In 2004 my daughters, ages 4 and 7 at the time, disappeared during the Christmas parade downtown.
They were riding on a float. A late afternoon in early December. Greensboro, North Carolina, a city of 300,000. The streets packed with parents and children and police cars, the parade route blocked off. The big buildings creating a canyon in which sound magnified, all the calls and car backfires amplified.
At the staging area my wife Lisa and I watched our daughters loaded onto the float with the other children, their legs swinging back and forth where they dangled over the edge. Lisa snapping pictures and waving and turning to tell me how cute they looked sitting among the snow and fake packages on the Christmas float.
The staging area was several blocks from where we would watch the parade, so when the girls got situated we waved and started walking. We were in a parking lot off an alley, on the outskirts of downtown, where the buildings were older and more dilapidated. Plastic bags washed up in the alley by the wind. A nest of blankets that signaled someone’s home. A few empty drug vials among hundreds of cigarette butts.
As we walked, Lisa kept turning to look behind her. I could see her worrying. There were a lot of people. A lot of cars, a lot of traffic, a lot of ways our children could be hurt. The float could fall over. A building could implode.
Out of the alley, we made our way to the parade route. We watched the police cars come around the corner to signal the start, then we watched the local high school cheerleaders and majorettes march past. The Kiwanis club and the Rotary Club and the Lions Club. The city’s mayor and major officials. The floats filled with snow and reindeer and elves, many of them tossing candy, me scrambling in the street with the little kids, trying to snag some Sweettarts for my daughters, my wife and I waving fiercely as their float went by.
When the parade ended we headed back to the staging area. Downtown had turned to chaos—people walking everywhere, cars trying to creep through the packed streets, police horses shitting on the sidewalk. We ducked and dodged through the crowd, me holding Lisa’s hand and hurrying her along, wanting to get back as quickly as possible, already worried something could happen in a crowd like this. Men my age had heard about things happening all our lives, even before the Boston Marathon bombing and the videos we’d seen of cars plowing people over at political protests, the idea being it’s OK to kill someone with a car if they disagree with you politically. Or maybe just that it’s OK to kill people if they’re blocking your way.
I remember the first milk carton kids. I am of the stranger danger generation, and for men like me it’s easy to recall all the horror stories we’ve ever heard.
The alleyway was empty after the parade, even the blankets gone, as if whoever slept on them had enough of all this noise. I was just happy we’d managed to navigate the madness, but before I could congratulate myself, Lisa stopped walking suddenly, then sped up, almost running.
The parking lot where we were supposed to pick up the girls was empty. No float. No children. A handful of parents stood waiting, looking as worried as my wife. The men checking their watches and the women imploring them to ask someone where the float was and the men saying “Ask who?” with increased urgency each time.
Behind us, the streets were clearing out as the parade crowd headed for home. We could see where a few other floats had unloaded and we could see parents herding kids toward cars. The parade was over and the float driver was supposed to bring them back right here and I remember feeling like some creature was stirring inside me, some monster that was going to be ugly when unleashed. I kept walking to the street and looking for the float. My wife called the number of our parade contact again and again, our thoughts becoming darker the longer we waited.
The truth is, I don’t remember what I thought, and I doubt I could articulate it now, because it may be impossible to correctly communicate the fear we carry for our children. The absolute wild ways our bodies respond to that fear.
But what I want to say is that my fears were formed by honest means. I remember the first milk carton kids. I am of the stranger danger generation, and for men like me it’s easy to recall all the horror stories we’ve ever heard. The day my older daughter was born was the day I began imagining all the ways the world would try to take her, because that is what we were taught. Strangers were out there, and they would take your kids from you, kidnap them and tie them up with rope and duct tape and either keep them in some dark basement or kill them.
I am a child of the ‘80s. I remember Adam Walsh.
* * *
Adam Walsh, if you weren’t alive then, disappeared from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida on July 27, 1981. His mother had gone to buy a lamp. She left Adam near an Atari display where several boys were playing video games.
She was gone less than 10 minutes. When she returned, Adam wasn’t there. According to reports from a security guard, the boys got into a scuffle over who would play Atari next. The guard made them all leave, thinking Adam was with the older boys.
Outside, the older boys must have wandered away. Adam, too shy to speak up, must have been left standing there by himself, and that’s a moment I have imagined many times. A small shy boy, probably scared he is in trouble, afraid he has done something wrong.
I am a child of the ‘80s. I remember Adam Walsh.
For the rest there is only speculation. A car pulls up, a face that seems friendly to Adam. The man says he’s a friend. He says he has candy, and toys.
Inside the store, Adam’s mother began to look for him, and this I imagine as well. I know how she would have been only a little worried at first, sure he would turn up, sure he had only wandered a little ways away. Then growing increasingly nervous the longer she can’t find him. A pit forming in the stomach, hard and hot and cold all at once. The head swivels, trying to look in every direction. She scans the faces of everyone passing, hoping they are coming to tell her he has been found.
She had Adam paged over the loudspeaker, but Adam was outside at that point. Or already gone, into the car with the stranger, driving toward some end I can’t even imagine. Or maybe I just don’t want to. Maybe I don’t have the strength to go down that road because at the end is some dark well of despair I’d rather avoid.
After searching for some time, Adam’s mother called the police. Family members were still searching the mall, but Adam was already gone. I imagine security guards shaking their heads. I imagine the one who sent Adam outside wondering what he had done.
Two weeks later Adam’s head was found by a fisherman over 100 miles away. In his confession, drifter Ottis Toole claimed to have lured Adam into his car with offers of toys and candy. Adam was calm at first, but began to panic as Toole drove, so Toole hit him. When that made the boy even more upset, Toole knocked him unconscious. On a deserted service road not far from the Florida turnpike, Toole strangled Adam to death with the seatbelt, then decapitated him with a machete. The rest of his body has never been found.
* * *
I said, “If you weren’t alive,” earlier because if you were alive in that era you remember Adam Walsh. People my age remember Adam, and if for some reason they do not remember Adam, they do remember Adam’s father, John. I suspect you do, too.
But you might not remember Etan Patz. In 1979, two years before Adam Walsh’s abduction, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared while walking to the bus stop. He was the same age I was. In the pictures I found online, he looks a little like me at that age—the same shy smile, the same unruly hair. He disappeared before he ever reached the bus. His body was never found.
Etan’s father, a professional photographer, had taken numerous photos of his son. They appeared on the nightly news. In newspapers. In 1984 they would be among the first photographs to appear on milk cartons when the National Child Safety Council began its Missing Children Milk Carton Program.
They understand the fear, but they don’t know it. They have never lived with it for long periods of time, although I am afraid my older daughter, who just gave birth to a son, soon will.
Both cases got national headlines, and both cases changed the way we saw the world. The response to Etan’s disappearance was the first step toward our modern child-safety laws, and the response to Adam Walsh’s disappearance was the second, but child abductions weren’t the only crimes we were concerned about in the early '80s. We were also dealing with the Satanic Panic, a string of now-debunked cases across the country. Books like "The Satanic Bible," published in 1969, became seminal texts for modern Satanism. The movie "The Exorcist" (1973) showed us what would happen if kids played with the occult. "Michelle Remembers," published in 1980, had as its cast a cult of murderous Canadian Satanists.
Suddenly we were seeing Satanists everywhere as well. In 1983, allegations against a child daycare center claimed that the workers sexually abused the children, that the workers could fly, and that children were taken into secret tunnels to be abused. Police in the ‘80s distributed documents to help teachers and school administrators pick out students who studied Satanism and the occult.
Besides the Satanists, we had serial killers to worry about. Ted Bundy walked into a sorority house in Florida and sent shockwaves of fear reverberating everywhere. Son of Sam shot six people beginning in 1976 and on into the sweltering summer of '77. The Hillside Strangler killed 10 women in the LA hills. Jim Jones and his 900 drank Kool-Aid to their deaths, a phrase that has come to mean “believing in any weird idea on social media” instead of “killing yourself with poison.”
We also had a struggling economy to worry about, and a Cold War to fear. The first cases of a deadly new disease were being reported, and crime was at an all-time high, thanks to the tanking economy, and a new drug called crack that flooded into economically depressed areas. The nightly news made our parents wary of everyone. The Satanic Panic had us looking for rites and rituals and men in vans who would nab young girls off evening streets. Etan Patz’s disappearance, and Adam Walsh’s, coupled with news stories about Bundy and Berkowitz, showed us there was a terrible world waiting for the unwary, and the only way to keep our children safe was to keep them home.
There were also other, intangible, ways this fear expressed itself — in movies, in media, but also in the way we walked to school. Now we have neighborhood apps and phone tracking, but in 1981 we had nothing. The national network for missing children had not been started yet. Police departments were slow to respond to missing children, preferring to believe the children had run away. Some police departments demanded a 72-hour wait before they would begin looking.
A day after Adam’s disappearance, my stepfather saw the story on the nightly news. That fall my mother would begin driving my brother and me to school, so we did not have to wait along our lonely county highway for the bus. She and the other mothers talked about Adam’s disappearance at baseball practice, fanning themselves from the summer heat as they asked each other what could be done. They covered their mouths so we couldn’t see what they were saying, but we knew, after Adam’s severed head was found, what they were saying.
The nightly news also began running segments on how to keep kids safe, and we began to hear of “stranger danger,” that high-alert status we were supposed to always be on. Some police departments began fingerprinting kids, and went to schools to teach children how to be on the lookout for strangers. Parents implored children to play in groups. To come when called. To stay close to home, or stay home.
Four days after their son’s funeral, Adam’s parents started the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children. They lobbied for the Missing Children’s Act, which, enacted in 1982, required entry of missing children data into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database (NCIC). In 1984, John Walsh would co-found the federally-funded National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and four years later, he started hosting "America’s Most Wanted."
It is as host of America’s Most Wanted that I best remember John Walsh. In the atmosphere of the '80s, it seemed fitting that Walsh would lead such a show. I’ve mentioned how the time and all its fears got into us, how we were scared of abductions and murderers and serial killers and Satanists. By men wanted by the FBI, but now we could help catch them. And we did. The show is credited with helping bring home 63 children and capturing over 1,200 fugitives over more than two decades. As if we helped capture them. As if we helped John Walsh gain some sort of closure. As if we were making America safe again.
* * *
When my brother was four and I was three, our mother left us alone for a moment, and we disappeared.
We were playing in the front yard. Our mother sat on the back porch smoking. When the phone rang she went inside to answer it. She could see us through the kitchen window, but at some point, perhaps when she was hanging up the phone and heading back outside, we disappeared.
She says, the dozens of times she’s told this story, that she stepped around the side of the house expecting us to be playing in the dirt or antagonizing the dog, but we weren’t there.
“I called a few times,” she says, “and then I started getting scared.”
She began to shout. She circled the house. She checked inside, not sure how we would have gotten past her, but by then she needed to do something. “Anything,” she says. “So I kept looking. I looked down the old boarded-over well. I didn’t want to, but I had to, even though I could see it was covered.”
The show is credited with helping bring home 63 children and capturing over 1,200 fugitives over more than two decades. As if we helped capture them. As if we helped John Walsh gain some sort of closure. As if we were making America safe again.
She pauses. “By that time I wasn’t thinking very clearly.”
She says she went down to the pond. She expected to see our bodies floating on the surface, and when she did not, she went to the highway. She looked both ways.
Over the years she has told me this story she has said she was about to cry. To scream at the sky and curse whatever god would allow this to happen. To sit down on the sidewalk and give up. She says she thought we drowned. That we had been abducted, and when I ask who would have abducted us, she always gives the same answer.
“Anyone,” she says, as if that makes sense, and, strangely, it does.
My daughters love this story. They howl whenever my mother tells it, but I don’t think they understand the story. Or, a better way to say it would be they don’t understand the story yet. They understand the fear, but they don’t know it. They have never lived with it for long periods of time, although I am afraid my older daughter, who just gave birth to a son, soon will.
* * *
America’s Most Wanted first aired on February 7, 1988. I was a sophomore in high school. A few years before, in 1981, I was a small shy boy who liked to play video games. My mother had left me alone in the arcade at the mall more than once. I looked a little like Etan Patz. Maybe like Adam Walsh as well. Maybe all small boys look alike: the awkward ears, the mischievous smile, the energy and excitement.
But it wasn’t 1981 anymore. In the years since, the world got smaller, and scarier. The Satanic Panic hadn’t yet died. Bundy had been caught but his presence had alerted us to the fact there were others out there. Adam Walsh’s case was still unsolved, as was Etan Patz’s, whose shy smile would never be seen again, and we knew now that at all times there were hundreds of men cruising the highways of America in search of prey. America’s Most Wanted told us about them every week. John Walsh told us about them—what they did and how we could get them—and we wanted to help John Walsh.
The show featured reenactments of crimes. It showed interviews with victims. Toward the end John Walsh implored us to help find the fugitives featured in the episode.
“Fugitives from justice,” John Walsh told us, as if justice was the highest aspiration of man. Numbers ran at the bottom of the screen for us to call, and some shows had updates on previous shows, so we could find out what happened to the man who murdered that girl in Gary, Indiana, or that a tip had led to the arrest of the guy who killed two kids in Kunkle, Iowa.
What I am trying to do here is explain the atmosphere of fear that popped up in the 1980s. The “moral panic” of Satanism, the “stranger danger” panic of our parents. The milk cartons and missing kids.
Suddenly we were seeing fugitives everywhere. That hitchhiker thumbing for a ride. That white van with out-of-state plates. At my high school, rumors began that a local homeless man was a serial killer. That he was wanted in seven states and soon John Walsh would be on him. In truth, he was a Vietnam Vet most likely suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury, but the way he walked with his bootlaces untied seemed too much for some townsfolk to handle.
Satanist stories were still everywhere as well. In 1988 police were still advising local communities about animal sacrifice. Church leaders were railing against rock and roll music that promoted Satanic activity, which included any band that could play a power chord. A few years before, in 1984, my church took a busload of kids to see Mike Warnke, a former Satanist high priest who had converted to Christianity. On the stage he told stories about kidnapping women to sell into the sex trade, which was, he told us, what Satanists did, along with a lot of drugs, and everyone—church leaders, parents, children—believed him when he said there were thousands of others out there.
I might also mention the Cold War again as well, how in the early ‘80s a series of mishaps and misunderstandings almost ended the world. By the late ‘80s Gorbachev was in power, and talking about opening up the Soviet Union to the West, but here old prejudices die hard. We still saw the Soviet Union as a drab, summerless country, one that hated all our American freedoms, not realizing, of course, how much hating them was affecting us.
What I am trying to do here is explain the atmosphere of fear that popped up in the 1980s. The “moral panic” of Satanism, the “stranger danger” panic of our parents. The milk cartons and missing kids. The songs and movies about the end of the world, the movement toward a war that was more than Cold. The Satanists and Soviets, the serial killers. The way women grew more afraid. The way men became more protective, and how gun sales soared.
The problem is, unlike Reagan’s economy, trickle-down fear does work. It trickles down into everything—into the way we see the world. The way we wait for our children to get home.
Most importantly, the way children of the decade began to carry all their parents’ fears. How they got into us as well, and we still drag them along everywhere. America’s Most Wanted ran from 1988 until 2013, from the time I was 16 until I was 41. That’s 25 seasons, or over a thousand episodes that told us to always BOLO, or be on the lookout. That told us there were wanted men out there who would stop at nothing to stay wanted. We heard about the FBI’s Most Wanted List. About John Walsh’s own personal list, the Dirty Dozen. About the monstrous things men do, about the darkest deaths, the deepest depravity, a constant recounting of criminals. John Walsh made us aware of what was happening, but the side effect of all this knowledge is that we began to see the world in a darker way.
I’d also like to tell you how these fears still come unbidden at times, like yesterday, when I saw a small boy riding his bike alone down the street and wondered who was keeping him from being kidnapped. I think about these fears when I hear of another mass murder. Another school shooting. When I wonder what has gotten into the hearts of men and what we might do to get it out. When I hold my grandson and see his small, mischievous smile. When I think of him not making it anymore.
* * *
In my mind Etan Patz and Adam Walsh look like every other boy who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s—the unruly hair, the small secret smiles. The baseball cap, the eyes bright with laughter and hope.
I wonder how long they would have kept the bright eyes and hope. I was seven when Etan Patz disappeared. Nine when Adam Walsh was killed. We were warned of stranger danger. We were told to walk to school with a friend. To always be on the lookout. To never get in a car with someone we didn’t know.
They never told us that wouldn’t be enough. I was twelve when James Huberty walked into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California and killed 21 people. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting carried out by a single person in U.S. History. Seven years later, when I was 19, George Hennard drove his truck through a restaurant window in Killeen, Texas and then shot and killed 23 people, wounding 27 others. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. History, until it was surpassed in 2007 by the Virginia Tech shooting, which then became the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, and remained so for nine years until the Orlando nightclub shooting, which was itself surpassed the following year by the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, as if this is a record that will constantly be broken, again and again and again, because in this world too many missing children are murdered children. We don’t fear abductions anymore, at least not the stranger danger kind, because the stranger danger we fear now is when someone will walk into our schools wielding a weapon of war.
I also fear we will do nothing. Two child abductions changed the way we viewed the world in the early ‘80s, yet after hundreds of mass shootings—in our schools, our restaurants, our churches and synagogues and mosques, the highest houses of holy scripture—we’ve passed very little legislation to prevent more. Thoughts and prayers, mostly. And while I’m sure there were millions of thoughts and prayers when Adam Walsh went missing, not one of those prayers ever found him. Not a single thought kept him safe.
After each shooting, we become more afraid, just like we did in the ‘80s. Gun sales soar. Some people think they need protection. Others are afraid guns will be banned, so they better get as many as they can, none of them realizing that escalation of this sort will never end, nor that fear-based fixes, such as armed guards in our schools, cause far more problems than they solve.
Somewhere along the way we allowed fear to get inside us. Stranger danger made us fear strangers, so we began to see everyone as dangerous. This thought stained everything we touched.
An example of this is President Reagan’s response to Etan Patz’s disappearance, which was to assemble a task force on missing and exploited children. But the task force issued recommendations primarily based on keeping nuclear families intact so that children would be safe in their homes, with both of their parents, away from strangers.
This, of course, ignored the fact that Reagan’s trickle-down economics was making it harder for nuclear families to survive, and it ignored that most physical and sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by their own family members or well-known adults, not strangers in vans handing out candy.
Reagan and his administration stayed tough on crime, though. And the leading thought of the time agreed—throw these f**kers in prison until the walls fall down. The hysteria of the time demanded it. The country demanded it. No more would we be held in fear.
The problem is, unlike Reagan’s economy, trickle-down fear does work. It trickles down into everything—into the way we see the world. The way we wait for our children to get home. The way we pause when an unknown number calls, worried for a moment who it might be. It gets into the way we send our kids to school. How we flinch now whenever news breaks. When we see on Twitter some small Texas town trending. A nightclub we’d never heard of. A school somewhere in Florida.
Reagan’s speeches of the '80s told us of rampant crime. We began to hear the words “inner-city,” which was both short and longhand for all the crime committed there. We heard of strangers in vans. We heard of “welfare queens,” who existed only to take the taxes of hard-working Americans, yet no one bothered to explain that inner-city crime is an economic problem.
This is when mass incarceration began, and the reason it began is because we were so scared—of strangers and the danger they brought. Of kidnappings. Of mass murder, never mind we were the ones bombing everyone into oblivion.
Somewhere along the way we allowed fear to get inside us. Stranger danger made us fear strangers, so we began to see everyone as dangerous. This thought stained everything we touched—our laws, our labors, our way of looking at the world. Reagan and the media of the time told us, again and again, that the social order was breaking down. That everything was falling into chaos, and we better be prepared to bring it back. By being tougher. By being harder. By throwing people into prison at unmitigated rates.
The problem is, once the fear gets inside the gates, there’s no getting rid of it. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Even the dark holds its own dangers, because every child knows that’s where the things you can’t see come from.
* * *
My wife and I found our daughters, eventually. The parade driver—some man I’d still like to hit in the mouth, very hard—dropped them off at the wrong spot several streets over. Afterward, not realizing he had done anything wrong, he sped away, leaving our children standing there alone, confused and crying, until someone found them. We got a call from the parade organizer.
“They’re here,” she said. “Come get them.”
Let me tell you then how fast we ran. How all the fear came out in the few minutes it took to get to where they were. How we hugged them so hard they began to wonder if we’d ever let them go.
I wish Adam Walsh’s parents had found that. I wish Etan Patz’s family still had him. Etan would be 51 now. The same age I am. And maybe he would have become as cynical as I am, looking back at the last 40 years and wondering how we let ourselves become this way. How society became this way. How we have moved America toward the armed camp some want it to become. How we can wear guns now like some fucking Western, when we knew who the bad guys were.
We were complicit as well, all of us who sat in front of our TVs and listened to what they told us. And what they told us was to be afraid. There were drug pushers in the park, and strangers on the streets. There were razor blades in Halloween candy.
Or maybe he wouldn’t be like me at all. Maybe he would have some perspective I am unable to obtain, some view he acquired watching from the outside. How we keep trying to make our world safe but have been unable to, and every time we try, we make it worse, not better.
The Adam Walsh case awoke us to the danger out there in the world, but the problem is we began to see everyone that way. John Walsh, trying his best to protect us, scared us instead. The nightly news reports told us there were thousands of would-be abductors out there, and every week America’s Most Wanted confirmed our fears.
This fear helped pave the way for mass incarceration. Fear of inner-city crime sent white America fleeing to the suburbs, worsening the economic conditions in the inner-city, and it caused judges to crack down as tough-on-crime legislators implemented three-strikes sentencing laws in the '90s, and mandatory minimums — people of color suffered the most from this. During the '80s AIDS epidemic fear slowed the medical community’s response. Fear of the Soviet Union made us accept whatever military budgets Reagan threw before us, no matter it could be better used at home.
The media was complicit in stoking our fear. During the stranger danger panic of the mid-1980s, for example, it was widely reported that 1.5 million children went missing and 50,000 child abductions by strangers occurred each year. But these estimates included data about children who had run away, or children who had been taken by family members in custody disputes, vastly inflating the numbers.
We were complicit as well, all of us who sat in front of our TVs and listened to what they told us. And what they told us was to be afraid. There were drug pushers in the park, and strangers on the streets. There were razor blades in Halloween candy. There were people in Las Vegas who would cut out your kidneys and leave you in the bathtub. There were men so heinous we had to rank them according to their crimes.
There were so many things to be afraid of. There still are. I still wake some nights wondering where my daughters are, a faint dream lingering of searching for them in that dream way, as if I am moving underwater, never fast enough to find them, and I don’t need an expert to tell me where that dream comes from.
“The Adam Walsh case created a nation of petrified kids and paranoid parents,” Richard Moran, a criminologist at Mount Holyoke College, told TIME in 2016. “Kids used to be able to go out and organize a stickball game, and now all playdates and the social lives of children are arranged and controlled by the parents.” Even despite the decline in actual abductions, Moran said, “the fear still lingers today.”
It still lingers in me. I suspect it does in you as well, else we wouldn’t have so many worries for the way our children walk around in the world. But for me it is only a nightmare. I know this because my wife and I found our daughters. They were crying in a parking lot, worried and lost, wondering if we would ever find them. They were holding onto each other when we got there, and we knelt before them and took them in our arms and breathed in their sweet scent. Later that night we sat on the side of their bed and tucked them in. We kissed them softly on their foreheads and when they were asleep we stood looking down at them, hearts wild with worry for what could have been. Thank god we found them, I thought. I cannot imagine what life would be like if we had not.