An eighteen-year old girl drinks heavily at a bar. She leaves with three boys about her age. No one ever sees her again. Her body is never found. Such is the ordinary stuff of crime across the world: a victim and her suspects caught in a prosaic mixture of sex and violence.
Add to that a few elements I’ve left out of my description, however, and we have the stuff of media sensation and obsessive interest: A blond American girl goes to Aruba to celebrate her high school graduation. The night before she is to fly back, she drinks heavily at a local bar. She gets in a car with three locals. She is not at the airport the next morning. Her body is never found.
The facts of the crime remain the same. The temper of the response alters dramatically.
Almost a year later, Natalee Holloway still commands our attention. Small developments in the case are breaking news. The characters are all well known: the grieving and irate mother; the coddled major suspect; the various local authorities. Several have given long interviews on national television; all have lawyers, perhaps one or two have secured agents. As with the runaway bride and Hurricane Katrina, the story itself has become a story, an occasion for the media to examine the way in which it packages and serves up the news. Why do we care about one girl’s disappearance when so much of graver consequence happens all the time? Why Natalee Holloway?
One answer to this question has been the much-discussed “missing white girl syndrome.” A blond and attractive teenager disappears and all sorts of conscious and unconscious associations are made. Natalee Holloway swiftly turns from a particular individual, with thoughts and desires and experiences of her own, to an iconic vision of American girlhood: blond, young, pretty, and almost certainly dead. Like many things, our icons are easier to see in their twilight. Natalee is somehow blonder in repose. And so the story isn’t really about one person’s disappearance. It is about everything that is conventionally American thrown into horrible distress, apple pie tossed to the wolves.
Lurking below the interest in iconic American girlhood is something darker and less easy to talk about, at least on prime time cable. Natalee may or may not have been raped. She may or may not have had consensual sex with one, two, or three boys. One of them licked Jello shots off her stomach earlier in the evening. This much is known. She left a tourist bar named “Carlos ‘n Charlie’s” at around 1:30 am on May 30th, 2005. Her last recorded act was to get into a car with the three suspects. After that, we are left to our bleakest imaginations. In other words, the Natalee story lingers in part because of its strong undercurrent of sex and mayhem.
Natalee’s blondness and our penchant for erotic mayhem are not so separate. They are two sides of the media frenzy that has become the Natalee Holloway story. We turn girls into icons and then like to think of them in the most degraded of circumstances. Even a casual observer of trends in recent pornography knows this all too well. Prurience and voyeurism are intrinsic to this case and central to its apparently unending allure. Our white girl has not simply gone missing. She is now at the dimmer reaches of what we can speak about and what we can imagine. The combination is toxic and intoxicating.
To these associations, I would add one more element that is essential to the Natalee phenomenon. The crime remains without a body, some of the most basic facts available only through conjecture and inference. This way it is both a perfect and flawed crime story. The same public that watches Greta Van Susteren incessantly dissect the case on On the Record tunes in regularly to CSI, where virtuoso experts discover incriminating evidence on or about the corpses of victims. But Natalee’s body is still out of reach of criminology and forensic science. Nothing is resolved or certain. Natalie did or did not have sex, was or was not raped, died by accident or met foul play. According to the latest version of events, she may have expired from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Without a body, there is no way to know for sure.
Natalee still holds her secrets. Irresolution and uncertainty allow for the infinite variety of crime-narratives to play themselves out—among talking heads, in our imaginations. Yet irresolution and uncertainty also frustrate an audience that expects closure. We have grown used to bodies that talk to the police and doctors and scientists. The Natalee Holloway story places her body at the center of events—she was or was not inebriated, did or did not have sex, met or did not meet with violence—yet renders it disturbingly mute.
We may never hear Natalie speak. What we know is this. An eighteen-year old girl drank heavily at a bar. She left with three boys about her age. No one saw her again. Her body has yet to be found.