Friday, January 19, 2007

Why didn't that kid in Missouri run away?

You have, no doubt, heard about the astonishing discovery of a second boy when the boy who was kidnapped last week in Missouri was found. The older boy, Shawn Hornbeck, was kidnaped when he was 11; he is now 15. News reports indicate that he was given substantial freedom of movement, and possibly even allowed to use the Internet. It raises the question of why he didn't run away, back to his parents. I don't have the full answer to that question, but I have some thoughts on the subject.

The first thing to remind you of, dear reader, is the trap of false perspective. You ask yourself the question, "If I were kidnaped and living in a terrible situation where I was unhappy, what would I do?" The answer seems obvious: you would flee at the first opportunity. It's an answer that would seem obvious even to an 11-year-old boy. Therefore, it stands to reason that there must have been something we don't know about that held Shawn back. Bill O'Reilly on Fox News speculated that maybe the boy stayed because his abductor didn't make him go to school, but that explanation just doesn't hold together. It is much more plausible to speculate that the boy was in some way afraid of what would happen if he tried to escape. Child predators manipulate their victims, exploiting their strongest hopes and darkest fears to get the victims to submit. I believe that, one way or another, Michael Devlin found an emotional hot button that gave him control over Shawn in ways that are almost unfathomable. Don't forget: Shawn was 11 when he was abducted. Everything since then was skewed by Devlin's influence. Think about everything you learned about life from age 11 to age 15, and now filter it through the diseased mind of a child predator.

I remember a case that was roughly my contemporary: Steven Stayner. A child predator by the name of Kenneth Parnell snatched Steven when he was only 7 years old and held him for almost 8 years. The story was dramatized in a made-for-TV movie, I Know My First Name is Steven, which occasionally runs on cable. In the TV version of the story, Steven was at first terrified to make any attempt at escape. Parnell told him that his parents were dead, or didn't want him any more because he was a bad kid, or that a court had given Parnell custody of Steven. The boy gradually resigned himself to his fate, seeing no safe escape route. If he ran away and Parnell caught up with him, his life would become even worse. It was only when Parnell kidnaped a younger boy that Steven finally felt he had to risk running away. He was resigned to his own victimization, but couldn't bear to watch another boy slide into the same living hell. When Steven returned to his parents, his father, again at least in the TV version, could barely look at his son, seeing only the sexual violation that Steven had apparently not resisted. His own father blamed Steven for giving in.

Going back to the present day, there has also been much speculation about whether Shawn was sexually abused. To answer that question, flip it on its back: why else would a grown man kidnap a young boy and keep him for over four years? Do you think that he did it just to watch Shawn play Nintendo? That's about all there is to say on the subject, except this: Shawn Hornbeck is still a minor, and he is also the victim of the abuse, not its perpetrator, nor even a willing accomplice. Everyone, down to the most predatory of TV news crews, must respect Shawn's privacy. I would hope that when Devlin comes to trial, the judge imposes a strict embargo on publication of any of the sordid details of Shawn's abuse. Making those details public would in itself be child sexual abuse. For the general public, it suffices to say that Shawn was held against his will and in some way sexually abused. The details appeal only to the same prurient interest that apparently motivated Devlin in the first place.

Why didn't Shawn Hornbeck run away? Because he was scared, abused, and manipulated. Maybe you would've done differently if you were kidnaped at age 11, but maybe not. More to the point, if you are a parent or a teacher or in whatever way have a child in your life, what can you do to help that child have the wherewithal to find his or her way out of such a terrible situation? Does your child have a faerie godmother? I'll explain what I mean by that, and how you can be sure that your child has one, in an upcoming post.

As to Bill O'Reilly's suggestion that Shawn found his new home more appealing than his real family, I think that's way out of line. It's not impossible that a home could be so horrific that almost anything would be an improvement, but everything I have seen suggests Shawn prayed for the day he could return home. Billo's analysis sounds rather like saying that a battered wife stays with her abusive husband because she enjoys getting smacked around — it keeps her life from being a bore. In fact, it looks to me like the core of the problem is that, even at 11 years old, Shawn Hornbeck had more emotional maturity than Bill O'Reilly has now.

Update: [2007-10-09] Today we found out why Shawn didn't escape. He feared for his life — a realistic fear, given that Devlin did actually try to kill him — every moment of his captivity. He spent days tied to a bed with duct tape over his mouth. He was in no respect, at no time, a willing participant in his abduction. He was a terrified child, doing his best simply to stay alive.

Let that stand as an object lesson to anyone who listens to the likes of blowhard Bill O'Reilly.

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