The young women of Robert Kolker’s new book have problems. They also have dreams, talents and drive to overcome those issues. But that’s not how their lives worked out.
Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is a highly sympathetic and thoroughly researched look at five young women whose bodies were found on secluded Long Island beaches in 2010 and 2011. Kolker traces the life of each girl, from childhood trauma and family difficulties to the decisions they made to begin working as escorts, posting ads on Craigslist and meeting strangers for sex.
Their lives are heartbreakingly similar, marked by troubled families, childhood abuse or neglect, poverty and disillusion. Kolker is a careful writer and researcher, and he writes that all of the victims had someone who loved them, someone who tried to steer their lives in a different direction. But each made her own tragic choice.
The details that Kolker has dug up paint a far more nuanced picture of each young woman than any screaming headline could. Maureen Brainard-Barnes loved to write as a child and enjoyed reading to her daughter. Melissa Barthelemy graduated high school with As and wanted to open a beauty salon. Shannan Gilbert wanted to play the role of Annie in her middle school play because the orphan’s life mirrored her own, but she stole the show playing the head of the orphanage. Megan Waterman was wild, carefree and fearless. Amber Costello was sweet, sensitive and eager to please.
But as young women, they struggled with money. Some got involved with drugs, and all of them met people who could solve their problems — for a price.
Kolker traces each young woman’s evolution from promising but troubled child to increasingly vulnerable sex worker. He examines the changing world of prostitution and how Craigslist and Backpage freed prostitutes from the abuses of pimps and madams and the dangers of walking the streets but also left them vulnerable and alone in the homes of strangers.
“Escorts can work from a hotel with a laptop, or in a car on a smartphone. Alone. A missing girl is only missing to the people who notice,” Kolker writes.
He also writes movingly about the families of the young women, how they come together to push authorities to find the killer and how they fall apart under the strain. Family members and friends opened up to Kolker, allowing him to create his nuanced profiles of the young women and track their movements up until they disappeared.
Constructing a narrative on an investigation with no conclusion is difficult, and Kolker struggles a bit toward the end of the book as he explores various theories and potential suspects while explaining what police did and didn’t do and the sometimes strange things they said about the case. At one point, investigators concluded that one of the women might not have been murdered at all; they theorized that she had become disoriented and hysterical and wandered into the marsh, where she drowned.
“The police explanation of hysteria not only didn’t make sense; it was practically Victorian in its view of prostitutes, as if Shannan had died of sorrow, or fright, or sadness, or heartache,” he writes. “Against all common sense and with willful ignorance of Shannan’s own words that night, the police seemed to be saying that Shannan Gilbert died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life on the streets.”
Kolker rejects that, just as he rejects those who would blame the families of the young women, the women themselves, Craigslist or friends who helped them get into prostitution. He notes that all of the victims were all adults, and none were trafficked, nor were they “lured or overtly pressured” into working as prostitutes.
“To suggest that someone should have stopped them is to believe that they could have been stopped,” he writes.
“The issue of blame itself may be a trap,” he adds. “They weren’t angels. They weren’t devils. . . . But to their loved ones, some part of each of the girls remains elusive.”
In the end, Lost Girls simply ends. Until the cases are solved, there’s nothing more to say. But Kolker’s detailed examination of the cases and his gentle descriptions of the women and their families is a worthwhile read.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.