Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scary Clowns and Fictional Reality

by Julia Buckley
A man wearing clown make-up and holding balloons attempts to lure children into his van with missing windows. No, this isn't Steven King's latest brainchild--it's an item from my local news, as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and all of the local television news stations. For those of us who aren't fond of clowns (and for Chicagoans who saw the two faces of John Gacy), this is much too horrifying an image.

It just so happened, though, that this morning was the first time this school year that neither my husband nor I could walk the boys to school. And when I got to work, I realized that I had forgotten to warn the boys not to get into a van with a clown. As if my boys needed to be told that--it's an image from a nightmare. This guy must not be psychologically savvy if he thinks clowns are appealing to kids these days.

Still, when I got home I learned from my husband that the boys had not called him as promised, so I called the school to make sure they had arrived. They had. Relieved, I went about my business until it was time to pick them up.

Once we were home and safely tucked indoors, our new pumpkin lights blazing in the windows, I got a call from my neighbor, Laura. Her daughter Jenny, a sixth grader, had been given permission to walk home and had not arrived when expected. Laura wanted to know if one of my boys would watch her four-year-old while she searched the streets for her daughter.

Images of the clown loomed. "Sure," I said. "He'll be right over." My oldest son went to watch the little guy while his panicked mother drove away.

"My sister is lost," said little Jonah. He stayed by his phone, dialing random and plentiful numbers, my son reported, and then told the buzzing at the other end that his sister hadn't come home. My son let him keep doing it, since it seemed to give him the illusion of control.

Meanwhile, back at my house, a feeling of dread began to creep over me; I thought Laura would be gone for a few minutes, but half an hour went by and she hadn't returned. My son sat at their house, reading his homework. Little Jonah made his emergency phone calls to no one.

Finally, finally, they came home. Jenny had decided to join a new club after school; then she forgot that she said she'd walk home, and was sitting in the school waiting to be picked up.

Meanwhile Laura died a little inside. She said she almost crashed her car on several occasions while she scanned the sidewalk for a sign of Jenny. She experienced that special fear that is always present in a corner of mothers' hearts--and it's kept alive by people who dress as clowns and try to lure children with balloons. Or people who ask if children would like to see a puppy. Or those who say that they have candy, if a child will just follow them.

Children today, thank goodness, understand that they cannot trust any random person, especially not strangers offering presents. And it's not that likely that anything will happen. And yet . . .

Last year the people who sold us our house (and who still live in town) had a terrible experience. Their six-year-old daughter was playing in their fenced back yard. Her mother was in the house and occasionally looked out the window (don't we all do that?)

The little girl, in her sandbox, was approached by a man who looked over the fence. He asked if she'd like to see a puppy. She said yes. He said, "Don't worry, your mom said it was okay." He lifted her over the fence and put her into his car, where he had installed a child seat. He strapped her in and drove away. It all took about one minute.

How often can a story like this have a happy ending? But this one is almost happy. The man drove the little girl from our suburb into Chicago. There, for some reason, he told her to get out of the car. He instructed her to go to a nearby mail carrier and tell him that she was lost. And he drove away.

By the time the girl's parents were contacted, they had been frantically searching for her for two hours. She was returned to them, frightened but unharmed.

I can only imagine the nightmares that mother must have when she thinks about the fact that someone had her child--someone with evil intentions. What had made him let her go? Had someone seen him? Someone who could have identified him later? Had he suffered a twinge of conscience? (I find that option unlikely). Had she made noise and persuaded him that his abduction would not go smoothly?

In any case the girl was returned to her family.

But it reminded me, once again, that there are many people who wear masks--and the one in the clown make-up is the easiest to spot. More frightening are the masks of friendliness that convince innocent children that nothing bad would ever happen.

(art link here)


Bill Cameron said...

The problem with the whole Stranger Danger model is that with children, a person can go from being a stranger to a friend in an instant. "Mommy said you could," has all the validity of mommy actually handing the child over to the care of someone when said by a smiling face. When we say, "Don't go with strangers," children often construct an image of The Stranger, a villainous beast (Tim Curry as It? Those Marcel Marceau faces on the famous edition of Camus's The Stranger back in the 70s?) that the average predator doesn't match.

Julia Buckley said...

Yeah. In a way the clown guy is doing us a favor--at least he's recognizable.

Felicia Donovan said...

Julia, thank you for this. Your words, "Meanwhile, Laura died a little inside," spoke to every parent who has ever experienced that moment of fear. Know that every law enforcement agency takes missing children cases very seriously. I have watched many an officer go out on their own off-duty time to look for kids.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has a great website at that has many safety tips for parents, kids and schools including "Know the Rules: Going To/From School Safely." I would encourage all parents to visit this site to learn more about how to keep their kids safe.

Too many times, parents think their children are safe because they're at home under their roofs when, in fact, their children are communicating with a stranger on line who has befriended them. There's NO reason why a child should not be monitored when on the Internet. There's NO reason why a child should have access to a webcam without supervision. Statistically speaking, children have a far greater chance of being accosted on-line than in person.

Julia, I'm so glad your story had a happy ending...

Felicia Donovan

G.M. Malliet said...

I don't think my parents had to worry so much back in the day. I'd wander in after dark at all ages. Am I imagining it or are there a lot more child abductions than there used to be?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

There's a special place in Hell for people who lure, molest, kill, exploit, and stalk children. I'm sure of it.

Years ago, in Arizona, a neighbor boy was taken from right outside his apartment door. His body was later found in the desert. The entire community "died a little" because of it, including those of us without children.

No matter what caused that monster to drop off that little girl unharmed, I so thankful he did it. And I so thankful your neighbor didn't have to go through the ultimate horror.

Mark Combes said...

I piggy back on Bill and Felicia's comments.

I once saw a piece on TV about this topic where one expert suggested that you train your kids to recognize safe people. Their tactic was to sit with the child in a busy mall and ask the child, "If you were lost, who would you approach for help?" It was uncanny how intuitive the children were. Sad to say, it typically wasn't a male - unless he was a security guard. But they could sense who was good and who was most likely to help them. But I don't think you can trust your kids to "know" this. Training with them helps. Because if they are lost on the street, they will need help. Better for them to get help from the right person.

Oh, and Sue Ann. Amen sister!

Terri P aka WindDancer said...

As Geneva said, we used to wander around in the woods for hours on end. Nobody was afraid. And yet it probably WAS happening. I think its just more out there now - in the news, from the victims etc...

As for clowns, always hated 'em.....

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for these great comments. I agree with you all!

Felicia, that's a great resource. My son is just getting into the web and so of course I have many concerns.

GM, I do think that it's different. Sure, children have probably always been abducted, but my husband is always lamenting to our children (who roll their eyes) that he used to "go out after breakfast, come home for lunch, and show back up around dinner" and all the rest of the time he was just out playing, playing, playing with friends. Even he has to admit, though, that he would not be trusting enough to let his child be gone for four hours without knowing where he was.

Sue Ann, you're so right. There's something evil in the desire to destroy innocence, but perhaps that's a compulsion of those whose innocence has been irreparably destroyed--misery loves company. And what a sad story about that boy.

Mark, I do think that children can innately sense what is wrong, although sometimes they may sense it too late (and it may also depend on their age and their nature).

Terri, I agree. It always happened--and got no coverage. When I think of how many homeless children wandered the streets of the Bowery at the turn of the century (reportedly about 10,000 young people), I wonder how many of them simply "disappeared," and no one was the wiser.