On Christmas Day 1996, a little girl named JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in Boulder, Colorado. Any murder is horrific, especially that of a child, but this crime was particularly shocking, generating massive attention from the media and the public.
The nation was mesmerized by the case with its unending supply of lurid plot lines. There was the angelic yet weirdly sexualized victim, whose beauty pageant photos featured teased hair, a full face of makeup and a flirty smile. There was duct tape and a knotted nylon cord and whiffs of jealousy, incest and revenge. And there were more theories on whodunit than an Agatha Christie mystery.
I love puzzles and this one was a killer. It had solid leads and red herrings and just enough clues to implicate and exonerate every potential suspect. Just one of countless such clues: Before JonBenét’s body was found, her mother contacted the police, saying her daughter was missing and she had found a ransom note in the house demanding $118,000 – the very same amount that JonBenét’s father, John, had received as a bonus earlier that year. How fishy was that? I was hooked.
I tuned in nightly to the national news for my Ramsey fix and religiously read People magazine, which featured JonBenét on its cover no fewer than six times. My coworkers and I — a bunch of editors and art directors — dissected the case as if we were detectives on the hunt for our perp.
Other murder cases in that era captured the country’s collective imagination, including the O.J. Simpson “trial of the century” and the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh, both in 1995. But none gripped us quite the way JonBenét did. Now, nearly 20 years later, I’m pondering why.
Most people, myself included, yakked about the Ramseys without an ounce of empathy. I feel bad about that now.
According to FBI statistics, 763 children under age 9 were murdered in the U.S. in 1995. On average, that’s two kids per day, yet not one of those children became a media phenomenon. Why JonBenét? Scores of journalists and social commentators ruminated about our fascination with the case. Some conjectured it was JonBenét’s beauty, affluence and race that made the story compelling. Others cited the shadow of sexuality that hung over her life and her death. One Slate writer observed that the case provided “forbidden material served up in ways we can both enjoy and disown,” noting the case “makes us feel both titillated and virtuous.”
In addition to simultaneously arousing our basest curiosity and triggering our sense of self-righteousness, the Ramsey murder coincided with the proliferation of round-the-clock news outlets and the exponential growth of the Internet. When facts became scarce, the constant demand for news led to information being repackaged or even manufactured.
Suddenly, anyone could concoct a theory and promote it to a global audience. Even the Ramseys set up a website to promulgate their side of the story.
But these cultural issues were of only mild interest to me; my connection to the case felt much more personal. For one thing, my first child was born less than a month after JonBenét. I knew precisely what it was like to have a six-year-old zooming around the house. I was intimately familiar with the patience-trying curiosity, ceaseless energy and burgeoning bossiness that are the hallmarks of six-year-old behavior. In addition to both having babies in 1990, Patsy Ramsey and I were alike in other ways: We were well educated, lived comfortably and (apparently) cared about staying slim and attractive. In those realms, I understood her life.
Another factor in my Ramsey fascination was a serious case of daughter envy. I adored my sons, but I longed for a daughter. I dreamt of shopping for tiny tutus and tying off braids with grosgrain ribbons and buckling shiny Mary Janes onto dainty feet. I craved girl time with a mini-me who would understand me as my lunkhead sons (said with love) never could.
But even as I envied Patsy Ramsey her pretty daughter, I judged her as a parent. Who tarts up their kindergartener and parades her about, subjecting her to ogling and judgment based on nascent sex appeal? Certainly not I. In truth, I never tried to put myself in Patsy’s shoes. I didn’t care that JonBenét may have enjoyed the pageants, or that I had zero evidence that those contests were harmful. I judged Patsy because I liked feeling superior: She may have been richer and prettier (a former Miss West Virginia), but I was definitely the better parent.
Looking back, I think I focused on the superficial aspects of the case — the tiaras, the gossip, the conspiracy theories — because what actually happened was overwhelming. I couldn’t let myself relate to Patsy as one mother to another because the thought of losing a child was too much to bear. Most people, myself included, yakked about the Ramseys without an ounce of empathy. I feel bad about that now. Regardless of the culprit’s identity, even if it were Patsy, a child was dead and a family destroyed.
Pasty lived the last decade of her life under a cloud of suspicion. It wasn’t just that most people believed she was guilty — it was that they wanted to believe it. When she died of ovarian cancer at age 49, I remember thinking: Is this her just desserts? Did the gods finally nail her when we mortals could not? Again, upon reflection, my lack of empathy then rattles me now. Whatever I might have thought about Patsy, she was still a wife and the mother of a teenage son.. My own mother was 49 when she died, so I have some insight into what that loss must have been like for Patsy’s family. Yet, at the time, I danced on her grave with the rest of the world.
Today, I’m confused by the fact that I now feel for Patsy even as I still suspect her of murdering her child. I guess the evidence in the case hasn’t changed, but I have.
(Photo credit: Eirien/Flickr.com)