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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.

It Comes in Waves

Illustration by Matt Huhnh

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.
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