Shannan wanted acceptance. Maureen wanted a solution. Megan wanted love. Melissa wanted adventure. Amber wanted to be saved. Robert Kolker learned about each of these women while reporting his acclaimed cover story for New York magazine, “A Serial Killer in Common”, and has spent countless hours with their families researching this book, Lost Girls. Over the course of three years, each of them vanished without a trace–Maureen in 2007, Melissa and Megan in 2009, and Amber and Shannan in 2010.
At first, their disappearances barely registered anyone’s attention aside from their families; even the police had a hard time considering some of them to be actual missing-persons cases. Then, last December, the search for Shannan (who disappeared after a bizarre half-hour 911 call as she ran door to door in the quaint town of Oak Beach) led to the discovery of the four others’ bodies along Gilgo Beach, Long Island, an unsettled, overgrown seven-mile stretch of shoreline on the string of barrier islands along South Oyster Bay. Police acknowledged they all fit the same profile–all women in their twenties, all but one under five feet tall, and all prostitutes who advertised on Craigslist.
Now they are all assumed to be victims of the same murderer–the so-called Long Island serial killer. But as Kolker, an intrepid young reporter, began working on the case, it became clear that everything commonly understood about these girls was wrong. They weren’t outcasts. Their families knew them well and loved them and maintained close ties with them. They weren’t classic cases of human trafficking; they weren’t kidnapped or enslaved or held hostage as illegal immigrants. They all came into prostitution on their own, eyes open. What they shared is that they all came from a part of America that the media often overlooks–poor, often rural and white parts of the country, where options have been narrowing for years, and people are forced to make hard choices. No set formula or blueprint exists to explain what brought them all to Gilgo Beach. Instead of easy explanations, we have stories: five stories about five different lives.
Lost Girls tells those stories in richly reported detail and a keen sense of place–a work of narrative nonfiction that will stand beside Methland and Random Family as writing that reads like the best fiction, and as a narrative that reveals parts of America that we are so prone to ignore. Weaved throughout, too, is the true-crime mystery itself, which hinges first on finding Shannan’s body and finally inspecting the various characters that call Oak Beach home.