The newscaster on the television said the girl disappeared just after Christmas. He said her name, a strange name that sounded French. A photo of the girl flashed on the screen. She had blonde hair like mine. She wore clothes I wished I could wear and makeup I wished I knew how to apply. She was found dead by her father in a dank basement room locked by a tiny wooden latch. It was early 1997, and I was staying at a friend’s house in the city. The television was a treat; my rural home didn’t have cable and our television viewing was heavily monitored. I didn’t see the news often, and when I did, it usually scared me. I hid and listened, my eyes broken sapphires reflecting the television light out from my blanket, my safety shroud. The newscaster said the girl, six years old, six like me, was initially thought to have been abducted from her bedroom and that she had been strangled to death. The newscaster continued to say words I had never heard before: rape, molestation, abuse. I asked my friend what these words meant. He lived in the city and spent his days playing in the streets or parks with older kids. He watched sinful movies and listened to sinful music. He always seemed to know more than I did when it came to the terrible workings of reality.
“It means she didn’t want to have sex and he did it anyway. He forced her. He touched her where he wasn’t supposed to.”
I hid my body in my shroud as tightly as I could and wished as hard for it to morph into a shell, a cocoon, body armor. My world fell open. A blonde girl my age was taken from her bed and sexually assaulted. I had been touched where I didn’t want to be touched. Someone had sex with me when I didn’t want it. I had been forced. Watching the breaking news of JonBenét Ramsey at my friend’s house in a silky sleeping bag on the rickety bottom bunk of red metal bunk beds was the first time I connected the words rape, assault, and abuse to my own situation. Questions burst out of me. When the neighbor boy told me that all kids pulled down their pants and played doctor, or when the boy at church said that this is how we learn, and it’s my time to learn, I could say no?
And more important, they weren’t supposed to be doing this to me? Could I tell someone? Could I tell my friend? I attributed my friend’s knowledge of the world to his unsheltered life in the city. But what if my sheltering wasn’t what kept me from this terrible word he had just named? What if his knowledge was from experience, like mine? Would he still be my friend if I asked him, or would he see me as impure, as sinful as I saw myself?
Lying in that sleeping bag quietly swallowing my questions, I connected JonBenét’s assault with her death as if the events were the only possible trajectory available to me. I was raped, and I thought that soon, someone would come to my window to swoop me out of bed at night and strangle me to death. My house also had a dark, dingy basement room with cold concrete floors. I did not want to be found in it.
When I returned home I prepared for the inevitable in hopes of preventing it. I became determined to make it to my seventh birthday, the birthday JonBenét never experienced. I watched Home Alone on repeat and became obsessed with making my bedroom a fortress. I piled Legos in front of the locked door at night and carefully under the windowsill and around my bed to form a plastic deadfall darkness only I could navigate. I made it to seven. At eight, I stopped sleeping under the window in my room, eventually eschewing the bed for the floor. At ten, I began learning martial arts and formed makeshift weapons to keep under my bed. I practiced getting to them quickly in the dark. I hid weapons in the dark basement room and practiced escaping through basement door as fast as I could. But in the end my preparations failed me. My attackers were not strangers in the dark come to strangle me, but familiars I would for years repeatedly lead past my carefully placed defenses to the safety of my sanctuary.
JonBenét Ramsey haunted me from that moment. JonBenét still haunts me, in checkout lanes, on magazine covers, in videos, podcasts, nightly television specials, true crime novels. I wish I had never seen her because when I do, the moment I learned of her death flashes back in an instant; the ghosts of my trauma are summoned with hers. I feel the suffocating silkiness of the sleeping bag. I hear the creak of the red bunk bed as it banged against the wall where the paint had chipped. I feel my body, the rough contours of its terrible memories, naked, ashamed, and alone.
I developed a dark fascination with JonBenét, a deep connection, an amorphous felt something that bound us but couldn’t be named. This connection usually took the form of avoidance, scared second glances gleaned through laced fingers. I avoided the television specials, shied away from the tabloid magazines in checkout lanes and at gas station counters. The who of her story was not what I avoided, nor the what. I knew the who’s of my story. I knew Mark was soft and caring after, giving me presents and talking as long as I wanted. I enjoyed the talking. I knew Anthony’s breath smelled sour and that his hairy arms and chest were like scratchy wool, too hot and irritating. I knew Michael was mean, rough, hurtful, but that encounters with him were the briefest. I knew what they did, finally knew what it was called, and that it was wrong. The reason I feared JonBenét’s story was the why, a why I couldn’t examine no matter how it was obscured.
As I grew older, I wondered if I had worsened my trauma by avoiding her, forcing the roots of our connection into darker depths. Whether I could ever sound the words, I knew that answering her why would force me to confront my own. Now, more than two decades after the first night I learned of her story, I decide to see if I can name that connection. I hope that by pursuing her, I can begin to control the storm of terror that floods back with her image. Maybe if I can give up her ghost—or at least allow her to inhabit my darkness with me from the furthers corners of my house—I can give up mine. I don’t want to see her, but I need to see her. I need to find out.
From the beginning, the Ramsey story contained the ingredients for the perfect media frenzy cocktail: parents as suspects, allegations of sexual abuse and incest, stranger danger, and above all, a large portfolio of highly sexualized beauty pageant photos. In the current visual commodity culture, the beauty pageant photos are central to the continued value and consumption of the Ramsey story, and thus my constant proximity to her JonBenét’s images. I begin here, back at the bunk beds, back at the now infamous photos. I want to see something more than just terror, and while the immediate physiological response has dissipated, I see something darker beneath the surface. My connection to her begins grows deeper, into a many-veined monster, more than just the haunting of a room, but of a house.
In the widely circulated pageant photos, I see JonBenét presented as both vixen and victim. Her beaming green eyes reveal a girl forced to dress up and parade around on stage for the scrutiny and pleasure of adults. To others, those same eyes apparently reveal a girl who loved the stage life, who by getting dolled up, beckoned these scrutinizing gazes, a girl complicit in her own death.
A photograph of me from the same time shows me in a stuffy shoulder-padded suit and tie with my hair brushed neatly for Sunday church, blue eyes beaming at the camera. Had the trajectory of my life been a linear movement from assault to death as I thought it might, would this photo of me have been circulated? Would I simply have been done up in my Sunday best, an innocent victim? I enjoyed dressing up, wearing suits for Sunday church. I played dress-up with my sister. We staged dream weddings and twirled in floral-print crinoline dresses, my hair in one lopsided pony on top of my head, a waving cornstalk jostling in the endless Ohio summer. I danced and sung in my grandmother’s elegant fur trench coats and muffs, her lavish Fascinators pretending I was Judy Garland. And I liked having adults tell me how finely dressed I was. Would I have been said to beckon the scrutiny of adults, to have been complicit in my own death?
Another photo of me form this time may show me in a long tee in my yard dirty from playing, in a pile of leaves I’d just raked, or reading in a tree. These photos add context to my church suit photo and together form a more complete picture of my childhood. Any photo of JonBenét could have been circulated. Additional photos could have added context to the sensationalized ones. But she did not have a pile of leaves, a long dirty tee shirt, or a tree to read in. Even if she had them, the photos would still hide the truths of our childhoods. Patched together, my photos portray a carefree childhood in the country, not the sexual abuse that defined my life. I have a chance to correct this fallacy, to add context to the various photographs of my youth. JonBenét doesn’t have context, the small gift of memory.
The photographs I see of JonBenét are not of the real girl behind the beauty pageant glamour, nor are they the photos of a girl who was murdered. Instead, photos of JonBenét present a fantasy projection of a girl who never really existed—a soft, beautiful, tragic girl. The pageant photos paint JonBenét as the ultimate docile body, representing the impossible ideal beauty standard for girls. She becomes the symbol of all that good children should be: docile, beautiful, white, wealthy, and belonging to a doting family with enough privilege to keep their home life private from the small circles of society in which they inhabit.
In these representations, JonBenét’s images do more than just present gender ideals; they hide more sinister workings behind them. In representing standard gender ideals and the alleged loss of those ideals to strangers, her images do serious work. Suddenly, she becomes the emblem of national anxieties: strangers coming to infiltrate the sacred privacy of homes, to take childhood innocence, to break families apart. She reinforces the idea that girls must be protected, that docility must be kept away from all things threatening to break it. And that includes bad children, children who are not wealthy, not white, not docile, deserving only adjustment, removal, eradication.
The more photos I see, the more discussions around them I encounter, I see horror feigned at the death of a child no one knows, while her image is eagerly consumed. Meanwhile, policies that restrict the lives of the children everywhere are supported. The stranger danger discourse leads to children becoming more vulnerable, as legislators pass laws that give more rights to families, institutions that govern children’s lives offer more discipline and punishment, and support systems for children are defunded, all in the name of protecting the docile body, the white, beautiful, wealthy—girl—body. Girls bodies are made more docile while all children are put closer to danger by becoming more isolated in the home, a place where Lego fortresses become our wine cellars, our tombs.
Simultaneously, I see images of beautiful girls published next to dead ones, to mug shots, to articles about sexual predators and stranger murders, blurring the boundary between real-life horror and sexual fantasy. JonBenét with her blonde hair, blonde like mine, is used to justify it all. JonBenét becomes the sacrifice used to sustain a system built on the bodies of young girls. Her value comes from what she reveals and what she hides. The sheer repetition of her story tells me that her death, and the death of girls like us, is valuable and that men can and should get away with abusing and murdering us. JonBenét’s photos transform before me from a symbol of plain terror into a more nuanced dread, an illustration of the ways that girls and women’s trauma is open to consumption and therefore scrutiny, interpretation, and performance.
I abandon the photos, hoping the context and interpretation of documentaries can add depth to JonBenét’s story, a meaning I can’t find. I find only the same sad repetition of a tired theme made flashy by cinematography, editing, and sound: the ultimate dead white girl used to induce fear, reinforce the same negative stereotypes and cultural myths that affected me as a child, that still affect me today.
I hear a recent documentary is different. The documentary follows the casting process for a film about the Ramsey murder scandal. Denver-area actors audition for the roles of the real people involved in the case, while the producers interview them about their memories and thoughts about the case. I am initially intrigued by the concept of the documentary. Combining oral history with the casting process creates a unique approach to narrative, structure, and issues of voice and memory. Rather quickly, however, I find the documentary to be as exploitative as the other renditions of her story I examined. That our trauma is open to interpretation and performance is only reinforced in Casting JonBenét.
As part of the audition process, the adult actors reveal painful experiences from their pasts. One actor recounts waking up to find his girlfriend dead next to him in bed. An actress painfully recounts the memory of her brother’s murder in Colorado Springs. Another actress even reveals that her alcoholic father abused her as a child, an event that culminated in him lodging an ax into her skull. The most grotesque of the scenes is when an actor auditioning for a cop spends the interview discussing proper flogging techniques and other facts about BDSM.
After revealing these experiences, the auditions begin. The actresses auditioning for the role of Patsy recreate her 911 call. The actors auditioning for John Ramsey act out finding JonBenét’s shrouded body. In each of these scenes, the actors’ own trauma entangles with JonBenét’sthe emotional responses of the actors, to heighten the drama thatunfolds for the viewers.
I imagine the actors’ experiences flashbacks like me, that the frantic 911 call summons the memories of the actress’s dead brother. I imagine the actor sees his dead girlfriend when he performs finding the blanket on the floor of the wine cellar, and that the JonBenét actresses on set resurrect the woman’s own childhood abuse. What are their sleeping bags? What are their red bunk beds?
The auditioning children do not escape the exploitation in their auditions. In one particularly disturbing scene, the children auditioning for the role of Burke Ramsey try to smash a watermelon with a baseball bat to speculate if Burke could have had the strength to murder his sister. In another equally carnivalesque scene, the children auditioning for the role of JonBenét are put into pretend pageants and made to parade around in the same sexualized circumstance as the real person they portray.
I wonder which child would be forced to play my victimhood, to parade around as the doll my attackers saw me as? Could they summon the taste of sweat, the fear, and regret that sticks to you no matter how you shower? Could they convey your body betraying you, the cool practiced calm of the face not translating to bruised knees, trembling hands, diaphragm spasms?
I wonder which children would act out my memory of going to the police? I imagine a line of children, one after the other, unwilling and unable to voice their horrors, left alone on a cold wooden bench for hours in a poorly lit hallway. I imagine them finally being led into a room where four faces stared back at them. I can see the children staring at their laps, throats dry, their voices a quivering whisper as they recount their story. Will the officer—is it the BDSM cop?—be convincingly cold and unmoved as she files away the report in a cabinet? I can hear the detachment and disbelief in her voice when she delivers her lines.
“That’s fantastical, kid. That was made up, a simple movie plot you probably saw somewhere. Or a dream. Family members don’t do that to one another, kid.”
I see her telling the other officers standing around the room, each, in turn, voicing their disbelief and speculation as to which film I might be referencing. After the police fail to help me, will the producers have the child go to three therapists like I did, just to be dismissed again?
When I tell my story now, instead of support, I’m met again with that officer’s face, the unbroken demeanor that turned to disbelief, then to dismissal. I wonder what clever techniques the documentary of my trauma would use to convey that feeling? Would the children’s performances be believed by viewers? My performances of my own trauma were not believable to them. I was not an innocent girl. I was not JonBenét.
The interviews and reenactments cast more ghosts behind JonBenét’s story, and with them, the ghosts of the actors and viewer’s own trauma haunt every reenactment, as they are woven together in an increasingly complex story where consumerism, trauma, power, sex, and entertainment blend seamlessly.
Casting JonBenét reinforces cultural assumptions about gender, childhood, and sexual abuse. The actors auditioning for the role of John Ramsey uniformly say Patsy killed JonBenét, that a father couldn’t do that to his daughter. The actresses auditioning for Patsy say the same about the Johns. In reality, all parents can—and many do—abuse and kill their children. Viewers tacitly accept these same myths, sympathize with the actors, and continue covering up the dark phantoms lurking in their homes. Viewers all unwittingly become voyeurs, consumers, interpreters, and critics to trauma.
Casting JonBenét illustrates that women and children’s stories, stories like mine, are not trusted. Instead, our trauma needs to be excavated, called forth as interpretable evidence that a material phenomenon has happened. Like a medium come into a house to record a haunting, our experiences are indexed, collected, and filed away to be brought back to offer or deny proof, or to tell a compelling story. We as victims and survivors are expected to allow this process to happen, and to perform our parts to an acceptable standard, a standard we can never fully achieve, in some process that coalesces into a sick form of oppression Olympics, as if as a victim viewer I too am competing for a role where my story will finally be believed. I know from experience it won’t.
I wish I never examined JonBenét’s story. Fancy packaging doesn’t change what her story says to me, what I learned from that newscast when I was six. JonBenét, in her static perfection, her beauty and innocence unsullied by any photos of the actual violence that befell her, becomes the image that all girls should strive towards. She was my emblem, all that I wanted to be as a child, the fantasy perfection I’m told to strive towards now. As a little transgender girl the same age as she was, with the same blonde hair wishing I could wear the clothes she was wearing, striving towards girlalways felt as though I was striving towards death. JonBenét was my cutoff girlhood. She is my silenced trauma. And in representing these things, she becomes the ultimate dead white girl again and again.
In each repetition, JonBenét disappears and reappears in more consumable, tantalizing forms. She becomes a perverse foreshadowing, a dark omen, a threat to what lies ahead for me. My trauma will not disappear and come back in more tantalizing forms. Mine never goes away, never fades from view because it is not allowed to. I, too, must remain the unwitting sacrifice to a system sustained by the performance, interpretation, and criticism of women’s bodily memory. In order to maintain the myth of the innocent girl, I must never begin to detangle the frightful from the quotidian, assault from affection, shame from pleasure. I must remain forever haunted by JonBenét’s trauma as it entangles in the ghostly traces of my own. I must perform my part.
In the final scene of Casting JonBenét, the camera moves room to room through a house slowly revealing the various actors playing John and Patsy Ramsey after JonBenét’s death. The couples are fighting, crying, hugging. Some talk or sit in silence, but all are enacting grief in the various speculated forms it could have taken. The camera slowly pulls away from the rooms to reveal the stage set with the cut-out walls, the camera moving on the tracks: the farce of the scene. In the hallway, a girl playing JonBenét appears dressed in a lavish white sequined gown with feathers. She dances down the dark hallway, enticing the camera to follow. The camera zooms in to a close up of her face as she smiles while dancing and posing. Bernie Wayne’s “There She Is, Miss America” plays in the background. “There she is, America, the ideal, the dream of a million girls who are pretty.” JonBenét was my dream, the dream of a girl who just wanted to be pretty.
I look through old family photo albums searching for myself. My hair has been dyed for half my life, and I want to see the blonde hair and bright blue eyes of my youth. I want to see something in myself at six, to feel myself at that age again. In a small silver photo album tucked in the back pocket of a larger one, I find a photo I know well but thought was lost. I’m six, standing in my grandparents living room on the brown shag carpet in front of the old box television. I am wearing the ballerina outfit from my brother’s My Size Barbie. A pair of my father’s white Haines crew socks gives the illusion of breasts inside the pin-sequined leotard. My bright blue eyes and blonde hair shine in the light. I touch the photo as if to feel the dazzling sequin, the scratchy tulle, the wispy pink feathers. And for a moment, I do feel that time again, my small body, my father’s socks, my unencumbered smile. And I wonder what happened to the girl in this photo, this girl who looked just like me, this girl who never really existed.
Stacy Jane Grover is a transgender essayist from Appalachian Ohio. Her recent work appears in Maudlin House, Belt Publishing,The Grief Diaries, and HEArt Journal. She is completing an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Find her at www.stacyjanegrover.com and on Twitter @groverstacyjane