I read books, I write about books, I would probably marry a book if I could find one who liked me enough. Three words to describe me mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four...
One night in an affluent Long Island beach community, a young woman hammers on doors screaming for help. The residents, for the most part, ignore her. One or two, try to help, call 911. Hysterical, incoherent, she too calls the police, claiming someone is trying to kill her. The police take 45 minutes to arrive. When they do, Shannan Gilbert has disappeared.
Her remains are discovered a year later, in 2010, in marsh land behind the houses. By then, four other bodies of young women have already been found. All of the girls were Craigslist escorts. All of them had been reported missing. Up to that point, the police had taken little or no interest in any of the disappearances.
What became clear at that point were two things: that a serial killer had been murdering young women and dumping the bodies in this remote part of Long Island. And also that because the victims were escorts (which in the official mind translated into the word 'prostitute') from an official point of view, they were lost long before their dead bodies were found.
Robert Kolker's mission in this book, isn't to tell a true crime story - these deaths appear to be nowhere near being solved - but to investigate a social phenomenon which is simultaneously very old and, thanks to the internet, very, very modern. Kolker himself admits in an interview, that when he discussed the deaths with his editor (he writes for the NYT) his reaction on hearing the dead girls worked as escorts was that no one much would care about their deaths - that they had been 'lost' to their families years before. But the case sparked his interest. He began to do a little digging. And what eventually fuelled him to write The Lost Girls was the massive divide between that initial impression and the truth.
The result is a book which makes people of those lost girls. All of them had stories. All of them left behind families who grieve for them every day. Kolker details how each young woman gravitated towards escorting as a way to make a living. He shows how the anonymity of the internet has liberated the sex industry from most traditional forms of control. He sets out a scenario where a serial killer can kill almost with impunity, partly because buying sexual services has never been easier, or safer for the clients and partly because of our age-old contempt and indifference for women who choose this way to make some money.
This is a sad book. But it's also a necessary book. I read it at a sitting, transfixed not by the details of the investigation, because that isn't the focus, but on the lives of the women themselves and also of the impact of the tragedy on their families. It isn't the best written book in the world, but that isn't the point. Kolker's aim was to find the stories behind those lost girls and in that he succeeded.