Sunday, January 21, 2007
The Part That Never Comes Home
I wasn't friends with Marta Mejia when it happened.
I had seen her around the halls of my high school -- occasionally noticing the inexhaustible energy she expended as she bounded to and from class; casually glancing at the perpetual smile which seemed to be glued to her cherubic face -- the kind of sweetly adorable and completely approachable look that guaranteed a constant flock of friends and admirers; the same look that guaranteed no small measure of aloof avoidance from a cynical and detatched teen delinquent like myself. As far as I was concerned, Marta and I may as well have been from different planets. I felt this way despite knowing almost nothing about her beyond what I could gather from pressing past her on the way to Algebra: I knew she was cute; I had heard that her mother drove one of the mini-buses that ferried students to and from school; I had seen her recently celebrating a fourteenth birthday. Beyond that, nothing. She was just another kid.
That is, until the night of November 28th, 1984.
It would be somewhere around two years later that I'd find myself lying face-down on my bed, clutching a pillow, crying in a way I never thought possible -- feeling more pain, anger and helplessness than I believed my young life had the capacity to contain. I'd try to grasp what it's like to go to sleep one night and wake up to find that everything you love, everything you are, has been utterly obliterated. I'd want to know why a young girl who deserved a lifetime of happiness instead awoke one morning to a frightening, alien existence -- a treacherous shadow world, spawned by a few hours of infinite madness and violence. I'd want to know how someone finds a way back to the light -- back to life. To this day, many of those questions remain unanswered.
By the time Marta laid out her clothes for the following school-day, kissed her stepfather good-night and tucked herself into bed on the night of November 28th 1984-- her mother was already dead. No one's sure how long Jose Mejia, Marta's father, had been stalking his ex-wife, Estilita Mejia Kossakowski -- but on that night whatever rage and obsession had been building inside of him finally exploded into unfathomable violence. Police say he grabbed Estilita outside of the bank where she worked part-time, drove her to a remote part of North Miami-Dade County and shot her with a .357 Magnum -- over and over again. He then drove to the home Estilita shared with her children and new husband, Ronald Kossakowski. He knocked on the door. When Kossakowski opened it, he was shot three times. Police say he was dead before he hit the floor. Jose Mejia's final act was to drive to a parking lot and put a single bullet into his own head.
Next to him on the passenger's seat: binoculars, extra ammunition -- and a crucifix.
The following morning Marta jolted up in bed, realizing that she had overslept. She ran out into the living room to ask why her stepfather hadn't woken her as usual. She found his body lying in a lake of blood -- the front door still open.
When the police arrived, they pieced together what had happened -- connected the bodies like dots across the northern part of the county -- and gave Marta and her seventeen-year-old sister Ana the harrowing news: everyone was gone; there was no one left but them.
It would take the better part of a year for Marta to return to school; she would return in name only. The Marta Mejia everyone had known before the night of November 28th, 1984 no longer existed. The sad, vacant, enigmatic young woman who took her place seemed more like a living ghost than an actual flesh-and-blood human being. The sweet smile was still there, on occasion, but there was no denying the effort that went into producing it or the reaction it garnered from those around her -- the friends and classmates whose interactions with her became labored and technical, as if they were at times dealing with a wounded puppy, at times with a nuclear warhead. Plenty of people tried to reach out to Marta, but it was obvious even to the casual observer that she was showing them what they wanted to see, telling them what they wanted to hear, expressing perfunctory gratitude for their concern and their sympathies, and moving on. Wherever the real Marta had taken up residence, it was hidden far from sight and away from where anyone could find it -- could find her. Wherever she had found safety -- if she had at all -- she'd made it untouchable.
I can't remember when or how Marta and I became close friends. I also can't remember at exactly what point I fell in love with her.
The event that claimed Marta's childhood has been on my mind quite a bit recently -- jostled free from a good number of long-buried memories by the story of Shawn Hornbeck. On October 6th, 2002, Shawn was kidnapped, allegedly by a man named Michael Devlin. As far as anyone can tell, he was held captive for more than four years -- living in an unfamiliar town, masquerading as Devlin's own son -- only to be reunited with his real family when Devlin was arrested for kidnapping another young boy. The details of Shawn Hornbeck's strange ordeal -- the four missing years -- are just now coming to light, mercilessly pursued by a media machine honed to recognize a mind-blowing story when it sees one and to subsequently beat that story to death. For four years, the kidnapped boy played the part of Shawn Devlin not only for his captor, but for everyone he met and anyone with whom he interacted. Those who knew the boy during that time say that the ruse was impenetrable. Police stopped "Shawn Devlin" on the street; friends and families pointed out that he bore a striking resemblance to the missing boy on the TV -- the one whose name held Shawn's true identity; all the while, the kid who had been born into a new life just a few years previously laughed off the comparisons and the coincidences, insisting that he was indeed who he claimed to be.
Now, after four years of convincingly living a lie, he's returned to the life he was ruthlessly snatched away from when he was only eleven years old.
But as with Marta, I'm left wondering just how much of Shawn has truly come back.
Shawn Hornbeck was a relatively normal kid when he disappeared into that unfamiliar shadow world; he's returned not to the comforting environment he remembered, but to one in which he's the center of a vortex of cameras, strobing flashes and potential studio audiences. He went from being a typical Midwestern child, to being a kidnap victim, to being a celebrity. Shawn holds a secret that he may never be willing to allow anyone near -- and yet it's a secret everyone wants access to.
Late last week, Shawn's parents, Craig and Pam Akers -- either star-struck or shell-shocked -- agreed to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, and to bring Shawn with them. For an hour, in full view of a phalanx of video cameras and by proxy millions of Americans, they allowed Oprah to prod and probe the most intimate details of Shawn's four-year nightmare. The boy had been back in "normal" society for no less than a week, and there was Oprah -- all synthetic concern and overabundant charm -- asking for an admission that young Shawn had in fact been sexually abused during his captivity. Shawn faced the camera as his parents laid his torturous ordeal bare for the world to see; the kinds of experiences best left to revelation at the hands of counselors and family therapists -- the things a young boy might not want another living soul to know -- were made a matter of public record.
The interview ended with Oprah glancing at Shawn, smiling, and off-handedly quipping, "Ah, you're still cute." In defense of something so gruesomely exploitative, Oprah's communications department released a statement which read, "Oprah, who has years of experience interviewing children who have survived trauma, respectfully posed questions first to his parents and aunt -- and then to Shawn with his family present -- so that they could share their message of hope with other families who have missing children."
A more sickening and transparent justification would be difficult to imagine.
And it won't end with Oprah.
I don't know Shawn. I certainly haven't earned the right or privilege of access to personal traumas from which he may never fully recover. That said, I couldn't help but be curious as to how he might possibly deal with those traumas being publicly peeled back layer-by-layer in an attempt to reach the raw nerve at the center, as an inquisitor -- in this case the self-appointed authority on any and all forms of human experience -- simultaneously satisfied a personal agenda, a sponsor's greed and the public's supposed right to know.
But then I remembered Marta.
I remembered her telling me, two years after the maelstrom of brutality that left her innocence shattered, how she became adept at telling her counselors what she knew they wanted to hear; how she played a shell-game with her true self -- constantly moving it and hiding it away; how she allowed nothing to affect her -- no one to reach her; how she, quite simply, wasn't home anymore.
And so I wondered if Shawn was really home -- or if he ever would be.
A couple of hours before I laid across my bed and cried out in pain for Marta -- my friend, the girl I found myself caring about more than I had ever intended to -- we sat in my car together, staring out at the calm waters of Biscayne Bay. It was then that she touched my arm and gave me that beautiful, heartbreaking smile -- and said something to me that haunts me to this day. She said, "The other night I took an entire bottle of sleeping pills, just because I happened to have enough to kill myself. I figured, what the hell -- nothing matters anymore."
There was no drama. There was no anguish. There was just a simple statement of fact.
Marta was alone in the world. No matter how many people believed that they might have gotten through to the lost little girl at the center of the labyrinth, in the end all they found was an illusion. Maybe that's what I had found.
I don't know what happened to that little girl -- that young woman. I hope she finally found a way home.
I hope the same thing for Shawn Hornbeck.