Broad lawns. Fine old homes. Children who go into the world and make their mark. It sounds like either heaven or satire. Or like Kirkwood, Missouri, my hometown.
A few years ago Sports Illustrated concluded a tough-minded examination of high school athletics with a dewy-eyed account of a football game between Kirkwood and Webster Groves, two maple-shaded communities that rub shoulders a few miles west of Saint Louis. I read every word as though it were scripture, and I don't even read scripture that way.
I never expected to read about Kirkwood again, because hometowns don't make news. But a few weeks ago Kirkwood did. As you all read, a pizza-parlor manager named Michael Devlin was discovered with not one but two kidnapped boys. I discovered that if I didn't respond to the town sentimentally I didn't know how to respond at all. Well, he had to live somewhere, I thought. Besides, hadn't he grown up in Webster Groves?
The story got ever more puzzling. The accused perpetrator had not only lived openly with the older boy in an oblivious community, but had lived that way for four years. This boy, soon interviewed by Oprah, had had the run of Kirkwood. As the police reopened old cases and piled on sodomy charges, blog-gers on crimerant.com argued over the wealth of Kirkwood as if real estate values were the key to understanding its behavior. Finally someone declared, "Kirkwood is a beautiful, tree lined, idyllic community." Ergo, it's upper middle class.
An old friend who's lived all his life in the Saint Louis area but never in Kirkwood cast a cold eye on my hometown. "Not only is the last strand of Kirkwood's leafy innocence destroyed, but I have the sense that this case will eventually rock the foundation of all suburban white America. I fully expect at least one made-for-TV movie and probably a Hollywood motion picture about Devlin. He will become a part of America's prime crime folklore."
I forwarded this judgment to old classmates and asked their thoughts. "We were shocked that our dear Kirkwood could house such a monster," wrote Karin, who now sells houses in California but once cocaptained the cheerleading squad. Someone who's now a local business leader said, "Kirkwood remains the same bedroom community providing the same quality of life. The city fathers and the Kirkwood Police Dept. feel that we were treated fairly with the exception of a few prying reporters from New York."
When we think of evil we put it in its place--that's our way of telling ourselves its containable. Jack the Ripper and Son of Sam were products of vast, predatory cities, Matthew Shepard a victim of Brokeback Mountain bigotry. The title The Devil in the White City is an exact example.
Setting the scene, the New York Times called Kirkwood one of the area's "wealthier suburbs," a place that prides itself on its "civic spirit and close-knit neighborhoods." Yet Devlin brought two kidnapped boys there, and no one noticed. "Everyone sees without really seeing," a local woman told the Times.
Classmates still in the area are clearly anguished that this could be. "Kirkwood is still the same wonderful Leave It to Beaver community that you and I grew up in," wrote a classmate who asked not to be named. "It looks to me like Kirkwood just keeps getting better. However, I can't explain how so many people see things and ignore them."
Neither could his wife. "The people who the media chose to interview regarding this story made Kirkwood (and Missouri) look like the rural West Virginia hills. I think this was the worst part for Kirkwood," she wrote. "Shawn was apparently tortured beyond belief the first month after he was kidnapped. . . . Basically, I don't understand how someone can see his photo on posters, etc . . . have police come to the house, and never say a word. Not to mention, going to a formal dance at a private girls' school with a date. It's beyond my understanding. . . . I personally believe the movie and book, etc., will be more about Shawn. Michael Devlin I consider to be just another pedophile who should be tortured and executed."
Classmates who'd moved away mourned a lost way of life. Patty, an educator, wondered, "How many of us even recognize the schoolkids who ring our bells selling whatever for their schools?" Janet, a college professor, asked, "What happened to the freedom that we had as children to play until after dark and roam the neighborhood and beyond. . . . Neighborhoods are no longer looking out for their children."
A classmate who didn't pull up roots urged me not to think badly of Kirkwood and instead be proud that two local policemen "were alert enough to catch this sick, twisted madman." Someone else who'd stayed seemed to be advising me not to romanticize the hold Devlin had over the boys in his home. "I was upset when 'Stockholm syndrome' was injected as the 'media label of preference,'" he wrote. He thought drugs, threats, cages, or ropes were likelier reasons why the boys didn't run away. He went on, "Lots of questions! But the media and the publications industry along with the Michael Moores of our society are going to be making money from this."
A woman who left said she had some idea of what Shawn had been through. "I know that people can have spirits of seduction that are very powerful and can hold others under their influence," she wrote. "Pretty scary, in my opinion. My husband and family came under such an influence once in our lives and it was because there was a weakness in our discernment and something not quite right in our souls at the time."
But only Don, a Mississippi River pilot based in New Orleans, expressed what I'd been feeling. He shrugged. "I lived in a city for 30 years that was famous for crime, and we woke up to crime every morning in the Times-Picayune," he wrote. I get that. Nothing that anyone does to anyone else surprises me.
But in Kirkwood, people were surprised, defensive, angry. Pat, a librarian at the public library, said that the owner of the pizza joint where Devlin worked "has been harassed (windows broken), and his business has slowed considerably. He placed a full page ad in the Webster-Kirkwood Times basically trying to con-vince people that he knew nothing about this."
Jill wrote from New York City. "This story reminds me of the media treatment of 'safety' in NYC after 9/11," she said. "Perhaps because I had been the wife of a NYC police officer I never understood the media approach in those days. 'Our secure world is changed and shattered,' was the short message. The real story, beyond Park Avenue, was that the secure world was a myth for most New Yorkers.
"Did you ever think of Kirkwood as the 'leafy innocence' land? I never did. I recall neighbors abandoning three children because the new boyfriend moved in, messy divorces, suicides, pedophile scares, etc."
I've never thought of Kirkwood as innocent. But I think of it as a place where, when evil is revealed in its midst, folks blink in wonder and blame themselves for not spotting it. And now we know that when violated innocence is revealed among them, they scourge themselves for being so blind.
In places like Kirkwood people want to believe that the trick of looking without seeing is learned only in cities. For old times' sake, I've probably wanted to believe that myself.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP photo/Bill Boyce.