Today my second hometown – my adopted one in California, not my hometown-by-birth in North Dakota – landed in the news. Twice.
Placerville, California, is a town nestled in the Sierra foothills. I moved there with two years left of high school, when it dawned on my father that there were warmer places to live than North Dakota. I finished high school there. It’s where I travel when I go “home” to see my family. To this day, my parents are both very casual about locking doors. (I am, too.) The area is a mix of upwardly mobile young families whose parents commute to Sacramento and, well, less mobile people who’ve been planted in the hills for a while. The landscape is gorgeous and the people are mostly pretty great, too, but it must be admitted that Placerville’s congressional district gave the country the wonderfully named John Doolittle (R-Wingnuttia, still linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal).
Anyway, Placerville surely has its share of fools and knaves, but its crimes are usually quite local – one classic was a man-bites-man case fueled by near-lethal quantitites of vodka – and it basically never makes the national news. Today it did. Twice.
You may have heard about the first instance: Phillip Garrido, the kidnapper and rapist of Jaycee Dugard, is being held in Placerville’s county jail. Today a judge set bail at $30 million. I’ve driven by that courthouse hundreds of times. My mom has gone to that jail on occasion to give a ride to a released inmate. Once she did this on Christmas Eve, to the consternation and worry of her children. (No, my mama is not a criminal; this was part of her work at her very liberal church). Like everyone who’s not morally deadened, I was already shuddering at the thought that Garrido was being held pratically around the corner from my mom’s house. It’s a universal protective mechanism to feel safe as long as the beast is at someone else’s back door.
But the next news story I hadn’t heard until today, and it shook me deeply. Annie Le (pronounced “lay”) was a 24-year-old Yale doctoral student in pharmacology who’d gone missing. Yesterday, on the day she’d planned to marry her college sweetheart, news came that her body was discovered, hidden in the building where her laboratory was located. Her fiance is not a suspect.
Annie Le came from Placerville.
When I read that, I just burst into tears. It’s surely a failing of humans that we can more easily empathize with those whom we perceive as being like ourselves. Le was quite unlike me in a couple of respects. She was the child of Vietnamese immigrants, very petite, and apparently a very hard worker. I’m none of that.
But the arc of her education looked a little like mine. We were both girls who were smart enough that our high school teachers remember us vividly; her science teacher was so upset by her disappearance that he refused to speak with reporters. We were both high school valedictorians from Placerville who landed in Ivy League doctoral program. There aren’t so many people who fit that bill. She also volunteered at the local hospital where I had exploratory surgery back in 1990.
While I know her story is not mine – it belongs to Annie Le and those who knew and loved her – I read the place names, and I see where our paths crossed, and I realize: We both had charmed lives that were a generation apart but ran along parallel tracks. Until her life was ended, presumably by someone who had a sick obsession with her. (No suspect is in custody, but the Yale police are saying they don’t believe her murder was random.)
I realize that if we always identified painfully with the victims of atrocities, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day. And yet, I can’t tell myself that the crimes committed against Jaycee Dugard and Annie Le have nothing to do with me. They have to do with us all, just as every harm inflicted on the bodies of innocent children, women, and men have to do with us all. If we could hold that in our hearts, might we be able to avert the next atrocity?
I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all. I’m coming from a place of emotion, not logic. I just know that I’ve lost my insulation against the horrors of the world, and while I’ll probably feel thicker-skinned in the morning, I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing. Increasingly I think it’s not language or an opposable thumb but empathy that makes us human.