This morning murdered seven year old Somer Thompson's mother spoke out on the morning shows with remarkable composure.
These are such horrible stories, made worse by the inevitable media onslaught. The press is so important at a time like this, though. Diena Thompson had the opportunity to give heartfelt thanks to the strangers who've been supporting her. She praised the astonishing alacrity that led to recovering Somer's body so quickly. Authorities had the foresight to follow the neighborhood garbage trucks. Then workers dug through tons of garbage to be able to give Somer's family an answer to the anguished question that would probably never have been resolved otherwise. It's heartening to get a "thank you" for such a grueling effort.
And most critical as the investigation moves forward, Diena Thomposon's TV appearances could be the catalyst for someone tuning in to offer authorities the clue that will lead to the killer. A killer who has terrified parents in the community, forcing them - understandably - to keep their children under lock and key until they hear otherwise.
As a journalist who's spent 20 years researching another famous missing child story, I only want to respond to these moments with light, not heat. A few things to pass along from my research:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conducts ongoing studies on "attempted abductions," which show the most effective advice to give your children. If they are approached, they should DO SOMETHING. Run, kick, scream (not the generic "Help," but something specific like "This is not my mother/father.") Some 85% of unsuccessful attempted abductions are unsuccessful because the child reacted in some way and scared off the attacker.
This is a tricky one - advice like this can have the unintended effect of seeming to blame the victim ie: "she didn't fight to save herself." We can't possibly know what Somer did or didn't do when this evil predator grabbed her. But statistics show a child who doesn't just go along is more likely to thwart the attack, and that's useful to know as we try to take something positive from this terrible event.
The idea of "blaming the victim" also brings this to mind: Thirty years ago, when six year old Etan Patz disappeared walking two blocks by himself to the bus stop, the neighborhood galvanized, not just to look for Etan, but to protect the other kids. Human bucket-brigade like chains ran down the city streets as adults led children to their bus stop in the days that followed. But there was also the other side, which I saw too often when researching AFTER ETAN.
Etan had a friend who lived across the street, who'd usually walked in the morning with Etan and other children or adults. After Etan disappeared, the girl's mother would stand at the bus stop holding her child's hand. She told me how she'd seethe listening to other waiting parents, parents who had NEVER accompanied their children before, as they trashed Julie Patz for letting Etan go by himself that day.
It's all too easy to fall back on "blaming the victim." It's a human response. Social scientists say it's a defense mechanism, to help people feel as though this horrible consequence couldn't possibly happen to them, ie: "If she hadn't worn the short skirt, she wouldn't have been raped. I never wear short skirts, so I'm not like her and this could never happen to me."
This morning on national television, Somer's mother talked about her guilt, for feeling like she didn't warn her daughter properly, for not being with her as she walked home, for not stopping this atrocity. Another human response, but it's also so damaging. I would make this plea to any insensitive clod who comes in contact with the family, anyone in cyberspace who makes those same kinds of cruel comments Julie Patz had to endure.
"How could she let her child..." is the worst sort of piling on.
Follow Lisa Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AfterEtan