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Of Monsters, Memory, and Silence

Posted: 06/11/2012 8:44 am

My cousin, also named Charles Stephens, was one of the young people killed in what is collectively remembered as the Atlanta Child Murders. His body was found in October 9th, 1980, two months after I was born.

This is how it happened: Charles missed school. His body was found the next day in East Point, Georgia. He was 12 years old and he had been suffocated to death. Being neither the first nor the last, but 14th, the details of his story are less robust than some of the others.

Wayne Williams was eventually tried and convicted, convicted of killing two adult men, but also implicated in the murders of the children. This allowed the city relief. For two years, 1979-1981, there was collective panic. Then it was over. Just like that. Maybe we weren't all relieved. Maybe that's why we chose not to remember.

Growing up I heard little of my cousin's death or our family's connection to the tragedy. I remember hearing very little about the murders in general.

Wayne Williams grew up and lived in the Dixie Hills neighborhood of Atlanta. This was also the area where some of the children disappeared. I often played in that neighborhood as a child, not long after he was convicted. I had relatives that lived in the area, in the Dixie Hills apartments. How many times did I run to the Ice Cream truck or play tag down those streets?

The dangers spoken about to us as children were amorphous and mysterious. The shape of terror took the form of the unseen, not the tangible. As children in Atlanta in the late 1980s and early 90s we feared witches, monsters, aliens and Freddy Krueger. Sometimes adults utilized the fictional to serve their own purposes. If they didn't want us playing in a field, it seems like before the Olympics Atlanta had fields of tall grass everywhere, they would say "don't go playing around out there, something will get you." They didn't have to say what the "something," was. Our imaginations did the work. It did not occur to us that bodies of children just like us, not even 10 years earlier, were turning up in woods just like the ones we were forbidden from playing in.

There were some artifacts of Charles and the murders. The silence was not total, not a part of some systematic conspiracy, just deployed as an instrument to forget. In the house that I grew up in, we kept our family album in this closet beneath old shoes, broken umbrellas and other forgotten, but unthrown away things. I would dig the album out every so often to look at the pictures.

Our family album consisted of a series of Polaroid photographs of staged happiness and carefree poses. The visual narrative of the Stephens family from the 1970s to the present. Pictures of little black girls posing with bushy pony tails or beads and hands on their hips. Pictures of pets that had been long forgotten but everyone remembered once they saw the pictures. Pictures of me as a small kid in someone's dark shades, standing on a bed, with my arms folded attempting the coolest toughest pose I could muster. Birthday parties, family dinners, and pictures of the long dead or newly born and the other moments deemed worthy of capturing. This is how we chronicled our family.

And then there was a newspaper clipping in our album, the only one. The name familiar because it was mine, the face unfamiliar because it belonged to someone I had never seen. Before I understood exactly what the clipping was I sensed it was connected to something tragic and unspoken. The clipping was referenced but not talked about. It was not up for discussion. I would later learn that it was the face was of my cousin.

I know nothing of what was going on when Charles was found. Was there a search party formed to find him? Did my parents participate? What was the funeral like? Did my family attend the trial? Did they cry into balled up and worn tissue paper? There were not stories of Charles, of things he did as a baby or small child. Other children in the family were talked about, cute little sayings they had, or clumsy kid things that only a parent could appreciate. Did he do well in school? Did he have a nickname? Some evidence that he existed. But none. It was all captured in the news clipping in the photo album. That was it.

I don't remember my parents having opinions about the guilt or innocence of Wayne Williams. I never heard them say his name. My theory is that my parents, like many of the black parents who were around in that period, particularly the working-class and poor since they were the targeted, the conviction of Williams was always a bit suspicious. A bit too convenient. But again, it was never mentioned one way or another. Not even at night when secret things would be confessed and painful memories shared.

When I was about 12 or 13, my father was taking me by his welding shop. We rode in his truck. I worked with him during the summers answering the telephone and running errands. He brought it up, the murders, completely unprompted. This was a little over 10 years after the last body had been found and Williams convicted. My father did not say much, he would sometimes talk to me about the dangers that fell upon more unfortunate black boys, everything from child prostitution, "there are some young boys that have to sell themselves," which at the time my mind could not quite grasp, to the young boys that were killed "I was afraid for you. I wanted you to have some way to protect yourself. It was horrible what happened to those boys. I wanted you to be ok."

I could not then appreciate what he shared. He offered no context and little explanation. My father, who seemed to be not only from another era, but another world all together, would often begin his points from the middle.

I had forgotten that moment until I was in college, years later. A group of us sat talking before class. My classmate made a joke, calling someone else that we all knew Wayne Williams. A tasteless but effective joke. This was to suggest the object of the ridicule was strange and weird. Quirky. We all laughed. We all got it. No one asked "who is Wayne Williams?" It's like the minute we heard the name, we all know. And then it was triggered. The memories swept over me like fever. The family album, the conversation with my father. It all came back. The pieces had been there all along, now they came together in my imagination. I did not reference my connection or my cousin to my classmates. I didn't want them to know. Perhaps I feared their pity.

Atlanta, I have often believed, is a place of selective memory. The Olympics happened almost 20 years ago and it was as if it happened yesterday. The Atlanta Child Murders however, there are traces but little widespread institutionalized memory. Perhaps its evidence of a community traumatized. The most vulnerable children being picked off like game, and for a parent, someone that brought life into this world, powerless to protect it, it must have been devastating. External dangers: natural death, tragic accidents, corrupt policemen, and the Klan, are enough to worry one's self into madness and certainly keep you up at night thinking about what could happen to your children. But those terrors with intimate knowledge of you and your life, your children and your community, because they are within it, an evil so close and familiar it gets you with your defenses down, is unbearable.

There isn't always a verbal language for the most painful of memoires. Having the access to language to articulate and represent one's feelings is not always available to us. Which is why the those precious and horrific memories end up residing in the bends and the folds of our individual and collective silence.

 

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