Albion Monitor /Commentary

Vanished, Dead, Where do the Girls go?

by Sara Peyton

The media blanked out on the rape and focused on the drug taking

There's a pretty, yellow-haired girl with a bright smile from Northern California who vanished early this month. The circumstances are not good. Fed drugs, sexually assaulted, young Raina Shirley was last seen standing neck-deep in bitter-cold, swift-moving river water. Weeks later, all that remains are the teenager's clothing and backpack. The 28-year-old suspect in the crimes is still at large.

"I really hurt for Raina's parents. My sense is Raina's been killed," says Diana Hart. We are talking about Raina's disappearance and how this crime brings up memories, of the murder of Diana's daughter, Iyan Hughes, at age 18 nearly six years ago. Iyan was stabbed to death in her San Francisco apartment. That killing, too, received widespread attention by the Bay Area press.

"Rape is an epidemic in this country. The question is what are we doing to stop it," says Diana. Instead, she observes, we view each of these incidents -- the senseless murder of Iyan, the kidnaping and murder of Polly Klaas, and now the disappearance of 14-year-old Raina -- as isolated events. First we feel shock, then numb.

"In the case of Raina I noticed that the media blanked out on the rape and focused on the drug taking and what a good girl Raina is." That's the added sad component to this story. Raina and another young girlfriend, who was later rescued, willingly took a ride from their alleged future attacker, an apparently known drug pusher, and his 13-year-old nephew.

Is "wild" a place one enters and where death awaits?

For Diana, who since her daughter's death has dedicated much of her time to speaking out against violence and sexual assault of children and women, the image of Raina standing up to her neck in Mendocino County's bone-chilling Eel River, sticks in her mind. "Anyone who has ever worked with rape victims knows how devastating rape is. Who knows what was going through Raina's mind at that point. Still we discount the rape, and focus on the drugs instead."

Yes, the headlines declare Raina is a nice girl with a "wild streak." But what does that mean? Is "wild" a place one enters and where death awaits? Read further into news accounts and learn that the two girls allegedly were given crank or "methamphetamine" and smoked some marijuana with Arnoldo Jorge Manzo, the man suspected of assaulting them.

But what's the point of this type of coverage? Many teens experiment with drugs. This is sexual assault and a possible kidnaping or murder. How does delving into Raina's so-called "wild streak," further the discussion? That's what Diana wonders and I do, too.

Even more disturbing, in the isolated hamlet of Potter Valley some people who have donated money to search for Raina now want their money back. They keep asking if this is as drug problem not a case of abduction reported one family member in the local press. They are looking for someone to blame, and, not surprisingly, Raina has become the target.

Raina is victimized not once, but over and over again, in the media

Not too long ago, Diana saw Dead Man Walking -- a devastatingly honest portrayal of a man (Sean Penn) who is sentenced to death for his part in the killing and raping of a girl and her boyfriend, and the relationship he develops with a nun (Susan Sarandon) who seeks to save his soul before he dies by lethal injection. Spiritual healing, forgiveness, and acceptance are themes that knit this sad, startling story into art.

"I was sick for two days after seeing it. But it was stunning, haunting," says Hart. "During the rape scene everyone was so aware that what was happening was wrong. It wasn't sensationalized. I think every movie goer felt like a victim, and felt for the victims."

What does this vanishing, this killing, this raping mean? Is it enough to note that there's rarely a week that goes by that I don't think of Diana's daughter, and how she was brutally stabbed to death only weeks after graduating from high school, only days after moving to San Francisco; that I know her mother's life is forever changed, like the grief- stricken, profound changes of the victims' parents on view in Dead Man Walking; that every time I hear about another murdered child, girl or boy, I'm swept back into a funeral service so unendingly sorrowful, that six years later the memories of it still make me shake.

To the north, one of Canada's most renowned writers, Alice Munro, is also writing about the disappearance of girls and women, most recently in her fascinating collection of short stories, Open Secrets.

"Heather Bell will not be found," writes Munro in a story about a girl who disappears during an afternoon nature hike. "No body, no trace. She has blown away like ashes. Her displayed photograph will fade in public places. Its tight-lipped smile, bitten in one corner as if suppressing a disrespectful laugh, will seem to be connected with her disappearance rather than her mockery of the school photographer. There will always be a tiny suggestion, in that, of her own free will."

Free will. That's the rub. In truth, sexual assaults, kidnaping, and rape take place whether we are at home in our beds or out for an afternoon adventure. There will always be those who will seek to blame the victim, not the perpetrator. It is in this way that Raina is victimized not once, but over and over again, in the media, and in the hearts and minds of men and women who are having cruel second thoughts about helping to find a young girl with a zest for adventure who was last seen abandoned in a river, her heart broken.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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