“Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery”
Americans have a confused notion of prostitution. One perception is shaped by the “happy hooker” myth fondly represented in movies and books. (Remember Pretty Woman?) Another perception stigmatizes the far bleaker, desperate life of the women (and some men) who sell sexual favors. These women tend to be in their 20s, from poor or working-class backgrounds, often lost to their birth families, filled with dreams of a better, more exciting life; yet often, they’re struggling with drug addiction, failed relationships, physical abuse, and sometimes have children to support. They are all too often lost souls who have nothing left but their bodies to sell—capitalism’s throwaway human commodities.
Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is a moving account of the lives and deaths of five prostitutes who represent the sad reality of sex work. The book is an act of resurrection, of turning women who are often dismissed as things back into human beings, people with real lives.
Kolker, a New York Magazine writer, has long followed the case. The book is a compelling, sympathetic yet imperfect account of the still unsolved murders of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Amber Lynn Costello and Shannan Gilbert. Their dead bodies, along with six others (including that of a male trans-dresser and an infant), were found along Ocean Parkway on the south shore of eastern Long Island, NY, between 2010 and 2011.
The author brings enormous compassion and storytelling skill to the reconstruction of the lives and deaths of these women. He draws heavily upon in-depth—and evidently painful—interviews with family members, friends, business associates, law-enforcement officials and residents of the nearby town of Oak Beach. He successfully evokes much of the tension, bitterness, and finger-pointing that surround these crimes.
Kolker argues that the social stigma toward sex workers shaped the treatment of these crimes. Suffolk County police dismissed repeated missing-persons reports filed by the women’s loved ones. Attending a vigil for the women, Kolker quotes a news cameraman’s complaint: "I can't believe they're doing all this for a whore."
The author’s deep sympathy for the victims may explain his split authorial voice, which in turn almost divides the book into two separate narratives. The book’s first half provides in-depth portraits of the five victims’ individual lives, including their early family histories, medical issues (bipolar and ADHD, for example), and rape trauma. It also details how each found her way into the flesh trade and managed her career as an escort, easily facilitated through Internet sites like Craigslist and Backpage.
Halfway through his story, Kolker shifts from a third-party reporter to a first-person participant. Up to this point, he was an outside observer, carefully reconstructing the lives of his principal characters. Then, without discussion, he steps into the narrative. As he states, “I suggested that they [the victims’ families] come to New York for a group interview to help publicize the vigil and put a human face on their daughters and sisters.” The second half of the book traces the efforts of the victims’ families and loved ones—and Kolker’s own actions—to rally support, including media attention, for the dead women. Their public pleas forced law enforcement to finally search for and find the dead bodies. But police have not yet found the killer(s). There is no Hollywood happy ending to this story.
The author appears to want to tell more than a local true-crime story, a simple who-done-it. By subtitling the book “an American mystery,” the author seeks to give these unsolved killings greater resonance. Yet Kolker doesn’t achieve this. In particular, the book lacks an important contextual frame: little is said about the fairly widespread phenomenon of killing prostitutes, often known as “lust murder,” and the criminals who commit these heinous acts.
At the heart of any great crime mystery, there are two important questions about the perpetrator: who and why? Kolker is concerned about the who, the likely male murderer. He gives little attention to the why, the psycho-sexual pathology that drives (most often) men to kill female sex wokers.
In 1886, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing introduced the medical diagnosis “erotophonophilia” or “lust murder”; he defined it as "lust potentiated as cruelty, murderous lust extending to anthropophagy”—or cannibalism. It expresses what some analysts call “sexual sadism,” a violent act culminating in the predator’s erotic fulfillment and the death to the female victim, often a prostitute because she is an accessible target. Other analysts argue that such murder need not be sexual, an expression of sadism, but rather the infliction of power, a de-eroticized exercise of tyranny imposed by a male who feels inadequate in the face of the interpersonal and social challenges confronting him.
Every few years, the U.S. is beset by reports of a wave of female sex worker killings. For example, in 2011, Walter Ellis, a 50-year-old African-American, pleaded guilty in Milwaukee, WI, to the killing of six black female prostitutes. A few years earlier, between 2006 and 2007, the bodies of four prostitutes were discovered in and around Grand Rapids, MI, and four other bodies of apparent prostitutes were found near Atlantic City, NJ. In 2008, Jacob Etheridge murdered two prostitutes in Ogden, UT. And in 2009, the remains of 11 women reputed to be prostitutes were found buried near Albuquerque, NM. Kolker doesn’t mention these crimes. Nor does he mention Gary Leon Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, who in 2003 was convicted of the murders of 48 prostitutes; Ridgway told a judge he targeted street walkers “because I thought I could kill as many as I wanted to without getting caught.”
Kolker acknowledges two other Suffolk County serial lust murderers, Joel Rifkin, who killed 17 prostitutes, and Robert Shulman, who murdered five prostitutes. But his nearly exclusive focus on the Long Island killings blinds him to the larger pattern.
The serial murder of sex workers is a deeply disturbing phenomenon. Kolker’s Lost Girls is a moving testament to the issue. He gives meaning—if only posthumously—to five women’s lives. However, their work in the flesh trade and their deaths exist within social and historical contexts. The book would have benefited from a concluding coda, a fuller reflection on how these women’s lives—and deaths—figure into a larger picture. Something else, something deeper, links these women to the untold number of sex workers who are murdered. Kolker paints one important piece of this disturbing puzzle; there are still others to be considered.
David Rosen is a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail books section. To see more of his work, check out DavidRosenWrites.com.