The grievous thrumming in my head sounds like MasterCard’s punch line: Priceless. You know the commercial; it starts with a recitation of expenditures and ends with some heartwarming finding about human relationship, overlaid with that word, “Priceless.”
Except my private punch line keeps saying, “Worthless.”
Close your eyes and listen for that familiar voice:
Two decomposing bodies were found in Anthony Sowell’s house in Cleveland a week and a half ago. My impression is that the police found them just kind of lying around somewhere obvious—Strewn across a bedroom floor? Draped over the stairway landing? Kicked into a coat closet?—when they went inside with their search warrant. They had to look a little harder the next day for the two in a crawl space and the one under the basement’s dirt floor. Shovels were involved for yet six more, found in shallow graves in the back yard a few days after that.
Eleven black women. At least ten had addiction problems and criminal records. Do those facts about them reduce their human value?
The news began to percolate in the days around Halloween. A woman was reported falling naked out the second story window of a house on Imperial Avenue. Turns out it was the same address a different woman gave the police a week before—the place she escaped after being partially strangled with an extension cord and brutally raped. She told police that Sowell let her go with promises to stay quiet and return with money—but only after he taunted her: “You just another crack bitch from the street, no one will know if you missing.”
I guess he should know. It seems Sowell has been raping and killing marginalized women with impunity for some time now, perhaps starting immediately after his release in 2005 from prison, where he served 15 years for raping a woman from his old neighborhood in East Cleveland (a municipality distinct from Cleveland). But his appetite for sexual aggression—I assume the murder component comes more as an unpleasant but necessary extension of that first order of business—may have started long before his jail sentence. Three unsolved strangulation deaths on and around Sowell’s old street remain on the books. According to the Plain Dealer’s timeline of events, he apparently raped and choked a woman even as he was being prosecuted for the crime he eventually paid for. Justice in that intervening attack stalled out because police couldn’t get the victim to testify.
This case invaded my consciousness in much the same way Hurricane Katrina did. I watched coverage of that event with geeky interest that turned to growing, horrific disorientation: Could it be? Is it possible these people are dying in front of our eyes, and we’re all helpless to respond? Where is the President? The military? The police? Anybody! Lots of us talk about Katrina’s surreality now, but we forget that there were a few days of straight reporting first. Before Anderson Cooper gave voice to the incongruity of a publicly drowning American city, we saw Wolf Blitzer and John King and Brit Hume detail matter-of-factly the whereabouts of bodies and the transportation difficulties of rescue vehicles and the direction of the wind. They were never indifferent, don’t get me wrong—there was always that wide-eyed earnestness with only a hint of the disingenuousness typical of cable news reporters. Still, we shook our heads in disbelief.
So last week as news trickled out that the residents near Imperial Avenue had complained about the smell in their neighborhood as far back as 2007, and as officials made public announcements requesting the dental records of all the missing black women from that area, and as more bodies were found, I felt a mounting agitation. The swirling questions—It took the smell of their decaying bodies for anyone to notice that a bunch of women were missing? The dental records of "all the missing women in the area"—what?—Like it’s normal to have a crop of missing women in every neighborhood? Who are their families? Did the police follow up sufficiently? Where the hell was Nancy Grace?—coalesced around this point: How could the disappearance of so many women have gone undetected?
I talked to sisters who grew up in that neighborhood, to women who live there now, to someone who knew one of the missing, and the conversation moved in every direction. One said that the whole world knows the truth: that droves of black kids go missing for every bulletin dispatched about a white one, that the police never follow up on missing person reports in their neighborhood. Several spoke matter-of-factly about their own past years on the streets, before they turned their lives around. A few talked about their diligence in chasing down their own troubled children or siblings, about the time and effort and energy it takes to secure the safety of their loved ones. “Forget four months! If my daughter was missing for four days, I’d be hunting her down!” Another said that 15 years ago, when she was a drug addict herself, her mother used to tell her that the worry didn’t set in when she was out of the picture but when she called in. “My mom had it backwards,” she said. “She shoulda worried when I was gone.”
The truth, as usual, feels more complicated to me than the easy targets of uninterested police or uncaring families. Among the eleven women, there are at least a few who were never reported missing to the police at all. Their families assumed they were living with boyfriends or doing time in jail. Remember, these were not missing kids with those vigilant moms lurking in the background. These were moms themselves, forty-something women, at least a few with toddlers at home. Perhaps their families have been through the mill, have been twisted into every emotional shape over past disappearances and disappointments. They’ve been down this road before and know that they need to wait it out. Maybe this is where Grandma takes the abandoned babies and makes do till Mama returns, sans boyfriend, cash, and place to stay. At any rate, it’s difficult to fault cops or Nancy Grace for cases that were never reported in the first place.
But there are occasions where follow-up seemed lackluster. In cases where reports were filed, there are gaps in action. While police have pointed to specific instances where victims refused to testify or return phone calls or show up for meetings, it’s hard to understand their passivity in the face of insistent complaints about the smell of death. Sure, drain pipes were flushed and a sewer line was replaced, but the stench remained. It was easy for officials to point to the sausage shop next door, close enough to Sowell’s house that inhabitants from each building could reach out of their respective windows and shake hands, but long-time residents, including a woman I talked to who lived in the apartment above Ray’s Sausage from 1950 to 1964, insisted that the butcher shop never gave off an odor, ever.
From the beginning, this story has felt weirdly underplayed to me. Some news organizations took it up only after it was discovered that the niece of Cleveland’s mayor lived with Sowell from 2005, just a month after his release from prison, until last year. It’s pointless and inappropriate to compare tragedies, but I can’t help myself: Driving home yesterday, I listened to news about the Fort Hood shooting of 13 army personnel and the imminent execution of sniper John Allen Mohammad of Virginia, who took out 10 random citizens. I’m reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine and learning about the media frenzy that overtook a suburban community in the immediate aftermath of a school shooting, where a similar number of innocents died. I try to shake off comparisons but keep coming around to the same question: Is there any other demographic but middle-aged, drug addicted, poor black women who could so effectively forestall a media sensation around their frankly spectacular deaths?
I’m guessing it has something to do with that word “innocents.” I’m guessing that rather than a broken court system or corrupt safety forces or irresolute families or even racial inequity, we are dealing with a collective disregard for women whose complicated circumstances have resulted in addiction and poverty. Somewhere along the line, society has assigned blame to these women, and while I know nobody who would say they deserved to die for their behavior, a communal argument about personal responsibility versus the impact of one’s cultural context has resulted in a pervasive uncertainty that causes most of us to look away, to rally round the gunned-down troops and children, who are Innocents For Sure.
I teach little black girls named Heaven and Purity and Joy and, dare I say, Precious, who are brimming with sass. I’d post pictures of them if I could do so without liability, because I know you would fall in love with them as I have. When, do you think, do they become something less than their names imply? At what precise point in their lives will some of them become worthless?