Written over a span of twelve years, and edited by Toni Morrison, who calls Those Bones Are Not My Child the author's magnum opus, Bambara's last novel leaves us with an enduring and revelatory chronicle of an American nightmare.
In a suspenseful novel of uncommon depth and intensity, Toni Cade Bambara renders a harrowing portrait of a city under siege. Having elected its first black mayor in 1980, Atlanta projected an image of political progressiveness and prosperity. But between September 1979 and June 1981, more than forty black children were kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and brutally murdered throughout "The City Too Busy to Hate."
A separated mother of three holding down several jobs, Zala Spencer has managed to survive on the margins of a flourishing economy until she awakens the morning of Sunday, July 20, 1980, to find her teenage son Sonny missing. As the hours turn into days, Zala realizes that Sonny is among the many cases of missing children just beginning to attract national attention. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the authorities, who respond to Sonny's disappearance with cold indifference, Zala and her estranged husband embark on a desperate search. Through the eyes of a family seized by anguish and terror, we watch a city roiling with political, racial, and class tensions.
At the time of her death in 1995, acclaimed author, activist and educator Bambara (Gorilla, My Love; The Salt Eaters) had spent 12 years working on what her friend and editor Toni Morrison calls a "magnum opus." Bambara lived in Atlanta during the two years in which more than 40 children, mostly black boys under 15, were abducted and gruesomely murdered. Her luminous novel draws on a wealth of investigative material, historical detail and family stories, and puts to good use her gifts for passionate storytelling and incisive cultural criticism. The Spencer family, whose oldest son is missing, serves as the fictional anchor. When 12-year-old Sonny fails to come home one night, his anguished mother, Marzala, finds that the police have a pervasive lack of interest in her missing child. Zala and her estranged husband, Vietnam vet Spence, join the Committee to Stop Children's Murders, an activist citizens' group organized by Atlanta parents who are disillusioned with the authorities' indifference to the killings. The cast of characters includes the Spencers' friends, extended family, police, federal investigators, Atlanta officials and the STOP volunteers who search the city seeking leads and patterns, exploring Klan connections and suspicions of a child porn ring. Bambara's thorough re-creation of the STOP committee's work in the book's long middle section comes at the expense of narrative pacing; the story bogs down while the endless theories, tips, hunches and strategies take center stage. Two crucial developmentsAthe arrest of Wayne Williams and a fateful turn for SonnyArefocus the tale on the Spencers. The difficult truths they face are devastating. Bambara gives us an indelible, intimate and moving portrait of an American family, while at the same time producing a landmark work that achieves a potent immediacy as she sagaciously explores the far-reaching issuesAracial, personal, politicalAat stake in one of the 20th century's most horrifying murder cases. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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October 22, 2000
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Excerpt from Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara
Monday, November 16, 1981
You're on the porch with the broom sweeping the same spot, getting the same sound -- dry straw against dry leaf caught in the loose-dirt crevice of the cement tiles. No phone, no footfalls, no welcome variation. It's 3:15. Your ears strain, stretching down the block, searching through schoolchild chatter for that one voice that will give you ease. Your eyes sting with the effort to see over bushes, look through buildings, cut through everything that separates you from your child's starting point -- the junior high school.
The little kids you keep telling not to cut through your yard are cutting through your yard. Not boisterous-bold and loose-limbed as they used to be in the first and second grades. But not huddled and spooked as they were last year. You had to saw off the dogwood limbs. They'd creak and sway, throwing shadows of alarm on the walkway, sending the children shrieking down the driveway. You couldn't store mulch in lawnleaf bags then, either. They'd look, even to you, coming upon those humps in your flowerbed, like bagged bodies.
A few months ago, everyone went about wary, tense, their shoulders hiked to their ears in order to fend off grisly news of slaughter. But now, adults walk as loose-limbed and carefree as the children who are scudding down the driveway, scuffing their shoes, then huddling on the sidewalk below.
The terror is over, the authorities say. The horror is past, they repeat every day. There've been no new cases of kidnap and murder since the arrest back in June. You've good reason to know that the official line is a lie. But you sweep the walk briskly all the way to the hedge, as though in clearing the leaves you can clear from your mind all that you know. You'd truly like to know less. You want to believe. It's 3:23 on your
Mother's Day watch. And your child is nowhere in sight.
You lean the broom against the hedges and stretch up on tiptoe. Big boys, junior high age, are on the other side of the avenue, wrassling each other into complicated choke holds. You holler over, trying not to sound batty. Maybe they know something. A bus chuffs by, drowning you out and masking the boys in smeary gray smoke. When it clears, they've moved on. The hedge holds you up while you play magic with traffic, making bargains with God: if one of the next four cars passing by sports the old bumper sticker HELP KEEP OUR CHILDREN SAFE, then you will know all is well, you'll calm down, pile up the leaves, make a burnt sacrifice, then get dinner on. Two cars go by, a mail truck, an out-of-state camper, then a diesel semi rumbles along. You can feel it thrumming up through your feet. Your porch windows rattle, so do your teeth. An exterminator truck pulls up and double-parks by the cleaner's. The familiar sticker is plastered on the side of the door, the word "children" under the word "pest." Your scalp prickles, ice cold. A stab of panic drives you onto the porch and straight through your door.
You dial the school. The woman who answers tells you there's no one in the building. You want to scream, point out the illogic of that, and slam down the phone. But you wheedle, you plead, you beg her to please check, it's an emergency. You can tell by the way she sucks her teeth and sets the receiver down that you're known in that office. You've been up there often about incidents they called "discipline" and you called "battering." Things weren't tense enough in Atlanta, teachers were sending "acting-out problems" to the coach to be paddled. In cut-off sweats, he took a wide-legged stance and, arms crossed against his bulging chest, asked, since it wasn't your child sent to him for punishment, what is your problem?
Exactly what the principal had wanted to know when the parents broke up the PTA meeting, demanding security measures in the school. Never enough textbooks to go around; students would linger after school to borrow each other's, then, having missed the bus, would arrive home to an hysterical household. The men voted to form safety patrols. The principal went off: "There will be no vigilantes in my school!"
City under siege. Armed helicopters overhead. Bullhorns bellowing to stay indoors. The curfew pushed back into the p.m. hours. Gun stores extending sales into the a.m. hours. Hardware stores scrambling to meet the demand for burglar bars, deadbolt locks, alarms, lead pipes, and under-the-counter cans of mace and boxes of pellets. Atlanta a magnet for every bounty hunter, kook, amateur sleuth, sooth-sayer, do-gooder, right-wing provocateur, left-wing adventurer, porno filmmaker, crack-shot supercop, crackpot analyst, paramilitary thug, hustler, and free-lance fool. But there should be no patrols on the principal's turf. "Unladylike," you heard the gym teacher say when you led the PTA walkout. But how do you conduct a polite discussion about murder?
The woman is back on the line and says again that no one is in the school building. You repeat your name, say again why you called; you mention the time, remark that you're calling from home, and you add that your neighbor across the way is wearing a candy-striped dress and is packing away summer cottons. Then you hang up and interrogate yourself -- establishing an alibi in case something is wrong? It's 3:28 and if grilled, you would plead guilty to something. It's 3:29 and you've got to get a grip on yourself.
From the start, the prime suspects in the Atlanta Missing and Murdered Children's Case were the parents. Presumed guilty because, as police logic went in the summer of '79, seven or eight deaths did not constitute "an epidemic of murder," as the parents, organizers of the Committee to Stop Children's Murders, were maintaining; because, as the authorities continued to argue after STOP's media sit-in a year later, eight or nine cases was usual in a city the size of Atlanta; and because, as officialdom repeatedly pointed out, even as the body count rose from one to twelve, the usual suspects in the deaths of minors were the parents.
Monstrous parents, street-hustling young hoodlums, and the gentle killer became the police/media version of things. In the newspapers, STOP's campaign -- to mount an independent investigation, to launch a national children's rights movement, to establish a Black commission of inquiry into hate crimes -- would be reported, invariably, on the same page as stories about parental neglect, gang warfare, and drug-related crimes committed by minors, most often drawn from the files of cities outside of Atlanta. And frequently, photos of Atlanta's grief-stricken mothers would appear above news stories that featured "the gentle killer" -- a man or woman who'd washed some of the victims, laid them out in clean clothes, and once slipped a rock under a murdered boy's head "like a pillow," a reporter said. Like a pillow.
Another pattern you've noticed, having kept a journal for nearly two years and your hallway jammed with cartons of news clippings, bulletins, leaflets, rally flyers, and memorial programs: Whenever STOP members were invited to lecture around the country, the authorities would call the parents in for another polygraph. Then a well-timed leak to the press: "The parents are not above suspicion." A name dropped: one of the parents most critical of the investigation, most out-spoken about the lack of trained personnel on the Task Force. In '81, as thousands were scheduled to board the buses for STOP's May 25 rally in Washington, D.C., an FBI agent told a civic group down in Macon, Georgia, that several of the cases were already solved, that the parents had killed their children because "they were such little nuisances."
The father of Yusuf Bell had been treated as a suspect for more than a year; his wife, Camille Bell, the murdered boy's mother, co-founder and prime mover of STOP, was one of the more vocal critics of the authorities' response to the killings. A friend of the family of murdered girl LaTonya Wilson had also been considered a prime suspect; it was
LaTonya's body that the civilian search team had found on its first outing, embarrassing the professionals, who'd maintained that they were not dragging their feet, were committed to an exhaustive search, were "leaving no stone unturned" in their efforts to find the missing children.
The mother of Anthony Bernard Carter was arrested, released, tailed, questioned, dogged for months, and visited at all hours of the night until she was forced to move. The media kept harping on the fact that she was a poor, young Black woman who had only one child, "only one," as though that were sufficient grounds for suspicion, if not prosecution.
The sun is streaming in your hallway window. It's hot on your face. Your house smells like cooked cardboard. A flap on one of the cartons has come loose and is imprinting a corrugated design on your leg. You can't go on standing there by the phone, watching the second hand sweep around the dial. You need to get moving. You are trying. Trying not to think about the anti-defamation suit that the STOP committee, regrettably, dropped against the police, the Bureau, and the media. Trying not to think about the rally STOP held in D.C. -- all the speeches, pep talks, booths, posters, buttons, green ribbons, T-shirts, caps, profiling, and blown opportunities to organize a National Black Commission to call a halt to random, calculated, and systemic assaults on Black people all over the country. Trying not to remember how swiftly the arrest came, the authorities collaring a man just as those back from the rally began clamoring for answers. What about the law-enforcement memo describing castrations? What about the mortician's assistant who re-ported, back in the fall of '80, the presence of hypodermic needle marks in the genitalia of several victims? And the phone tipster whose message, loaded with racial slurs, accurately predicted where the next body would be dumped? As the grapevine sizzled with charges of hate-motivated murder and official cover-up, the authorities made their arrest of a man who in no way resembled any of the descriptions in the Task Force reports, any of the sketched faces pinned to the corkboard in command headquarters. In no way resembled the descriptions in the reports of STOP's independent investigators, or in the reports of community workers investigating well out of the limelight. A man who bore no resemblance to men fingered by witnesses to homicides kept off the Task Force's list despite linkages of race, class, acquaintanceship, kinship, and last-seen sightings along the killer route. One man, charged with the murders of two male adults. The case against the arrested hanging by threads -- carpet fibers and dog hairs, persistent enough to survive wind, rain, and rivers. Strong enough to hitch to the arrested man's coattails as many cases as the law would allow and the public would tolerate. A seven-, eight-, some said nine-million dollar investigation brought to a close.
You're most especially trying to keep your mind off the murders committed since the arrest in June, cases that match the six patterns devised by community investigators: Klan-type slaughter, cult-type ritual murder, child-porn thrill killing, drug-related vengeance, commando/mercenary training, and overlapping combinations. Your hallway table is tumbled down with reports you have to double-check before composing the next newsletter. You can't afford to think about any of the chores posted on your calendar under the pile. You need all your energy to figure out who to call, what to do. Where the hell is your child?
I sent him to the store, God forgive me. I should've moved right away, but you know, kids lolligag. The officers kept saying, "His trail is cold." What kind of thing is that to say about a child?
You dump your handbag on the floor, grab your key ring and purse, and lace up your tennis shoes.
I never should've grounded her, maybe she wouldn't've run away. Not that I believe what they say down at Missing Persons. That girl did not run away. She was snatched.
You inspect your purse for cabfare, but reject the idea. A cab can't jump the gully back of the fish joint and can't take the shortcut through the Laundromat lot.
The main thing I got out of those sessions with the Task Force investigators, and none of them were from Homicide or anything like that at the time, was to keep my mouth shut. Said all this talking to the press made their work harder. Made them look bad is what they meant. And those sister detectives down at Missing Persons caught the same flack, except then it was "hysterical women." The officers and the parents, including my husband, we were all hysterical women. Crazy is what they meant.
You take off down the driveway, gathering speed.
The Task Force people wouldn't talk to me because my boy wasn't on the list, so I kept asking how to get him on the list. He's from Atlanta, he was missing, then they found him under the trestle with his neck broken. So why can't he be on the list? Maybe someone after the reward can do something. They had me so bulldozed, I'd actually apologize for taking them away from the "real" case to listen to me. Can you imagine?
You are running down the streets of southwest Atlanta like a crazy woman.
It's over because they've locked up one man? Only thing over and done with is that list they were keeping. Over -- what's that supposed to mean? -- go home and forget about it? They can forget about it. The whole city can forget about it. But I'm the boy's father, so how in hell am I supposed to forget about it?
Maybe you are a crazy woman, but you'd rather embrace madness than amnesia.
Less than five months ago, you would not have been running alone. Before Wayne Williams drove down the Jackson Parkway Bridge and became a suspect, your whole neighborhood would have mobilized the second you hit the sidewalk. But Williams did drive across the bridge. And a stakeout officer thought he heard a splash in the Chattahoochee, he would say days later, a splash he assumed was a dead body being dumped in the river. Though trained in lifesaving techniques, the officer did not dive in and attempt a rescue. Though equipped with a walkie-talkie, he did not request equipment to dredge the river. The police did nothing more that early morning than to stop Williams's car and ask a few questions. Days later, after a local fisherman did spot a body in the river, the authorities visited the Williams family's home, ransacked it, and hauled young Williams off for questioning. Before the media began calling Williams "weird" and "cocky," the whole of Simpson Road would have responded to your distress.
The tailor, hearing the pound of your feet on the pavement, would have picked up the phone for the block-to-block relay. Mother Enid, Reader & Advisor, would have taken one peek at you from under her neon and dropped her cards to flag down a car. The on-the-corner hardheads, heroes for a time when they formed convoys to get the children to and from school, would have sprung into action the minute you rounded the corner. Brother Chad, who turned his karate studio over to the self-defense squads, would have turned the bar next door out the moment you raced past his window. Everyone would have dropped everything to find a missing child, for when mumps have been replaced by murder, alarm is no longer a private affair.
But it's November, not spring. The Emergency Hot Line posters are gone from the phone booth at the corner of Ashby, removed too from city buses, school buses, MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) stations, and schools. The Williams trial has not yet begun, but the reward signs have been taken down, extra police detail withdrawn from the neighborhoods, state patrol personnel returned to highway duty, the Task Force staff reduced from a hundred and seventy to six, out-of-town reporters told to go home. There is no sign of the Community Watch network along the avenue. Decals have been scraped off the windows. "Let the Community Mend Again," says the sign under the glass in the churchyard where you turn.
It's 3:40 by the clock in the taxi shed. You wave your arms as you run past the first window. An old-timer brushes the brim of his hat and keeps talking. His cronies, lounging in chairs of busted green vinyl and aluminum tubing, salute you with their bottles of C'Cola. You keep moving, hoping they'll figure it out and come on. But they're cabbies, and cabbies have good reason to turn a glass eye on any gestures that seem to spell "crisis." Cab drivers, who like so many others under the veil, now support the official drive toward closure.
Last spring, through Roy Innis, a witness had offered self-incriminating testimony that featured a cab-driving boyfriend. A member of a cult engaged in drug-induced sex and ritual murder, he'd boasted to the woman about his role in the child murder case. The witness, Shirley McGill, had been involved in the drug-traffic end of the cult's operations; she'd witnessed the torture of youths and adults, bound-and-gagged couriers who had tried to defect or had tried to shortchange. When a co-worker was killed, she'd fled to Florida. Her former boyfriend, the hack, had phoned her in the winter of '80-'81, bragged that the kidnap-murder ring would be changing its procedures in the spring. When the Task Force in spring began placing adults on the list of Missing and Murdered Children and reported that the pattern of killings was changing, she'd read that as confirmation of the cabbie's boast and sought the protection of Roy Innis's group. Cabbies joined the roster of suspicious characters -- Vietnam vets, karate experts, dog owners, owners of vans with carpeting, anyone capable of lulling a child into carelessness or ordering a child into obedience -- and remained there, even after the Task Force issued an all-clear bulletin: witness not credible, information unrelated to the case, cabbie not a suspect.
A number of community investigators, struck by McGill's drug-sex-murder-cult descriptions, and by the self-incriminating nature of her story, were not so quick to dismiss her as a showboating hysteric. She was willing, she said, to be questioned under hypnosis. She claimed that she could locate sites used by the cult responsible for a number of abductions and murders of both children and adults, some of whom made the Task Force list, others who were only on the victim list assembled by independents. Further discussions with McGill had produced another reason to credit her story. Her account of threats and tortures shed light on the mysterious entries in various coroners' reports: "death by asphyxiation, precise method unknown." The method, disclosed in McGill's version, was a plastic bag shoved down the victim's throat, then withdrawn after.
Caravans of independents had begun scouring the outlying environs of the city. The writer James Baldwin, a frequent visitor to Atlanta who'd been conducting his own inquiry, joined the searchers, as did Emory professor Sondra O'Neale, a cult specialist who'd been examining the case from that perspective. In September of '81, a group had discovered ceremonial grounds littered with animal carcasses and marked by a pile of bloodstained stones heaped in the shape of an altar. A twelve-foot charred cross was found nearby. By that time, though, only one out-of-town magazine expressed interest in the cult story. Atlanta authorities had already declared the theory groundless in general, the McGill version in particular.
You're only one block from the school, you tell yourself to spur you on through the brambled lot. You're on the only halfway-clear path, but can feel the nettles and briars scratch through your clothes. Up ahead a rawbony mutt is nuzzling a pile of trash. The dog looks up, bares its teeth. Hackles stiff, it shivers itself sideways and blocks your way. Skin that bags below its ribs puffs out a few times, but you don't hear the bark, you're breathing that hard. The dog plants a paw on a baby doll facedown in the trash. The doll's ma-ma box tears through its gauze-cotton skin. You growl at the dog, you're feeling that crazed. It moves its rump aside to let you pass. The doll lets out a croaked ma-ma that catches you in the back of your knees. You plow through a tangle of weeds and renegade vines looping up from clumps of kudzu and scrub grass. Now that you've passed, the dog is woofing at you. Your ears are cocked for attack. But the mutt resumes its raid on the trash and you concentrate on the booby traps the kudzu has set for your feet.
It's the first time you've been in a wooded lot since the wintry weekends with the civilian search teams. Muffler, boots, thick denim, flashlight, and always a stout poking stick for turning things over and moving sharp things aside. You'd rendezvous at dawn with total strangers because that was preferable to sitting slumped over a coffee mug staring at the TV. Someone always brought along an extra thermos or two. Several Chinese restaurants donated lunch. Hundreds of other people were drawn to the task -- ministers, students, secretaries, upholsterers, masons, carpenters, lawyers -- everyone turned out, got involved, tried to respond to the call, the crisis. By January, the civilian search teams had swelled to the thousands. There was, too, a group of white volunteers on those weekend searches, men in flak jackets whom the community investigators had been monitoring. They toted rifles, carried satchels of jangling equipment, resisted the command of the search-team marshals, and signaled each other through walkie-talkies. The other searchers learned to ignore them, fanning out as directed, letting the tracking dogs take the lead. Shivery people moving over brush-whipped unfamiliar terrain. Glazed ground crackling underfoot. Trees shagged with ice. Every shadowy thing in a hollow a dread possibility.
You stub your toe on brown glass. With the rubbery tip of your tennis shoe you pry loose a crusty beer bottle. Caked mud and leaves that cradled it break apart when you roll it over. Worms burrow down into the muck. You gauge how long the bottle's been lying there. The ground covering's autumnal; beneath the bottle is a rain-blurred Popsicle wrapper. Late summer, you figure, moving on, stooped over, eyes scanning the ground. You're no longer watching out for sharp-edged cans, you discover. When you snap to, you still can't get your bearings.
"Remains," they called the discoveries, yellow tape ringing the perimeter of the scene. "Remains" might mean a pouch burial, embalming powder sprinkled into a plastic liner, or it might mean a corpse in a rose satin box. It always meant, first, families gathered around a stainless-steel table. A woman clutching her purse, knuckles bleeding. A man examining surgical instruments in a rectangular basin. White men in white coats, buttonholes sealed closed with starch, standing apart from the families, manila folders tucked under their arms. Relatives outside the coroner's workroom glued to portholes of the room's double doors. One of the summoned stepping forward to slip a hand under the rubber sheet. A pierced ear, missing molar, lumpy cartilage in the left knee -- the searching hand the only thing moving in the room. A murmur from the white coats. All but one family is dismissed. A tag is affixed to the toe that extends from the sheet. A mother backs away. Those bones are not my child. But the tag bears the name heard soaring over rooftops on summer nights of kickball.
Your daughter has a mole on the right shoulder blade, you're thinking. You have a mole on the bottom of your left foot. There's a host of scars crosshatching the back of your hands now. You rip through the cobwebs spun between the trees. The wooded lot is just behind the school, but no matter where you look, you can't spot the aerial on the school roof.
The mother, back at the house, still insists there's been a mistake. She holds out her arm to tell her pastor about a scar. The media invades her home, setting up cameras, plugging in cables. A light meter is shoved in her face. She's asked what she'll wear to the funeral. A city representative shoulders his way through the crush of neighbors to say that the city will pay for the burial. The mother is showing her arm. Her child had a bad burn from an iron. The body downtown did not. Her pastor pats her. Relatives shush her. Neighbors set down covered dishes and envelopes of money on the table. Everyone who's kept the faith through the whole ordeal wants to pay respect and leave. It's somebody's child downtown on a slab, so claim the bones, mother. Set the funeral date, mother. Don't make a fuss, mother. You're not yourself, mother. Let's close the lid, mother. Let the community sleep again.
You hear it first as a funeral drum, young schoolmates in new suits and white gloves hefting a coffin down the steps of a church. Then you hear it as band practice and follow the sound to the sidewalk. You can see up ahead to the left the shadow thrown by the school's flagpole. You lean against the railing of the community center to flick pebbles and dirt from your shoes. You're winded, out of condition. For a year your child would not go out for a walk even with you armed with a knife, mace, and a slapjack. Voices are coming from around the corner. You push on, hobbled by a rising blister and bits of twigs you couldn't reach.
A squad car parked on the school lawn has all its doors open, like wings. A trail of blood by the flagpole leads to a book bag sprawled on the curb. In the street by the manhole a group of eighth-graders are gathered around someone down on one knee. It's your daughter. She's clutching her chest and she's bloody. You bump the children aside and are ready to scream.
She's hugging a cat. It squirms to get loose. A splint's on its leg. It bites at the tape.
"You forgot?" Your daughter stands up, passes the cat to a boy in blue sweats, and cocks her chin at you like you've done something stupid.
You're trying to hear her, roaming your eyes over her person for open wounds. But everyone's talking at once. Behind her two Bloods are slamming a middle-aged man over the hood of a car. The police pull one of them off, but the other keeps saying, "Man, this ain't the Indy 500." Hit-and-run driver, your daughter explains. Drunk, the boy with the cat offers. The two men, the cop is telling you, forced the driver to return to the scene. The victim's the cat, one of the girls says. An elderly woman in a floral bib apron saunters over and sizes you up. A pair of scissors and a roll of tape pull her apron pocket out of shape.
"Mother." Your daughter, using her too-grown voice, grips your shoulders for a good talking-to. "This is the only free day at the pool. You were supposed to meet me 'cause you've got to sign. Forget?"
The woman in the bib apron brushes your shoulder with hers. "Some mother," she says out of the side of her mouth. "Leaving your girl to wait on the corner." She sucks her teeth. "This is Atlanta, honey, where is your mind?"
Your daughter drags you away and grabs up her book bag. You follow her through the double doors of the community center. She's talking a blue streak, using her neck. You lean across the table and sign parental permission. The chlorine fumes draw you across the tiles to the pool area. Your girl is still working her neck and cracking on you. You've got twigs in your hair, your clothes are a mess, and what's with them cornball, old-timey sneaks? She comes to a stop by the door to the lockers and dabs at your scratches with a square of gauze. At seven, she would have disowned you, but at twelve, she's your mama. Then she rears back, takes you in, and lets loose with more cracks. You let her. You help her. You perform a Raggedy Ann softshoe. She holds her sides and goes through the door. You can hear her throaty laughter ricocheting off metal and tiles long after you drag yourself past the pool to the bleachers.
You're beat, but she's laughing. She's twelve, she's entitled. For longer than you care to tally, it's been hard to laugh freely. Though at your house there've been no horrible nightmares, no bedwetting, asthmatic emergencies, anxiety attacks, depression, withdrawal, fits of raging or weeping, plummeting grades, or any of the other symptoms mental hygienists described over and over on radio, TV, in newspapers, in safety-ed comics distributed at school, and on panels after the child-safety films shown at community centers, films featuring Black male actors as bogeymen, there's been, nonetheless, a definite decrease in the kind of clowning around that used to rock your household, leaving you all sprawled, breathless, helpless, in a heap on the floor, dabbing at wet eyes, and talking in preposterous falsettos.
So you laugh a little too, brush the leaves from your clothes, and nod hello to the grown-ups on the benches above. Leaning forward, wrists loose between their knees, they're watching youngsters splashing in the shallows and preteens doing laps on the deeper side of the pool divided by a rope of blue-and-white buoys.
You settle down and rummage around in your daughter's book bag for an apple or a stray carrot stick. You find one of your journals. Once again, she's mistaken it for her math notebook, same color. When she enters the pool area, stuffing her hair under her cap, you hold it up and smirk. She rolls her eyes and prepares for a dive where the stenciling says six feet. You're not sure you want to watch that. You flip open the wine-colored spiral wondering how she fared in fifth-period math with your Missing and Murdered notes.
You began that first journal in September of 1979 with nothing particular in mind, journal keeping a habit. But you recorded the fact that your mailman had rapped on your screen back in summer to ask if you'd heard about the kidnappings reported in the McDaniel-Glenn area. Didn't you use to work at Model Cities over there? A few weeks later, Mother Enid, Reader & Advisor, had stopped you at the newspaper box to tell you about a psychic, a white woman in Waco, Texas, who'd been "seeing" a Vietnam vet in Atlanta relive the blasts of hand grenades lobbed by Vietnamese children, a white vet who was now on the rampage killing colored youngsters and depositing them near bodies of water. And did you see in the papers the case of two dead Black boys found out on Niskey Lake Road?
You recorded a third event that occurred in late August. The aunt of one of your students mailed you a copy of an in-house memo that had come across her desk down at Missing Persons, Youth Division. The memo referred to a rash of disappearances, attempted abductions, accidents where foul play was suspected, and several definite homicides in a twenty-block radius in the Black community. The memo writer, a female officer, had suggested to her superior that the cases not be regarded as normal runaways, that they seemed related. The response to the memo, if there'd been one, was not attached. But a yellow stick-on note called your attention to a magazine article enclosed celebrating 1979 as the United Nations Year of the Child. "Some celebration," the note ended.
Overheards and ruminations about men, women, and children mysteriously vanishing from the community are sprinkled throughout the first half of the notebook in between entries about books, movies, jobs, meetings, and your dreams. But sometime in the spring of 1980, entries on the case take over. Mothers of several murdered children happened to meet that spring at a community gathering and they compared notes. Weeks later, a group of them staged a sit-in. Organized as the Committee to Stop Children's Murders, they camped out in media and law-enforcement offices, demanding a special investigation of "the epidemic of child murders." During their press conference, they charged that the authorities were dragging their feet because of race; because of class; because the city, the country's third-busiest convention center, was trying to protect its image and was trying to mask a crisis that might threaten Atlanta's convention trade dollars.
"Know what they told me?" one mother asked, taking the floor at a community meeting. "They said it was my civic duty to cooperate because all hell might break loose with this news. In other words, to shut up." In July 1980, city hall responded to STOP's direct action tactics by forming the Metropolitan Atlanta Emergency Task Force to Investigate Missing and Murdered Children. Their staff was made up not of homicide detectives, but community relations personnel.
The second half of your journal begins with minutes of neighborhood meetings and comments on the skimpy items that appeared in the back pages of the dailies. Increasingly, the disappeared begin to crowd out everything else you normally log in your journals. Even your dreams revolve around the women found dead out on pistol ranges, men found facedown in culverts, children stuffed under floorboards of abandoned buildings.
Marked-up photocopies of bulletins the Task Force published on demand about the case are stapled to left-hand pages, factual errors circled, discrepancies in the children's names, ages, and dates of disappearances noted. In the margin you remark, "Doesn't someone proof-read the copy before sending it out?" On the right-hand side, you've stapled fact sheets that were circulated by community workers who had examined police depositions, were in attendance at the STOP office, and who were dogging the steps of STOP's three volunteer detectives. The three white former APD homicide detectives had served under the notorious police chief dispatched when Maynard Jackson became mayor and ushered in, as folks were prone to say, the Second Reconstruction. One of the volunteer PIs, Chet Dettlinger, would make the first real breakthrough in the case by plotting the killer's or killers' route and charting the connections between a dozen or more victims. He was hardly rewarded for his efforts, however. The Atlanta police would eventually pull him in for questioning. The community workers remained to the end no less suspicious of his interest in the case.
The last few pages of the journal, written in October of 1980, are hurried but lengthy. An international convention of white supremacists had been hosted in nearby Cobb County by self-proclaimed racist and convicted bomber J. B. Stoner. Not fourteen hours after the convention adjourned, the Gate City-Bowen Homes Day Care Center blew up; four toddlers and a teacher died. That explosion, on Monday, October 13, 1980, brought the case of the Missing and Murdered Children -- the tip of an iceberg that involved scores of men, women, and other children -- to citywide, nationwide, and finally worldwide attention. While the
Task Force called in forensic specialists to produce a victim profile, everybody else, most especially independent investigators, focused on the killers. There was widespread speculation about their identity and their motives:
White cops taking license in Black neighborhoods again?
The Klan and other Nazi thugs on the rampage again?
Diabolical scientists experimenting on Third World people again?
Demonic cultists engaging in human sacrifices?
A 'Nam vet unable to make the transition?
UFO aliens conducting exploratory surgery?
Whites avenging Dewey Baugus, a white youth beaten to death in spring '79, allegedly by Black youths?
Parents of a raped child running amok with "justice"?
Porno filmmakers doing snuff flicks for entertainment?
A band of child molesters covering their tracks?
New drug forces killing the young (unwitting?) couriers of the old in a bid for turf?
Unreconstructed peckerwoods trying to topple the Black administration?
Plantation kidnappers of slave labor issuing the ultimate pink slip?
White mercenaries using Black targets to train death squadrons for overseas jobs and for domestic wars to come?
Splashes of green reflecting from the pool bob across the pages in your lap. Seasick, you close your eyes. In a minute, your stomach's less swarmy. But your mind won't let go. It battens down on the heavy three-ring looseleaf in one of the cartons at home. That binder contains the other journals, separated by manila envelopes that bulge with scraps of letters, tear sheets from magazines and social science journals, news clippings, safety-ed comics, LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Ad- ministration) circulations, The Caped Crusader and other Klan periodicals, and the various flyers and bulletins issued in fall '80 and winter '80-'81 which signaled, as early as Christmas of '80, that you would need cartons to hold the material that came pouring in from all over the world.
Reporters everywhere were trying to make sense of what was happening in Atlanta. Gone With the Wind Atlanta. New International City Atlanta. Atlanta, Black Mecca of the South. Second Reconstruction City. Home of a bulk of Fortune 500 companies. Scheduled host of the World's Fair in the year 2000. Proposed site of the World University. Slated to make the Top Ten of the world's great financial centers. Local, out-of-town, and overseas media all relied first and foremost, however, on information supplied by the Metropolitan Atlanta Emergency Task Force. For a long time, media was unaware -- or rather, made uninterested in the fact -- that there were numerous other bodies of investigators conducting inquiries and coming up with findings more plausible than the explanations offered by the Task Force, which hobbled itself early on by insisting that there was nothing that linked the cases.
For all the authorities -- city hall, the APD, the Task Force, the GBI, the FBI -- agreed that the important thing was that the idea of a serial murder case not take root. A serial murder panics the public. Embarrasses law enforcement. Makes professionals look outsmarted. Serial murders are bad for tourism. Handling serial murders requires a coordinated effort, a spirit of cooperation on the part of the various departments, bureaus, and agencies that careerists prefer to run as private fiefdoms, rewarding true-blue border guards, not liaison officers. Worse, tracing a race-hate-motivated conspiracy would demand a no-squabbling truce between the various branches of the law-enforcement industry. Well aware of the pecking order, locals resist "serial" lest the feds become in charge of the yard.
On complaints of civilian search team members, APD officials had approached federal agents about the blustering, arrogant behavior of the white commando types who attached themselves to the search teams and tried to bogard their way into meetings on the south and northwest sides of Atlanta. "Counterterrorist units," muttered one fed, then exited quickly, perhaps because he had breached security. In any case, the situation was not negotiable. The APD officials backed off. And until a Black man was collared, it was unacceptable to speak of hate.
The Task Force itself was under the command of Commissioner of Public Safety Lee Brown, a Ph.D., formerly of Seattle, Washington, a well-respected administrator and family man. Mayor Maynard Jackson had created the Public Safety post early in his first term, originally to bring Police Chief Inman under control. Later, the Public Safety Office operated mainly as a liaison between city hall and the police department. Shrewd maneuver on Maynard's part, for as was/is an open secret in most cities, there are two police departments: a Black police force, comparatively new, having evolved as a result of the civil rights movement; and a white force, not new, and to a great extent pledged to the old order. Many a newly elected Black mayor has found him/herself embattled from day one by the reluctance, frequently bitter, ofttimes fierce, of the old-boy network to honor the voters' choice.
No one foresaw that Atlanta's Office of Public Safety would require a big budget, a large staff, a PR director, and a comprehensive body of policies and procedures. Its work had been, under Brown and under his predecessor, Reginald Eaves, of a community relations nature. Until the killers struck.
Eventually, the media began to ask pointed questions about the "conflicts" in the unfolding drama: bad-mouthing between the police and the community; between official investigators and community sleuths and out-of-town visitors armed with hunches; between STOP and organizations self-appointed to raise funds in the parents' names; between the parents and city officials; between local, state, and federal authorities, who each complained that the other agencies were conducting investigations in secret and obstructing their own investigations.
Many in the targeted neighborhoods were willing to be cast as passive spectators to the tug-of-war scenarios written by reporters. But others, not distracted by theatrics, cast themselves as undercover workers who sorted out the growing roster of characters into major and minor players. From the day the case became national news, the cast of characters kept growing -- psychics, suspects, tipsters, bat squads, witnesses, hypnotists, journalists, forensic experts, cult specialists, computer consultants, fund raisers, dog trainers, filmmakers, visiting celebrities. Hundreds of people with theories, alliances, agenda clotted the arena, which began to take on the look of a fiendish perception test, challenging the most discerning eye to lift out of the dense design those players that could lead them to purposeful action. Those community workers who were not stymied by the cluttered ground design began to chart a particular part of the schemata -- the crisscrossing paths of the feds.
Community sleuths clocked federal agents in and out of Atlanta as early as summer 1980. There were feds investigating alleged kidnappings even as the official word to the public and the parents was "runaways." But other feds, using the Missing and Murdered cases as a cover, were engaged in COINTELPRO-like operations, particularly against the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Central American Support Committee. President Carter, who made no secret of his suspicions and alarm over the dangerously clandestine nature of the intelligence operations, was the one hope clung to by citizens subjected to FBI break-ins routinely blamed on burglars. The election of President Reagan, though, changed the picture. Both the intelligence community and right-wing insurgents stepped up their covert activities, overseas and on home ground. And community-based detectives moved further away from the media spotlight in order to keep an eye on the feds.
Agents from the Treasury Department, from the Internal Revenue Service, and from the Securities and Exchange Commission were unusually active in and around Atlanta. Their subject of surveillance was a ring of counterfeiters, credit-card defrauders, junk-bond hucksters, bank robbers, and states' rights tax protesters that was bankrolling the ultra-right network through criminal activity. Agents from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms crossed their path. The ATF was on the trail of ultra-right gangs that were knocking over armories in the Southeast and stockpiling weapons in and around Atlanta in preparation for race war. ATF agents, in turn, were covering the same ground as narcs, staking out private airports in the area. Both the ATF and narcs crossed the paths of INS agents. Immigration and Customs came into the picture in the fall of 1980. Violations of the Arms Export Control Act had been reported in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Those in Atlanta were keeping watch on the comings and goings of international right-wing terrorists who'd been issued visas by the State Department to attend Stoner's convention
the weekend before the Black day-care center exploded.
"Faulty boiler," city hall said. Black vets, other community workers, as well as a number of tenants who'd spotted white men on the roof of the day care, said otherwise. "Not related," said the six o'clock news, quoting the mayor and Commissioner Brown. But enough people felt a connection between the observation "white men on the roof" and the old question "Who would kill Black children?" to give the media a lead.
"Clean bill of health," came the announcement from the governor's mansion in spring after a three-week look at Georgia Klans. "Hothead," said the reporters, quoting no one in particular, in response to Julian Bond's outrage over the "whitewash" report. "War," screamed the Thunderbolt and other fascist rags of the region when the National Anti-Klan Network was formed in Atlanta. "No connection," said FBI director William Webster later that spring as Black citizen groups all over the country were documenting incidents of bigoted violence. "No evidence of conspiracy," as various fight-back groups demanded that the Justice Department check into and stop the escalation of attacks throughout the country based on race, class, gender/sex, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation.
"Opportunists," say the media when STOP persists in its efforts to ally with children's rights lobbyists around the country. "Mercenary motives" and "limelight greedy," the media says of the Atlanta parents. No one seems to remember anymore that prior to the arrest, a member of the Atlanta City Council, not totally persuaded by the Task Force version of the case(s), requested Lee Brown to submit by June 30 a list of all unsolved homicides in Atlanta. Suspect Wayne Williams was formally charged on June 22, making the report moot, as they say - that is, forgettable. Meanwhile, the slaughter continues.
Your daughter calls you from the pool. You close the notebook, rise, and look. Arms spread, legs wide, she's facedown in the water, in a dead man's float. Can you applaud?
A woman hands you the notebook you've dropped and you sit back down on the bench. Your daughter jackknifes under the water and kicks off. She swims under the rope like an arrow, surfaces, and turns to grin at you. Your joints settle back into position and you grimace a smile. Will you find your voice before she climbs out of the pool?