Last Friday I had a dentist appointment, or what I like to think of as: My chance to catch up on People magazine. So there I was, in the waiting room, flipping through a back issue of People, when I came upon an article about the disappearance of 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.
Although Hannah Graham had disappeared over a month earlier, this was the first I’d heard of it. My life is like that these days. Many of you are probably more familiar than I with the details of the story: the beautiful, bright, and athletic UVA sophomore who disappeared after a party, the video footage of her wandering downtown Charlottesville alone, the man who was taken into custody with possible links to the disappearances and deaths of several other beautiful young women. When I came home from the dentist, I searched the news and learned that human remains that were found on an abandoned farm had just been positively identified as the body of Hannah Graham.
These are the kind of stories that I can’t get out of my head.
As it happens, I have some tenuous personal connections to this particular story: Hannah Graham grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, which is just a few miles from the Northern Virginia suburb where I grew up. My family has a deep affection for UVA — both my father and my cousin attended UVA Law School — and I visited Charlottesville often as a child.
Common geography aside, this sort of story always haunts me. It takes my mind to the darkest places I can imagine. What must it be like to be abducted, subjected to horrors, and killed? What must it be like to be the parent of a daughter who disappears? It’s unfathomable, and my heart breaks for Hannah, for her parents, and for too many other daughters and families who’ve suffered similar ordeals.
But there’s an aspect of the Hannah Graham story that I find especially chilling, and that’s how alone she was. I gather that there’s been some unhelpful criticism on this point already: “Why was she walking alone after midnight?”, “Was she drunk?” Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am not sitting in judgement of either Hannah Graham or her friends; there but for the grace of God go most of us when when we were 18, 19, 20…. No; the fault for this injustice lies squarely on the shoulders of whomever took and killed her.
Still: Video surveillance images from at least three separate cameras showed Hannah Graham walking or running alone through Charlottesville for over an hour. Why was she walking alone? Where were her friends — the friends she’d met for dinner, the friends she’d seen at a party?
This is where I think the Hannah Graham story becomes a commentary on our culture.
My husband and I tell our four daughters that, if they ever find themselves lost and alone — and if there’s no police officer or other obvious authority figure present — the rule is: Look for a mom. Ideally, this would be a mom they know; failing that, look for anybody who appears to be a mom or grandma. (This is not intended to be sexist, it’s just a matter of statistical safety.)
Where were the moms for Hannah Graham? Was she looking for one?
In my opinion, the most heartbreaking image from all of the news coverage on Hannah Graham is the last recorded image we have of her just before she disappears from view forever. She’s walking through a pedestrian mall; the man who was later arrested and charged with her disappearance is several yards behind her.
And between them comes a small crowd of people, walking in the same direction.
When a young girl who is possibly inebriated and probably lost can wander for an hour late at night through public places where there are groups of people out and about, and she ends up dead, that is an indictment on our community. It implicates us all.
She was so alone, but there were people around. And that’s what it’s like to live in our culture today, where it’s possible to have 500 Facebook friends whom you never see in person.
It appears that Hannah Graham did reach out for help at least once: She sent a text message to some friends saying that she was heading to a party but was lost. The technology was there; the technology worked. She had a cell phone. There were surveillance cameras. They didn’t save her.
She needed actual people. She needed the community. Where were the moms?
This is a tragic story. Unfortunately, this side of paradise, there will always be tragedy and crime. But it seems to me that some tragedies might be preventable if the community is aware, and if our children see the community as a trustworthy place to turn for help. If there’s anything to be taken from the tragedy of Hannah Graham, maybe it’s this:
We — all of us, the human community — need to keep our eyes open for the lost girls. And we need to tell our girls that if they’re lost, they should try to ask the right people for help, before the wrong ones offer it.