|Becky (r) and Amy (front)|
What have we learned in these past 40 years? God. Something, I hope. Personally, I now know evil is a force of nature, no more within our ability to deflect than a hurricane or an earthquake. Goodness can be turned aside and silenced, but wickedness is unstoppable. We must deal with it when it blows through, when it shatters our homes and lives. There is no insurance that will rebuild us, so we must struggle on our own to give it a proper meaning and weight, then go on.
Just go on.
On a frosty February morning, thirty years after the crime, I visited Amy and Becky’s grave. A fresh snow had fallen overnight. Approaching the grave, I saw one set of footprints from the path to the grave, where someone had lingered and walked back to the path. I don’t know who visited that morning, but it suggests the memory remains fresh.
And their story continues to echo in the small town of my childhood, and in many hearts, because in death they, too, were invested with memory and hope. To me, they were literally the girls next door, but to everyone who felt the sudden, chilly wind of fear in the hours, days and months after the crime, they represented every girl next door. Their fates were entangled in our fears.
|Fremont Canyon Bridge near Casper, WY|
The first ingredient is calamity. After a dark night of the spirit, resilience is genuine dawn, where we can begin to trust in an orderly and predictable universe again.
Some never survive until dawn, and others survive but never see it.
True survivors of extreme adversity — war, a life-threatening disease, rape, murder, childhood abuse and terrorism, to name a few — are able to repair themselves. The rest die physically, emotionally or both.
What makes a survivor?
Bernard Kempler was born to Jewish parents in Poland in 1936. As a mere child, he endured life in ghettoes and concentrations camps, a barbed-wire escape, a clandestine and penniless existence on the run, in which he dressed as a girl and hid in crawl spaces in burned-out buildings. After the war, he emigrated to the United States and became an eminent Jungian psychologist.
He credits his survival to his flexible psyche as a child, not taking the horrors personally, a sense of spiritual protection, his temperament, and his ability to dissociate from the terror at hand.
When psychiatrist Dr. Robert Lifton studied survivors of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, he also found that truly resilient people have many adaptive mechanisms. His conclusions: They are able to integrate seemingly incongruous ideas and actions, seek consistency and ordinariness, remain connected to human events, and search for spiritual meaning.
Becky tried. For almost nineteen years, she struggled to wriggle free from her demons, waiting for the first light to break, just as she had on her horrific night in Fremont Canyon.
But in the end, the dawn was false.
It never really came.
|THE DARKEST NIGHT|
Evil had existed in Casper, Wyoming, long before me, and all around me. I hadn’t seen, heard, tasted, felt nor smelled it, but it was there. Ronald Kennedy and Jerry Jenkins were from that town, just like me. They’d always been there.
No, this was a story about evil coming to me, to my heart, not my town. It would have come sooner or later anyway, as it does for each of us. Whether it settles in like dust or blasts through like a tempest, we cannot avoid it. We can only build our homes and our hearts strong enough to weather it when it comes, and hope the damage is reparable.
Survival is an instinct, not a choice. Perhaps Becky’s courage came from fear: She was afraid to die. Her only hope — hope distilled to its ethereal essence — was the next breath. Not tomorrow. Not next week.
But we all fall eventually.
Like gravity or wind itself, evil is a force of nature.
Excerpted from THE DARKEST NIGHT © 2007