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Lilly Dancyger | Longreads | September 2019 | 11 minutes (2,790 words)
I never met Swedish journalist Kim Wall, but a few months after her mutilated torso was found in 2017, I dreamt that I’d been the last person to see her alive. The torso, riddled with stab wounds, washed up 11 days after she’d boarded a submarine belonging to Danish inventor Peter Madsen, to interview him for a story. In part of the dream, I saw myself on security footage, running, frantic, trying to find someone to tell what I knew about where she was in those 11 days she was missing, before she was officially one more murdered woman in the news. I woke up like coming up from an ice bath, gasping, eyes watering, still feeling a crushing guilt for letting her get on the submarine in the first place; for not somehow knowing what was going to happen, and stopping it.
When my cousin Sabina was murdered in 2010, I called the detectives handling the case to tell them about the dramatic break-up she’d recently been through, to say I didn’t know anything for sure but they might want to talk to her ex. She was popular in the club scene in Philadelphia, a budding model whose gigantic smile and fluttering eyelashes surely inspired some jealousy. I didn’t know all of the social dynamics of her world, but I told the detectives everything I could think of that she’d told me. I ran through possible scenarios of advances rebuffed, territories infringed upon, of elaborate grudges and plots. I terrified myself with thoughts of what petty trifle someone had decided was worth such a glowing 20-year-old’s life. People have murdered for the most insignificant things, and I wondered if I’d spend the rest of my life saying “over a guy” or “over a modeling job.”
I couldn’t face the idea that I would never see her again, so instead I focused on what I could do to help catch whoever did this; and what I maybe could have done, should have done, to prevent it from happening in the first place.
I was in another state when she was killed, but I wanted so badly to go back and walk Sabina home that night. The guilt of the inability to time-travel. Six months before she died, she posted a photo on Facebook from when she was about 2 and I was about 3, of me hugging her protectively while she leaned into me. She captioned it “you may have had a big sis, to protect you, but I had my big cus, and that was all I needed!” I pull it up periodically to torture myself.
Police eventually identified Sabina’s killer as an 18-year-old kid in her neighborhood, not connected to her in any way. He left her body out in the open to be found in a vacant lot next to her apartment building, where we’d once barbecued, mosquitos biting our legs in the twilight. We were tweens then, eating corn on the cob while our mothers and our uncle and her stepfather (my godfather) grilled burgers and drank beer out of green glass bottles. I remember fireflies, and an old boom box. Now I can’t return to that memory without her naked and bruised body splayed limp at the edge of the image.
Police caught him because of security camera footage that showed him following her. He denied it, but they found his DNA on her body. Later, at trial, his lawyer claimed she was a prostitute. That she’d had consensual sex with him, in an empty lot next to her apartment. In the dirt. They didn’t have an explanation for the bruises; for how she ended up dead.
After Kim Wall’s mutilated torso was found, Madsen claimed she’d been killed in an accident aboard the submarine. All he’d done, he said, was dispose of the body. He had no explanation for the stab wounds, or the evidence that she’d been sexually assaulted.
I recounted the story of Kim Wall’s death to my husband upon waking from my haunted dream, and he asked, “That’s what happened in your dream?” “No,” I said. “That’s what really happened.”
She was really killed on a submarine. Captive. Under water. Sound-proof. She was really taken apart piece by piece by a man who wasn’t satisfied just by taking the life out of her body. He had to tear her apart. And he really claimed, when cornered, that she’d died in an accident.
I can see why my husband couldn’t tell right away which part of her story was real life and which part was panicked nightmare.
When we went to the funeral home, I wanted to see Sabina’s body. My mother hadn’t let me see my father’s body when he died when I was 12, saying she didn’t want that image in my mind. But I decided that this time, as the big-sister figure, I owed it to Sabina to say goodbye in person. If she had to live through those last moments, I could at least stand to witness their impact. I took two steps into the room and saw the top of her head, where she was lying on a raised platform, facing away from the door. I saw just her hair — her long, thick, coarse, Filipino-Italian hair — and I turned and ran. Out of the room, out of the building.
Once, when we were teenagers sharing a bed during a visit, Sabina woke me up in the middle of the night and said I’d been petting her hair in my sleep like she was a cat. We laughed and I apologized, and then I pet her hair a few more times for good measure before we snuggled up and went back to sleep. In the first dream I had about her after she died, we were backstage before the performance of her life, sitting on a little couch with her head on my lap, and I was petting her hair. I was comforting her; she was nervous about the performance and sad because we knew that after she went on stage this last time, we’d never see each other again. I woke up with the texture still tingling my hands. I saw that hair on the corpse in the funeral home, and I pictured that hair sticking to the tears and sweat on her face as she fought for her life. And I ran full speed in the opposite direction like a bomb was about to explode, my body fleeing before I even realized what I was doing.
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I picture fists pounding, her face contorted, in violent flashes that slam into my mind sideways at random moments, and I wonder if Kim Wall’s family pictures blades hacking in the same way. I’m sure they do. They picture water and exposed bone like I picture an empty lot, fingernails clawing at dirt — images impossible to push out of your mind.
I didn’t understand at first why the story of Kim’s disappearance caused such a deep, full-body shudder in me. I didn’t know her, so I thought I had no right to be so affected by her death. My own baggage and projection and pain had no place in Kim’s story, so I tried to shove it down. But whether I wanted to or not, I had a physical reaction to every new piece of Kim’s story, every development in the case against her killer. Every time I opened Facebook and saw the face of this woman I never even met on news stories and fundraisers, I felt sick. It was the same feeling I got when Sabina’s story was in the news and a new update would pop up with her smiling face and the word MURDER in bold underneath it, and I would close my laptop and need to lie down.
I never read the news stories about Sabina. I couldn’t — the images in my mind were already too detailed, too horrific. But I saw the headlines that called her “Slain Waitress” and “Victim,” a dehumanization I couldn’t stand, but that was almost preferable to the headlines that used her full name, cementing her legacy and forever associating “Sabina Rose O’Donnell” with the monster who shoved her down in the dirt and choked the life out of her, just because he could. Just because she was a woman, and he was a man. Every time someone shared a news story about Sabina, I pictured her last moments and I got that cold, tingly, seasick feeling all over my body.
I saw the headlines about Kim Wall as the updates trickled in over the course of a year: She’s been missing for three days. She’s been missing for a week. She was last seen boarding a submarine. She’s been missing for ten days and is presumed dead. A bloody torso was found. It’s hers. She’s dead. He’s claiming it was an accident. He’s been arrested. He’s been convicted.
Every time someone shared a news update about Kim, or the scholarship fund that had been set up in her name, I felt that same cold and tingly feeling, and I pictured blades hitting bone, echoing in the underwater metal of a submarine; imagined how she must have felt when she realized what was happening to her and that there was no escape route. Each update came days, weeks, sometimes months after the last, unexpected, out of nowhere — grief and horror that came in waves, like body parts washing up on shore.
Despite the nausea, I became fascinated with Kim’s story; I was determined to see her as more than “Slain Journalist,” just like Sabina was more than “Slain Waitress,” and I read the details of her story even as they seeped into my dreams and brought my panicked guilt and terror sloshing up to the surface.
A week after Sabina was killed, my whole family was huddled in my aunt’s big, creaky house in Philadelphia, the first time we’d all been together since Sabina’s 5th birthday party, 15 years earlier. The bittersweet, gutting pain of knowing how pleased she would have been with herself that she’d managed to get us all together tingled under the surface of the more immediate grief. The baby of the family, she always wanted us all together; she was the only one none of us had ever fallen out with.
My mother, my aunt, and I were driving somewhere, my mother behind the wheel and my aunt — Sabina’s mother, my mother’s little sister Rachel — in the passenger seat, when Rachel got the call from the coroner with the results of Sabina’s autopsy. She listened for a few moments and then, in a high-pitched, shaking voice, she asked, “Was she raped?”
Until that moment, I’d willfully blocked out every detail I could. I didn’t want to know if she’d been raped, because in my gut I knew that she had. I knew that once I let even a glimpse of her life ending that way into my mind, I would never be free of it. It would break over me in waves and waves for the rest of my life. I’d left the room when detectives came over with updates, I’d turned off the TV when news reports came in, and I’d flipped newspapers face-down on the table. I didn’t want to know anything more than the inescapable fact that she was gone.
When Rachel asked the question, I panicked like a trapped animal, shrieking, “Pull over, pull over!” to my mother as she sped down the highway. I wanted to get out of the car before the person on the other end of the phone answered; I wanted to walk along the side of the road and never have to know. But then Rachel screamed, a deep, guttural, violent wail, and it was too late — I knew.
In the years that followed, there was still a part of me that was desperately trying not to know. I didn’t read the news articles. I tried as hard as I could to not even think the name of her killer, or to picture his face. I accidentally saw a photo of him, just once, and squeezed my eyes shut so tight it hurt.
When Sabina’s killer was brought to trial, I went to a therapist to help me decide if I should go or not. “Do you feel like you should?” The therapist asked. “Yes,” I said. “I should, but I can’t.” I felt as though I should be there, like the jury should see as many of Sabina’s family members as possible. Like it would be a way of showing up for her, even if it was too late to keep her safe. But the idea of sitting in the same room as her killer, of giving a face to the monster, of hearing detectives and a coroner explain in excruciating detail every single thing that happened to her… I threw up a splash of bile in the therapist’s little blue plastic trash can just thinking about it.
The day before the trial started, I woke up with the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life — my body’s way of making sure I didn’t change my mind and get on a bus to sit through something that would shatter me forever. Instead, I stayed home and watched episode after episode of Law & Order: SVU on Netflix, willing myself into a world where bad guys are caught and then the episode ends. Trying to slip into a world where rape and murder are plot devices enacted on actors who walk away unharmed at the end of a day of filming. I was trying to fill my mind with so many images of fake horror that they would crowd out these images of real horror that wouldn’t let me sleep.
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I kept trying, for years; shaking my head like a nervous tic when images of Sabina in that lot crept into my mind. Still trying not to know the details; as if not knowing them could make them less true. I couldn’t bring myself to visit the lot where she was killed, which has since been turned into a rose garden in her honor, afraid to stand near the exact spot where she died, to fill in any more detail in the images in my mind, to feel the echo of her crying for help.
When Kim Wall disappeared and her face was everywhere, the dam cracked. The defenses I’d built up started to crumble because this new story brought crashing waves of the same nausea, the guilt, the images that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t understand why, until Kim came to me in a dream and I remembered that feeling of panic, that feeling of “It’s too late, I should have stopped it,” and knew it was my mind making her into Sabina. I read the details of her story because still, years later, I hadn’t been able to force my eyes open to a single article about Sabina’s murder, but this, I could almost handle. Kim’s story was obviously so much more real than Law & Order, but it was not as immediately, crushingly real — for me — as Sabina’s.
I had the distance to be able to read about her death in the news without the horrific images mixing with happy childhood memories. I could read about her murder, even picture it and feel nauseated, without remembering the texture of her hair or the flash of her smile or the sound of her laugh. I could think of her terror without a lifetime’s worth of guilt that it had been my responsibility to protect her. I could know she was afraid and hurting in those last moments without remembering every time before that when I’d been there to comfort her. I could picture the submarine where she died without also remembering laughing with her in that same spot. But I also remind myself of the people who loved Kim, and know that to them, she was so much more than a smiling photo under a grisly headline.
There is still a part of me that is clenched tight, trying to fend off the full truth of what happened to Sabina. I don’t know if I’ll ever read the stories about her death or want to know any more details. But reading about Kim and feeling a slightly less intense version of that same nauseous horror loosened something in me, just a tiny bit. Just enough that maybe, someday, I’ll be able to go see Sabina’s rose garden.
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Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor and columnist at Catapult, and assistant books editor at Barrelhouse. She’s the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger.
Editor: Sari Botton