Fairytales – particularly in their original and frankly sadistic glory – have long been a way of teaching children about the dangers that lurk outside the home. “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true / Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too,” the witch warns Rapunzel in Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, still the smartest take on the way these stories both maintain and destroy childhood innocence.
But I never liked fairytales as a kid. I just couldn’t understand the point of these upsetting stories that weren’t even true. Instead, it will possibly not surprise anyone that I was the kind of kid who was obsessed with the news, invariably latching on to stories that involved children who lived lives similar to mine.
The killing of six-year-old Lisa Steinberg in 1987 by her lawyer father Joel was the story that taught me that not all parents were like mine, even ones who looked like them. It also taught me about domestic abuse: the brutalised face of Lisa’s mother, Hedda Nussbaum, stared out from newspaper front pages throughout the case. Nussbaum was an author and editor of children’s books, and I had several of them at home, many of which she lovingly dedicated to Joel. The wolf wasn’t in my bedroom, but his shadow was.
The rescue of Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old who fell down a well in 1987, was another story that fascinated me. I taped daily news articles about it to my school desk until a teacher gently told me that the images of a bandaged baby were upsetting my classmates. This was not the first child-down-a-well news story in the States, and nor was I the first child to become obsessed: in 1949, three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell down a well in California; reports of her ultimately doomed rescue were closely followed by Americans. One was Woody Allen, who immortalised this sad saga in one of my favourite of his movies, Radio Days, renaming Fiscus as Polly Phelps. In it, he shows himself, as a kid, listening to the story with his parents, who cling to him. The message was that the adults cannot always keep you safe, the most formative lesson of all.
The so-called Central Park jogger case was a different kind of story. For a start, the person who the papers reported was the victim – the jogger – wasn’t a child. She was a 28-year-old woman, later named as Trisha Meili. But she worked in the same office as my father, and lived three streets away from us in New York, so felt entirely knowable to me. On the evening of 19 April 1989, Meili went jogging in Central Park, where she was brutally raped and left for dead. Five teenage boys – none of whom were white, as Meili is – were convicted of the crime, despite a complete lack of DNA evidence. They became known as the Central Park Five, and their lives are now told in Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix series, When They See Us. (I still prefer non-fiction to fiction when it comes to crime stories, too, and so lean more towards Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary about the case. But no sensible person should dismiss DuVernay’s beautifully heartfelt take.)
For those who lived lives of privilege like mine on the Upper East Side, the lesson of the case seemed to be that people from the outside were dangerous, even if those people were teenagers, and “outside” meant Harlem, which is almost walking distance. Certainly one fellow Upper East Sider pushed that narrative: Donald Trump took out newspaper adverts demanding the death penalty be reinstated, referring to the boys as “murderers”, even though Meili survived.
I understand people’s queasiness about the current popularity of true-crime documentaries and podcasts; no question, some err on the side of prurience. But the Central Park case is especially instructive because the lesson changed over time: in 2002 the actual rapist confessed, and the five were fully cleared. It was painfully clear that, as well as Meili, there had been child victims here: teenagers who were thrown in prison because they were the wrong colour and wrong social class. It was a shaming lesson for those of us who ever took a narcissistic interest in true crime, searching the narrative only for people who looked like them. (Trump still insists that the boys – now men – were guilty, and that has been another lesson: that a blatant racist can be elected US president.)
I still have a weakness for spiralling out over crime stories about children, but now read them from the paranoid perspective of a parent rather than the wide-eyed one of a child. My early obsession taught me many things, but it also made me certain a bad man was around every corner. I grew up fearful of the world, and now I fear passing this on to my kids. But “How do you say it will be all right / When you know that it mightn’t be true?” Sondheim asks in Into The Woods.
It might be that this is just an error of perspective. True crime, like fairytales, focuses on the villains, forgetting the people who overturn the wrongful convictions, who rescue the children from the wells, who fight the dragons. There are wolves in the world, but also princes and princesses.