It’s been nearly 20 years since I first learned about true evil.
Christmas 1996. While my family and I went back for seconds of turkey, biscuits and pie – my mom helping me with my plate because of my 6-year-old clumsy hands – a family 15 hours away was about to live a nightmare.
Dec. 26, 1996. If memory serves me correctly, NBC Nightly News ran the story. Tom Brokaw gave us the latest. A little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, a pageant princess, was missing in Boulder, Col. Her name was JonBenet Ramsey, and she was 6 years old. Just like me.
I remember the shots of the home, people in police jackets going in and out of the house, walking around outside. I remember the home video clips of JonBenet in heavy makeup and sequined outfits strutting around a stage, flashing a sweetheart smile.
That’s about all I remember seeing on TV. What I remember more is how I felt.
For the rest of the evening, thoughts of JonBenet consumed me. Where was she? When will they find her? How did she learn to dance and sing like that? Was she hiding? Why would she hide and scare her mommy and daddy? Did all that makeup make her sneeze? Did someone take her? Why would someone take a little girl my age?
Having only ever seen happy endings to any distressing tale on screen, I went to bed that night fully expecting to see a news report the next day with a dainty JonBenet wrapped in her parents’ arms.
My expectation wasn’t completely wrong. JonBenet found herself wrapped in her parents’ arms once again, just a few hours after the news report; but it was with nylon cord around her neck and wrists and duct tape over her mouth.
A girl born not quite two months before I was born was dead. The same name engraved into pageant trophies and printed in a child’s lettering on kindergarten assignments and drawings was scrawled across a folder inside a filing cabinet full of other open, unsolved homicides.
And there it remains.
Some people say her father John killed her in a rage. Some people say her mother Patsy, a pageant queen herself (formerly Miss West Virginia), killed her out of jealousy or stress. Others say her brother Burke, 9 years old at the time, accidentally killed her with the cord that was found around her lifeless neck. Still others say a stranger killed her.
Whomever it was, we may never know for sure. But that hasn’t stopped a nationwide fascination with the case. Just this week, in fact, a tabloid ran a composite sketch of a “suspect.” In my own life, I’ve never forgotten it.
This wasn’t the first time the grown-up fear of what bad things can happen to children had hit me, but it was the first time I witnessed the conclusion of some of those bad things. Many of those same questions I had the night after I saw the news continue to haunt me, not just when I think of JonBenet, but any time I hear of a missing or murdered child.
Just one county over from me in Allen County last year, little Gabbi Doolin was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and swiftly killed in the same night. When I heard the news, I thought of JonBenet. Every vile, unspeakable tragedy that happens to a child takes my mind back to December 1996.
Maybe it’s because she was my age. Maybe it’s because 6-year-old Monica envied her talent. Maybe it’s because it was Christmastime. Whatever the reason, JonBenet Ramsey stuck in my brain, and as I’ve gotten older, my worldview darkened by witnessing the consequences of other evil acts, I’ve seen her more and more as the catalyst for the caution I’ve exhibited throughout my life.
After JonBenet, I began to grasp that my life is not permanent.
After JonBenet, I understood why we had so many lessons at school about staying away from strangers.
After JonBenet, I realized why my parents always wanted me within sight or to know where I was going and with whom I was going.
After JonBenet, I learned that there are dark, scary people in the world with motives more sinister than those of goofy cartoon villains.
After JonBenet, I started to learn to pay attention to my surroundings.
After JonBenet, I became more protective of my friends and scolded them for what I saw as unsafe actions.
After JonBenet, I perceived that the “natural order” of death can be disrupted, that there is no depth to the sorrow a family feels at losing a child and that that was something I would – I hope – never understand.
There may have been parents in 1996 (and probably more parents in 2016) who balked at the thought of my parents allowing me to see such horrors on the television when I was still wearing light-up shoes and struggling to color inside the lines. But I’ve never been sorry for seeing what I saw.
In a way, JonBenet molded me into who I am today, 26-year-old Monica. It’s not just about obtaining a realistic view of mankind or learning to be cautious. No. It’s about refusing to let demons who roam this earth sneak up on me. It’s about shunning atrocities and seeking justice for the victims of those atrocities. It’s about striving to spread goodness every day when malevolence lurks and prepares to strike at any time. It’s about longing to be light amid darkness.
Twenty years. For 20 years I have practiced these lessons and keep practicing every day, hoping they stick. For that, I just have to say, “Thank you, JonBenet. You made a difference in this little girl’s life.”