Author: Robert Kolker
Rating: 4 stars
The disappearance of a young woman named Shannan Gilbert in Long Island in 2010, and the subsequent search for her that revealed the work of a still unknown, and un-caught, serial killer, is one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories I’ve ever heard. I first became aware of the bizarre events through programs on Dateline and 48 Hours. Now New York magazine contributing editor Robert Kolker has penned Lost Girls, an engaging, meticulous account of the lives of the victims, their families, and the investigation that consistently raises more questions than it does answers.
Shannan Gilbert, and fellow victims Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Overstreet Costello, were all sex workers operating through Craigslist. They all disappeared over a three year period and ended up, somehow, in Oak Beach, New York. Because of their lifestyles, the police were generally indifferent to their disappearances, and it is doubtful that, without Shannan, any of the other women’s remains would have ever been found. Shannan’s disappearance is the only one investigators really have any facts about, as they have her own voice on a twenty minute 911 call, and interviews with three people who were the last acknowledged to see her, and yet though her body has been found it was not with the others, and it’s even possible she was not murdered. And the story only gets stranger from there.
It is hard, really hard, not to judge these women for the lives they led. What happened to them was incredibly tragic, but it’s easy to blame them for making their own beds, putting themselves knowingly in danger. What Kolker does best with Lost Girls is give them their stories back, not presenting them as demons or angels, but as very human, empathetic and understandable. Even as I knew what would happen to them, I hoped that it would not. The smallest, strangest facts brought them to life. One was just six weeks older than me. One, in trying to outrun her demons, ended up in my tiny hometown. I could have walked past her in the grocery store. It was little facts like this that helped me realize, though they were addicts and sex workers with very different experiences than me they could have been my friends, my family, me.
The second half of the book gets bogged down in convoluted conspiracy theories, and is unsatisfying as there really is as yet no true conclusion to the story. But overall the narrative is tight, tense, and beautifully told. It’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a beautifully designed book. Each section is marked with a dark grey page that reveals a stark map of where the women came from, and where they ended up. The design and the typography did as much as as Kolker’s words to create a haunted atmosphere. The entire package is very well made.
Lost Girls is a story that will get under your skin. It shines a light on a very dark side of America, and though there are no easy answers here, it’s an important story to tell.