, Crystal tells me, “before the meth.” Amber was a sex worker, a drug runner, and the mother of three children.
“When she went missing two years ago, no one looked for her—not even the cops. I went to them again and again. She must have run off to Mexico, they said.”
“So I did it myself. I spent that whole time looking for her. I organized a search party—several. I got divers to go looking in the river. They said they saw nothing. But I knew. I get a feeling, you know? I have that intuition—a woman’s intuition.”
How unfair it is: how much we have to guess at.
“Well, then I found her. Two weeks ago, at the bottom of the riverbed. It was her car. I got the guys to look inside. And I know who it was. I see him at the grocery store. I see him in the CVS parking lot. I see him in my dreams, too. He always wears a mask.”
We sit in this for a time.
The radio sputters in and out. The newscaster is back on for the evening news, discussing the details of the Petito case. There’s a virulent debate about whether or not her face belongs in the mainstream. After all, this is just another girl gone missing. A writer for the New Yorker says it’s part of “a larger cultural habit of turning disappearances and deaths into entertainment.” A professor at Queensborough College says, “It’s a way of making sense of the senseless, but it has also become a worldview, an outlook, and a perspective on contemporary American life.” But I wonder about the girls who go missing, about the ones who get found.
“Jeez,” she mutters, “that poor girl.”
“It’s crazy, isn’t it? The Petito thing. Where do you think he is?”
Her pale eyes alight.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” she says, and I don’t, “He’s here. I saw him. In that campground over there. You wanna check it out?”
At first, I’m not interested.
Or maybe I feel compelled to say that. Maybe I don’t want to be mistaken for That Kind of Woman—the woman who Googles new acquaintances and carries pepper spray in the dark. Maybe I just want to be different. Or maybe I can’t bear to see them—the bodies of girls and women, naked and bruised like mutilated Barbie dolls—and I want to believe I’m not complicit. But there is a kind of arrogance in the refusal to admit morbid fascination. It amounts to a rejection of woman’s intuition, a dismissal of the vestigial traits that kept my ancestors alive.
In the end, I agree and light another last cigarette.
The whole way to the campground, I wonder how it’s possible: for a girl to go missing, for no one to care, when there’s another girl on the radio—a girl six states away.
Oblivious, Crystal chatters about Brian Laundrie—swears she’s seen him dodging the headlights of her car. The forest closes in on itself. The scream of cicadas ushers into a hush.
The campground is empty, eerily quiet, save for one orange tent perched by the tree line. A motionless shadow inside, crouched close to the ground—hiding. Crystal widens her eyes, a plume of cigarette smoke curling through her bared teeth.
We turn to look at one another, darkness curling around the edges of the world. She grasps my hand and sighs: “Can you believe it?”
But I know we aren’t thinking the same thing.
In the following weeks, there are thousands of sightings—women, like Crystal, who swear they’ve seen him hiding in plain sight. The hotlines jam with reports of a man with a million faces. They find a body in Mobile. They spot a hiker headed to Mississippi. They see him in North Carolina, at Myrtle Beach, in the dense forests of Maine. And then he turns up in the swamps of South Florida, dead by his own hand.
The story unfurls across news and social media with a manic freneticism. It’s impossible to avoid. This country loves its missing girls—the right kind. And Gabby fits the script—white, blonde, petite, virgin pure. We reduce and romanticize her—romanticization being the prerogative of a place that claims no history, a country that wants to believe that innocence is something it once had and lost. We yearn for this kind of story—the kind with a hero, a villain, a damsel in distress. The kind that makes it easy to decide what happened and why—that gives us a predator to look for when all of us feel so much like prey.
It’s a myth that predates us—beginning, as so many others do, at the altar of American history with the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia. A group of hard-working folks arrive at the promised land. Eventually, a child is born—blonde, blue-eyed. They call her Virginia—after this new place. But she goes missing with the rest of them. And this makes her essential. “The character of Baby Virginia,” historian Jean Murley explains, “has been mythologized and heavily inscribed with all sorts of meaning. No one knew what happened to the colony [..], and so she has come to stand for the dangers of America, the dangers of the wilderness—that history starts with the missing white girl, Virginia Dare.”
It may begin with Virginia Dare, but it’s kept alive in the enduring myths of Jon-Benet Ramsey, Madeline McCann, Lisa Irwin, Baby Sabrina, Cherrie Mahan, and Gabby Petito. The missing girl is either a baby or a nubile young woman—a victim of “the dangers of the wilderness.” And she is, of course, always young, always white, always a perfect blank canvas to better project our darkest fears.
And maybe this is why we love our missing girl: because she fits precisely into the story we know—a fairytale with a clean code of ethics, in which good is made possible by the absence of nuance and evil takes on the shape of whatever we imagine it to be. We love her for the same reason we love horror and true crime: because she gives us someplace to root the listless, shifting fears that haunt us, a myth to agree upon.
But maybe we love her, too, because she is, in her absence, the perfect girl—the kind of girl that, in her willingness to perform mystery, is easiest to love. After all, intrigue—promise—is the prerogative of woman. That Kind of Girl must dress behind closed doors, eat with her mouth closed, go to the bathroom—not to relieve herself, but to “freshen up.” She must mask her scars, her wrinkles, her every imperfection. She must shave and slim and sharpen and tone. To be considered a woman, wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.” She must, in essence, conceal herself. She must disappear.
When I was a baby, my favorite game was peek-a-boo. I tracked my mother’s white face with bottomless black eyes—eyes like water moving, she would say. It was curious: when she placed her fingers before her eyes, it wasn’t her I looked for but myself, searching, with my hands, for the parts of my body I couldn’t feel, the parts of myself I couldn’t see.
When I was eight, my favorite game was “Runaways.” I waited until my parents were otherwise occupied and feigned furtiveness, creeping around the kitchen, gathering food, tucking a kitchen knife into the waist of my pants. I folded clothes into a backpack and snuck out the back door, descending the service stairs two at a time, pretending to run from an unseen enemy. I imagined my face on someone’s milk carton. What a shame, they would say; she was so young and beautiful.
But then I would emerge into the riotous city streets, into a flurry of strangers, bright lights squeezing and blooming like migraine auras, and feel my feet sinking into the steaming concrete. Later, in bed, I would think of all their cardboard faces, their pale eyes lined up along the grocery store walls, and wish I’d had the courage to do it.
I was ten when I was told I was too old to play hide-and-seek. You’re too old to play hide-and-seek, said the school nurse, opening the closet door to find me tangled up in plastic tubes and bandage wrappers, my skin patched with an exoskeleton of band-aids. My stomach hurts. Can I go home? My mother always made the mistake of believing in my imaginary illness, but the truth was that I was hiding from the hands of boys and the eyes of girls, both of which seemed, always, to be reaching for some part of me I couldn’t hold onto.
Relief came when I was twelve, written into the world of women with blood and magazine ink. How to Lose Ten Pounds Fast. The Kate Moss Diet. Get Fit for Summer—instructions for women who wanted to disappear. I bought Hydroxycut over the counter. At lunch, I descended into the school basement and ate plastic baggies of carrots and crackers. It wasn’t long before another girl noticed me—this time with approval—and taught me to stick my fingers down my throat. Just squeeze your stomach like an orange, she said, and don’t stop until it turns yellow and bitter. I spent the next ten years in dimly lit gas station bathrooms and remote restaurant stalls squeezing myself like an orange.
At fourteen, I found freedom wrapped in dime bags. They say the first high is the one you chase for the rest of your life, but even then, kneeling before my best friend’s father’s liquor cabinet, it seemed like one was too much and a thousand was never enough. Still, substances gave me something to coat my raw nerves, something to hide under. Ten years later, when I went to rehab, I told them: “Quitting feels like peeling off my skin.”
“No,” they said, “you’re just removing the mask.”
I wanted to ask them: what if it’s stuck to my face?
At sixteen, I finally figured it out: the politics of going missing. Actually, it’s a gradual process. First, you turn yourself into the kind of girl no one would miss. You learn to steal your drunk father’s debit card. You smoke cigarettes in the school bathroom and tell teachers to go fuck themselves. You turn mourning your dead mother into your piece de resistance. Rather than fitting in, you work on slipping away. By the time your father takes you on a college trip to California and gets arrested for trying to kill you on a desert highway, you already know what to do. You walk barefoot back to the motel, dodging compliments hurled like sparks from passing cars. You wait. And when your father shows up, asleep in the parking lot and covered in vomit, you slip the wallet from his pocket, book a flight, and disappear.
But that doesn’t always work, and you find this out at seventeen. You’re on a trip to the Canary Islands with a boyfriend twice your age. You get into a fight at dinner. You know what to do—how to make him love you again, how to get him to forgive you. You grab the bottle of Spanish Albarino and make your great escape. You’re seasoned by now, and you know what you’re doing. You take the densest, darkest alleyways rich with foliage, the dim light like a dark green ribbon. You finish the bottle. You sit on the curb. You wait for your boyfriend to come. When he finally finds you, hours later, bleeding your invisibility onto the pavement, you won’t tell him the truth. You won’t tell him how your disguise has failed you. How the man emerged from a doorway with a glass of water and a smile. How you trusted him because you trusted in your own invisibility. How no matter how far you run, there are only so many places to hide.
At first, I try to write about Crystal, but the story slips between my fingers. There are too many details; it’s inconvenient. The story I want to tell feels different from the version I was told. I now understand why the news favors certain kinds of stories, Certain Kinds of Girls.
So, I look for other types of stories—stories I can call my own. As it turns out, girls go missing all the time. They go missing in Baca County and Gilgo Beach. They go missing in Death Valley, in Las Vegas, in Santa Fe. They go missing, and then, sometimes, they are found—in pieces like artifacts, lined up like bones to look like a skeleton of the person they once were.
A girl goes missing in 1976, and no one notices she’s gone.
It sounds terribly like the beginning of a joke. There is a stark, disquieting banality to it—another girl gone missing. Perhaps they look for her. Probably, they don’t. But they do find her—in Woodlawn, Baltimore. On September 12th—a day before my birthday—they find her, two bandanas tied in a knot over her face, holes carved out to make space for the eyes, bleached with light, unblinking.
She is wrapped in a white sheet. In the pockets of her mustard pants: two brass keys and a safety pin. Around her neck: a bag of grass seeds—the cause of death. She wears a turquoise beaded necklace fastened with rawhide string. One of her molars is removed, and she has fillings in five other teeth. There is a scar on her upper right thigh—anecdotal evidence of a misplaced childhood. Artifacts of a life unknown. They assemble like a kaleidoscope, vibrant colors arranged into a meaningless image. She is a collection of objects. She has no name. The parts are greater than the sum. She becomes Woodlawn Jane—a feature of the landscape she is found in.
It’s a new kind of freedom—writing stories about women found, women with no stories of their own. First, it’s Woodlawn Jane. Then, it’s Baca County Jane. Cheerleader Jane and Baby Jane. I scour Wikipedia pages and police databases, hunt through case files and local write-ups, trawling the internet for new girls to whom I can lend a new name. I think I’m doing her a favor—the girl with nothing to say for herself but a collection of words other people have written. I think: I might have known her. I might have loved her. And maybe I do love her, even.
I give my girls the accouterments of complexity—rhinestone bracelets and cruel ex-boyfriends, botched abortions and unhappy marriages. I go back in fictional time, tracing their childhoods, their births, the stories of how their parents met. Autauga County Jane became Claire Pristell, a pharmacy student. Hillsborough County Jane became Elise Rhoder, a teenage runaway with dreams of becoming a singer. Ottawa County Jane is Marie. Los Angeles County Jae is Thelonia.
At first, when people ask, I tell them I’m writing about missing women. But then I find the Jane Doe Network—an organization that charges itself with cataloging these kinds of women—and I realize that the word “missing” doesn’t appear on the page.
What does it mean to be “missing”? It’s an adjective, implying that missing is just one of many things these girls can be. But in the end, we choose the most potent adjectives to remember people by—tall, short, ugly, beautiful, loved, missing, found: a beaded necklace, a bag of seeds, a bruise on the inner left thigh.
The word “missing” seems to imply an object—missing for whom? Missing from where? As if the girl belonged to someone or something before she was stripped, ravaged, left for dead. As if she were stolen. Such is fate for the female subject of a passive sentence. Women are taken too soon. They are stolen from us. They are lost, looted, raped, defiled. Women are acted upon, stripped of agency in life as in death.
But what happens to a girl if there’s no one left to miss her? What happens to a woman unclaimed? What happens if she is reduced to a collection of found objects, the only thing missing: her name?
Another bad joke:
Two girls go missing. One is young, white, upper-middle-class—with a promising future. The other is a drug addict and sex worker in rural Mississippi. Which one is missing? Which one is found?
The one that makes for a better story. The one that comes with little to weigh her down. Narrative paves the path of justice. It is, writes essayist Alice Bolin, the primary tool of our legal system: “The defense and the prosecution each present their stories, and the one that makes more sense— read as: the more satisfying one— becomes the reality.”
Perhaps this is why we love the missing girl—because her absence makes her easy to love. Jane Doe doesn’t abide by the same contract. She demands to be seen in her imperfection, commanding the attention of the men who would, in life, fantasize about all the shapes her body might take. But the truth is disappointing—as De Beauvoir explains, “mystery is never more than a mirage that vanishes as we draw nearer to look at it.” In the end, Jane reveals herself to be nothing more than a body—a bloated, bruised, decomposing body—and for this, she won’t ever be forgiven.
Because in surrendering her invisibility, Jane subverts both the mystery of woman and the mystery of death. She announces herself like an uninvited guest, bursting through the doors of patriarchal propriety. She becomes a subject in her own right, empowered through exposure. Cleburne County Jane is found in a construction site off Evans Bridge Road, her bra and panties torn. Ekutna Annie is found by passersby, buried beneath a powerline, struck in the back with a knife. A truck driver pulls the remains of a 17-year-old Jane from a garbage bag. A hotel concierge enters a room to find Alameda Jane burned and beaten. She refuses to disappear.
If disappearance is an invitation to mythologize, then the found woman is a story we’d rather not tell. “The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall,)” writes Julia Kristeva, “upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as a fragile and fallacious chance […] corpses show [us] what we permanently thrust aside to live.” The corpse of a woman—visible and found—is an utter abjection, a transgression of her faith to mystery, a thing full of blood and pus where there ought to be emptiness and room for intrigue. She is the body we have—not the one we want. She is exposed, revealed—often naked—her dignity lost to the men who poke, prod, and eviscerate her. All semblance of mystery bleeding out on a cold metal platter. She is visible. And so she loses something of what it means to be a woman, what it means to matter in a world that wants to keep the mystery alive.
I have to ask: if one is, as wrote de Beauvoir, “not born but rather, becomes a woman,” then what does she become in death? Can she be said to exist at all?
Gabby Petito’s Instagram accrued nearly two million followers when she went missing. Commenters posted I love you on pictures of her sitting in a rusted copper bathtub by the Grand Canyon. Praying for you, beautiful, they said. Come home, angel, they said. But when then, she was found, the story died. Followers left her account in droves. A picture was pulled from her camera roll, confirming what everyone already knew. Her eye is bruised, red streaks painted across her throat to fit the neat groove of a man’s fingers.
This is the part we’d rather forget. But it’s the part that matters. Desoto County Jane is found covered in scars, her tubes tied, a man’s name on her chest. Sarhara Sue is seen standing in line at the liquor store, accompanied by a man squeezing her wrist. Lincoln County Jane is picked up in New Orleans, her skin damp with sweat. She is killed by two men who intended to rob her and left by the side of the road.
In Dead Girls, Alice Bolin writes, “It’s clear we love the Dead Girl […] but not enough to see a pattern. She is always singular, an anomaly, the juicy new mystery.” But this story is hardly singular; over 35% of women will face exposure to domestic violence in their lifetime. A quarter of a million women go missing yearly in the United States alone. Most aren’t blonde, blue-eyed, wealthy, or Instagram-famous. Most are women like Crystal’s sister, rendered anonymous by race, ethnicity, social class, chosen profession, substances, or circumstance. And then there are some who, like Gabby, matter most when they are missing and less when they are found.
But this is the story we must tell—the one about the woman with a name. And the scars to prove it. The one where she dies in the end.
We have more in common than one might think: my women and I.
At least, this is what I think when I am writing them.
Sometime after the rape, I give up on being invisible. I am lucky in this way. I start to wonder what it might mean to abandon the project of intrigue, to live in my body as it would look to those who might one day study it for clues. What do I want them to see?
Incision mark on the right thigh: stabbed by a cheating boyfriend.
Sapphire ring on the left fourth finger: a ring for the promise of a body.
Initials engraved into the wrist: a man’s name like an incantation—the possibility of being saved.
But I don’t need saving anymore. It’s too late for me. I’ve been made too real. Girls like me don’t disappear—not in the way Gabby did. And anyway, I think I’d rather be found—dead or alive—than floating somewhere in between.
What does it say about us—that we live in a world of eight billion people where women can lose their identities as quickly as they can lose their lives? Haven’t we discovered every inch of this place with cameras? Haven’t we connected everyone to everyone else? How is it that, in our slow creep toward overpopulation, a woman can still go unnoticed? One suspects that somewhere, somehow, there is a butcher, a dollar store cashier, a gas station attendant, who must remember her, who could pick her face from a crowd. Or maybe not. Maybe men do not see women—not really. Maybe none of us do.
“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size,” wrote Virginia Woolfe, no stranger to the habits of men. Woman—alive—is the fun-house mirror in which man gets to see himself as he would have himself be. She rests his hopes in her tender heart, his fingers on her sleeve. She murmurs assurances, smooths the jagged edges of his fear, echoes his pride, his certainty, his dominion over her. After all, if she doesn’t, he’ll kill her.
But what does it say about him that he does it anyway? Why destroy the thing on which one depends for self-affirmation? Why batter the body that houses you? I might kill if my life depended on it. I might kill to clear the noise, to shatter an image I can’t bring myself to love. Or I might kill if I needed an enemy to prove my own heroism. “It’s another case of destructive masculinity,” writes Alice Bolin, “requiring both one’s self and one’s enemy to be larger than life.”
But perhaps, rather than teaching us something about men, the missing teach us about the collective: our capacity for empathy and estrangement, our responsibilities to one another, the possibility of getting lost in a world of 8 billion people. What we see when we look. What happens when we don’t.
I imagined Woodlawn Jane as a Black Latina, a lesbian with short, curly hair and a fraying smile, who sings like her mouth is full of strawberries and melting snow. She listens to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and loves to clean. She loves an Alabama cheerleader—a girl she can never have. There’s a story—a kiss like swimming in warm, soft water, a swimming pool full of frogs and fish, vodka lemonade with cayenne pepper, the smell of freshly laundered socks, the possibility of a child. There’s a Fourth of July party, a proposal, a moment of human exaltation. It’s 1976, the Viking I has just landed on Mars, and a girl is in love.
But it isn’t.
It’s 2021, and Oxygen has published an article on Woodlawn Jane, whose remains have been identified—fifty years later. As it turns out, she is white. She is 16. She is raped and strangled. And her name is Margaret Fetterolf.
Camille Louise Goering is a French-American student, teacher, and writer of creative non-fiction. She has a BA in International Relations from Pomona College, a Master’s in English Education from Johns Hopkins, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Non-Fiction from Florida State University. She lives with a menagerie of animals in Tallahassee, Florida. You can find her writing in SixFold, Decaf, Big Easy Magazine, and other publications.
Roger Camp is the author of three photography books including the award winning Butterflies in Flight, Thames & Hudson, 2002 and Heat, Charta, Milano, 2008. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including The New England Review, Witness and the New York Quarterly. His documentary photography has been awarded Europe’s prestigious Leica Medal of Excellence. Represented by the Robin Rice Gallery, NYC, more of his work may be seen on Luminous-Lint.com.