Unless you haven’t picked up a paper or watched the news in the past couple of days, you’ve probably heard about the shocking story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the 11 year-old California girl who disappeared in 1991, only to be found last week, kept in a backyard shed by her kidnapper, 58 year-old Phillip Garrido. Despite being held captive for more than half of her life, sexually molested by Garrido and even being forced to bear two of his children, Dugard apparently made no attempt to flee, or even to reveal her identity; investigators are just barely scratching the surface of what promises to be a sad, twisted story of emotional manipulation, brainwashing and other unspeakable acts committed against her. Hortense at Jezebel writes about what may be the strangest aspect of the story so far: that Garrido kept his young victim in the same house the entire time, without his neighbors aware of what was happening.
When Phillip Garrido’s neighbors learned he’d been keeping kidnap victim Jaycee Lee Dugard in his backyard for 18 years, their reactions ranged from shock to horror to the admittance that they’d always thought there was something strange about “Creepy Phil.”When I read some of these reactions, particularly a quote by neighbor Heather McQuaid-Glace, who told the New York Times that though she knew Garrido was a sex offender, “We never heard screaming; we never heard anyone crying for help,” and so she never thought there was anything to be particularly worried about. It’s a chilling quote in that one can’t totally fault McQuaid-Glace for her reaction: she claims that neighborhood children were rightfully warned to stay away from the man, but with little evidence of any crime to go on, aside from a damning criminal history and being “creepy,” it’s hard to blame McQuaid-Glace, or any of Garrido’s neighbors, for not breaking his doors down, vigilante-style, to look for evidence of any wrongdoing.
I admit to initially being just as baffled as anyone else that Garrido was able to get away with it and other generally creepy behavior for that long, and then, like Hortense, it occurred to me: how well do any of us know our neighbors anyway? Can we say unequivocally, without question, that our next door neighbors aren’t up to anything nefarious? To say no makes us nervous, as it suggests we may not entirely be in control of our surroundings, but to say yes means that we’re always aware of what our neighbors are doing at all times, and that’s creepy in and of itself.
When I was a child, I always found the TV sitcom cliche of the wacky next door neighbor bursting into the main characters’ house unannounced a bit strange. I knew that, even played for laughs, Gladys Kravitz peering at Samantha and Darren’s house with a pair of binoculars and reporting their activities to her husband was really kind of weird. On TV and in the movies, neighbors always seem to play two roles: either they’re close friends who are always there to lend an ear over some Taster’s Choice, or they’re rivals who get into bitter arguments because someone’s tree extends four inches over someone else’s property line. Whatever the case, they’re impossible to ignore, and yet for much of the time I’ve lived on my own, that’s exactly what I’ve done, and I expect that I’ve been equally ignored as well, which is fine by me. This may sound rude, perhaps even a bit antisocial, but I refuse to make apologies for it. I’m a very private person, particularly in my everyday, offline life, and I’ve never felt a great desire to befriend everyone I meet, nor do I make a point of drawing attention to myself. It comes with the territory of being shy. Now that’s not to say that if a neighbor comes to my door asking me to call the police, or even to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar that I’m going to refuse them. I may keep to myself, but I’m still a good citizen, and being that I’m a generally nice person I’ll also smile and nod at my neighbors, but that’s pretty much the extent of my interaction with them.
I have to kind of laugh a little bit when I watch crime documentaries, where some horrible thing happens in some pastoral small town in the Midwest, and the town is invariably described as “the kind of place where everyone knows everybody.” That sounds dreadful to me. I don’t want everyone to know my business, nor do I want to know everyone else’s. And yet, attitudes like mine are what enable people like Phillip Garrido, or other common, everyday child molesters and wife beaters to get away with their misdeeds. But what can you do? If you find out a neighbor is a convicted sex offender, the best you can do is tell your children to stay away from him. You can’t follow him around, tracking his every move, that’s the law’s job, even if it’s an assignment they bungle far too often. As satisfying as it might be, you’re not allowed to harass them or try to run them out of town on a rail, Old West style. Even if you have a hunch that something might be going on, cops don’t respond very effectively to hunches. Hell, cops don’t always respond very effectively to actual evidence. In most cases you just have to let said neighbor go about his everyday business, hoping that he doesn’t molest or rape anyone, or, you know, kidnap a girl and keep her in a shed.
It’s easy for us to shake our heads and wonder how Phillip Garrido’s neighbors couldn’t have realized what was going on in his home. We’d like to think that, had it been us, we would have noticed there was something wrong years ago and reported him. Keep in mind that, despite having a reputation as being the neighborhood weirdo, which every neighborhood has (and if you don’t know who yours is, it might be you), Garrido lived a fairly normal everyday life, to outward appearances. He owned his own business, he had a wife, he had children, he didn’t make trouble with his neighbors. He even introduced Jaycee and the children he forced upon her to his customers, allowing the younger girls to attend birthday parties, where they were described as seeming not at all out of the ordinary. He was maintaining the classic child molester/potential serial killer modus operandi of drawing as little attention to himself as possible. It wasn’t until just a few days ago, eighteen years after the fact, that Jaycee found the courage to admit who she was and to even begin hinting at what she had been put through. Undoubtedly Garrido’s behavior troubled his neighbors on occasion, but they had their own lives to deal with, as we all do. What makes any of us think we would have seen something that no one else did?