An Interview with Robert Kolker
Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Melissa Barthelemy. Megan Waterman. Amber Lynn Costello. Shannon Gilbert.
Names are markers of something more, something bigger than themselves. They whisper on pages, sometimes telling you nothing about the actual person behind the name: the person with hopes and dreams, families and friends. You casually glimpse at names in a paper, but normally they do not mean much of anything. Unless you know them personally or have done a quick Google search, you may not even know what they mean. But the names above represent the women and the victims of one of the most recent unsolved serial killer cases in America, the 2010 Gilgo Beach Murders. The case sent shock waves through a quiet oceanside neighborhood and then into the larger world, as five women whose lives all ended brutally in an isolated conclave of Long Island became national news. While most bodies of women found murdered are treated with an specific urgency, these bodies -- Shannon's, Maureen, Melissa's, Megan's and Amber's? It soon was discovered that they weren't just women. They were sex workers. And that changes the game.
Snap to Lost Girls, Robert Kolker's first book, which dives into the Gilgo beach murders. Kolker has turned what started as a story in New York magazine into a thorough inquiry into what sex work actually entails and why women get into it, taking no mercy at dissecting both the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can push people into the choice of sex work. Sex work is continually the subject of controversy, the main talking points that seem always forcibly split into two opposing voices: those who think it is always a choice, and those who think it is never a choice. In a contradictory playing field of good versus bad, right and wrong, woman that you marry and woman that you pay to fuck, Kolker works past the stigma and stereotype, and has paid attention to the very real, very complicated situation that has no easy answers. Furthermore, he pays attention with an unblemished empathy, in the way that one does when there is a very important story that needs to be passed on, not as a warning or talking point, but as a remembrance that sheds light on subjects that we don't want to discuss in good company.
I had the privilege to sit down with Kolker and talk more on why he wrote Lost Girls, investigating one of the most complicated topics out there, and what we mean when we talk about choice.
Your background is in writing about crime, whether it's Bernie Madoff or police forcing false confessions. What I'm interested in is, how did you discovere what happened at Gilgo Beach and how did you decide to write about it?
I didn't have a lot of knowledge about the world of escort services or sex workers before working on this story. In hindsight, I think I had a lot of preconceived notions. When the first four bodies in burlap were found on the beach, my editor came to me and said, "It's a big story. Maybe you want to try and do something on it." I didn't even think about the victims at all, even when the police said, "We think that the victims were escorts." The first thing I thought of was that they had no stories at all. I don't know if you saw The Wire season two. They had found a shipping container filled with the bodies of women who had been trapped and from some other country. I thought these women were like that, that nobody knew them; perhaps no one necessarily even missed them. They were dead long before they were dead. I didn't think about them at all. What I thought about was a serial killer case. I said to my editor, I really don't want to work on this because they're going to solve it in twenty-four hours.
The Craigslist killer up in Boston was caught very quickly. He used the Internet to find his victims. Whoever killed these women has four victims and four digital trails, so I just thought he'd be found right away. By the time I got started there, I'd be way behind already. Besides, while I do write about crime, I don't necessarily do straight crime stories. I do stories that are about something else. The wrongful conviction story I did is about false confessions and police interrogation tactics and a story about a murder out in Brooklyn. It became a story about the hate crime law and whether it's useful. This case just seemed a little too cut and dried for me.
Then a few months went by and they started to find more bodies. My editor said, "We really can't ignore this. It's huge." By that time, the family members of some of the women had started to surface in the media. It became clear that these women had relationships with their family members and that they weren't outcasts, that they were leading more or less functional lives before they disappeared. I got to meet with Melissa Cann, the sister of Maureen Brainard-Barnes. I thought perhaps I might do a story about her and about the families dealing with what happens when a member of the family has decided to be a sex worker. Then, when the worst possible case happens and that family member disappears, what happens?
My editor then said to me, "Well, why don't you talk to all of them? Why don't you meet all the family members?" At that moment, it sort of clicked for me where I realized that that is the sort of story that I do, that I'm better at than the whodunit. It's the "what happens when an extreme situation happens in someone's life." Here these women were, working very hard to make sure that their loved ones' cases didn't grow cold. I met with them. The initial story featured in New York magazine was about that. Then I decided to do the book.
It occurred to me that what was happening to these women and what the lives of these families were living was a window into a part of America that doesn't get explored in books a lot. I'm inspired by books that sort of lift the veil a little bit and show you what you might not been seeing all along in parts of America, parts that get ignored. At the same time, there would also be a murder case to write about as well. While nothing would make me happier than for there to be an arrest in the murder case, I knew that the book itself would be a worthwhile endeavor even if there was no ending to the murder mystery.
In the '80s, there was a similar case out in Washington state with Gary Leon Ridgway that set a precedent for this setup for violence and invisibility. He targeted escort workers who were working on the Green River strip. When he was finally caught ten years later as a married man, a very well-standing community man, he specifically stated that he targeted these women solely because they were undetectable within the eyes of society. This statement was actually the catalyst of a new awareness towards protecting sex workers. This is when Annie Sprinkle started the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17). With all this in mind, I'm more curious to hear how this experience has led you to think about sex work. I mean, it's a complicated issue. There are people who are very much for it and see it as this very empowering thing and there are people who think it's just awful and want to ban it. I'm curious how you have dealt with the polarizing views, as well as how you dealt with the complexities.
The one think I think that a lot of people could probably agree on is that they're turned off of a realistic conversation happening about sex work in the mainstream. I'm late in the game here. I'm a newcomer to the subject. What I've learned so far is that it's a subject that doesn't necessarily break down along ideological lines. You could identify as a left-wing feminist and be against sex work. You can identity yourself as a left-wing feminist and be in favor of legalizing sex work. There are Internet battles going on among otherwise like-minded liberals about whether or not sex work should be something that is seen as okay. I'm not interested in taking a side in that argument. I certainly do take a position in Lost Girls about how no good can come from pretending that these people don't exist. I mean, for generations now, we have tried criminalizing and stigmatizing and ignoring prostitutes. It doesn't seem to be reducing the demand. It certainly isn't helping with their personal safety. It is ludicrous to me that we would continue to do that. It just makes the whole population vulnerable. No matter what you think of what the choices the sex workers make, there's no reason why their personal safety needs to be ignored or disregarded.
As I listen to myself, I sound a little too.... I'm afraid that I sound like I disapprove of what sex workers do. I don't have any particular disapproval of it at all. What interests me about the decision is that it comes in the context of a huge gap between rich and poor and a big lack of economic opportunity in the country. Most all of the women I write about had friends or family members who, the best they were hoping for is to work at the Wal-Mart or BJ's Wholesale Club or the Olive Garden. Most of these women did great in school; one even graduated early, but even if you got your high school degree, there was no sense that there was anything out there for you beyond a minimum-wage job. If you got health benefits, you were lucky.
A certain number of these people are going to look for opportunity where it comes. Of course I'm sure you're aware there's a whole school of thought that says that this is a great means of economic empowerment for the disenfranchised. The Internet can be a great way to professionalize the industry to create communication between people. Workers can organize. They can be their own bosses. They can be established without being under the palm of anyone. The Internet is a value-neutral thing. It also, for some people, it makes you more anonymous. It detaches you from other people. You're out there posting ads. You're vulnerable. I tried to make clear towards the end of the book that I didn't want this book to be about the danger of the Internet and hide your children from the Internet. I wanted it to be about how everybody thought that the Internet would change everything. Really, it's just becoming more of the same for sex workers.
It's interesting how the Internet is the big link here. You talk in the book about having these fascinating corners of the Internet, like escort review sites or the Gilgo case chat forums. You have places where money in exchange for sex can be set up. Then you have places like Tits and Sass, which is people writing from the inside of the sex trade. I guess what I'm sort of getting at is, even though you think it is sort of like a neutral-value thing, how do you see sex work potentially changing as the Internet becomes more and more a tool to rely on?
I guess the missing ingredient is law enforcement. Until the police change their attitude about prostitution and until our laws change a little bit, the Internet will continue to be a way for people to share information in an underground way. Even if there's not outright legalization, you can imagine a world where police offer immunity to anyone who comes out reporting violence perpetrated against him or her. Even in Suffolk County, where dead prostitutes are a documented reality, if an escort knew something about that case, they wouldn't go to the police. The police. They're not offering immunity. It seems weird that they would treat prostitution that stringently.
Right now there is a bill (New York State Bill S1379/A2736) being pushed forward. It basically would end carrying condoms as evidence, and stopping police from taking condoms away from sex workers or targeted groups. I'm curious if you're at all familiar with that body of legislation passing forward. It's very much like stop and frisk. I'm curious if with that being pushed forward, do you see that as the beginning of a change, even if just conversational?
You're saying where things stand now are the police reforming their tactics a little bit, or are they resisting?
I think it is a bit of both. It's very similar to the stop and frisk program here in New York, where there's a lot of pushback. There are internal memos being released that you can't do this but at the same time, it's continuing with impunity. Let's say in a perfect world where police start being more supportive to sex workers, do you see that as a start towards progress?
It's a fascinating issue. In some ways, it's so retrograde. I want to dress a certain way, or he's carrying a condom, is somehow criminalized. That's kind of ludicrous. It's a sort of thing you'd imagine happening in '50s or '60s. It's kind of indefensible. I remember Mike Bloomberg even had comments, might not have been specifically about the condom issue. It was something about women dressed a certain way being targeted. He was like, you know, people should be able to dress the way they want to dress. That part of the issue is cut and dried. I think it's a great issue for people on the movement side of things to focus on. Anything that brings attention to the unevolved way the police look at prostitution is good. Just so you know, I've read a lot of headlines about the common issue. I haven't really gotten much deeper than that. I don't know much more about it.
Well, headlines can be jarring. I remember when this case first came out. The one thing that sort of sticks to my mind is the New York Post cover of it was like "Dead Hookers Found on Beach!" It very much targeted the more salacious, pearl-clutching aspects of it, the "oh. these women had very bad childhoods and were involved in drugs." How were you able to deal with that very heavy stereotype, which was very much a truth in those women's lives, but not the only one? How did you make it more three-dimensional?
I think with stories like that, well... as a society, we are drawn to recognizable narratives. That story is the narrative of the fallen angels, the good girl gone bad. It was an easy story to knock out early on in this case. I don't want to fault the Post more than I fault any other paper. They didn't have a political agenda doing that. They were just going for the recognizable story, the shorthand that would help you try to understand what's going on. My challenge in writing a book about this is to make sure I move past that and tell a different kind of story. I was very aware of that. I was very nervous as I researched it. I didn't, as I said, I didn't want to be perpetuating terrible stereotypes. At the same time, I wanted to write something sensitive about each person. I thought the best thing I could do was bring out the individuality of each one, to write about them in a way that was distinct from one another. You would hopefully come away and you would remember that Amber is different from Melissa. Melissa is different from Maureen and Shannon and Megan.
In that sense, I felt it was worth trying. Nobody remembers the names of victims of serial killers. What if there's a book that tried? Toward the end, I don't do a lot of summing up. I say explicitly, they weren't angels. They weren't devils and blaming them is wrong and blaming their families is wrong. Blaming the Internet is wrong. There are no easy good guys and bad guys here. The issue of blame is a trap. It keeps us from understanding in a way that dehumanizes them. If you say, "Oh it's okay that they got killed because they are prostitutes," it dehumanizes them. If you say, "Oh they became prostitutes because they had a horrible childhood," that dehumanizes them. If you say, "Oh they got killed because the Internet is a scary place," that's a very superficial way of looking at it too. I hope the book goes a little deeper than that.
Speaking of the book, one of the things that really drew me to the book is the imagery present. The cover shot alone, I find myself staring at that over and over. It's a really beautiful image. It's also a very sad image. I feel like it perfectly sums up the book. The maps that are in the book represent where each woman was from and then where they moved. Then there's a map that traces the bodies along the beach. They're so visually interesting and stark. I feel like it adds so much extra information to what you're presenting to the reader. How is it decided that these were going to be in the book?
The idea of the maps preceding each chapter was a brilliant idea. The idea belongs to Chris Parris-Lamb, my agent. We were struggling for a way to graphically illustrate the case. Should we use photographs before each chapter? Are photographs too... do they somehow seem too newspaper-y and too True Crime-y? We'd know whether we want to use photographs or not. Should we do an illustration that identifies something about them? Like Megan would be a roller skate. The chapter begins with the roller rink. He came up with this brilliant idea of telling the story, the book almost like a slideshow, like a flip movie or a PowerPoint. It shows their transformations. It also shows how far away everybody came to all come to the same place. Immediately, in a way that the cover image does, it told the second story about how women like this come from everywhere. The cover doesn't tell that type of story. It tells the second story of an endless search for women at risk and in trouble.
I think this entire conversation has really touched on what I'm about to ask -- you even mentioned this at the very beginning. Were there any struggles that you dealt with personally speaking or professionally speaking in regards to either dealing with the families that you're working with or just in general when you're writing this?
I think taking on a book involved a few risks. I needed to learn way more about these women than I knew at the time. I wasn't sure how I was going to learn it. The families had been all right with the magazine story. There was no guarantee that they would continue participating with the book. Beyond that, these women were in their mid-twenties when they died. It's not just families who help. It's friends and associates and other escorts. I wasn't sure who would be talking to me and who wouldn't. I was nervous about that. I would've been a little more nervous if I didn't do this for a living. I had several stories, other stories where I knew... I'm sort of accustomed to that risk. This was tough. I'm extraordinarily grateful to all the families. They all participated. It was not an easy decision for any of them. They all had to weigh very separate sets of issues to be a part of it. Some of them came on board early. The last to sit down for an extensive interview was Shannon's mother, Mari Gilbert. I'm really grateful to her as well. Obviously, their lives have been transformed completely by this experience. It's terrible for them. For them to be a part of a book like this was, it was very generous of them. I hope that they come away thinking that it at the very least is a sensitive portrayal of the women.
Have they read the book yet?
No. I'm going to send them copies as soon as the final book is available.
If there is one thing you're hoping that readers will take away from the book, what is it?
That's a really good question.
It certainly doesn't have to be one thing.
First of all, I hope the book humanizes the women and by extension all sex workers. I think that's important. Secondly, I hope the book is a window into a world that most of us try not to think about too much, where options are getting so narrow that people are taking risks that they otherwise might not take. Third, even more broadly, I'm hoping that it is a bit of an antidote to the serial killer culture we have out there where you can't watch daytime TV without every other hour there's a repeated Criminal Minds or CSI or something where there's a lot of serial killer coverage out there. I was concerned when writing the book that I would be sort of feeding into that appeal. I suppose to an extent the book does. At the same time, I hope it delivers a different sort of message and approaches from a fresh enough angle that people pause for a moment and think not just about the killer but about the victims.