Sunday, September 22, 2013


The Face of Fear  (a memoir excerpt)

Emily Rhoads Johnson

MOST CHILDREN HAVE an inborn fear of darkness, and I was no exception. My bedroom closet, which posed no threat during the day, at night became a fearful place that harbored monsters of every description. An evil creature lurked under my bed, waiting to seize my ankles the moment I stepped to the floor. But, like the monsters, most of my childhood fears were figments of my highly active imagination. All but one, that is. And that all-too-real fear was to haunt me for years.  

On a cold night in January, 1946, a six-year-old girl named Suzanne Degnan was abducted from her Chicago apartment. The story hit the headlines of The Chicago Tribune the next morning, and my fourth grade classroom was abuzz with the news. Although it would be months before all the facts came out, we knew that someone had climbed a ladder to the girl’s bedroom window, snatched her from her bed, and carried her off to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what.
My mind churned with images of what it must have been like to wake in the night and find a monster hovering over you. A real one! To start to scream and have something stuffed in your mouth to shut you up. To be carried down a ladder and off into the night. But imagining wasn’t enough for me: I had to know every detail surrounding the case. Every day after school I would sneak down to the basement to search through the newspapers that my mother had carefully hidden away in a barrel. And every day my terror mounted. I read that the kidnapper had left a ransom note demanding $20,000 for the girl’s return. I read that a suspect had been arrested, then released for lack of evidence. I read that more suspects, dozens of them, were arrested then let go when they were found to have reliable alibis for their whereabouts that night.
And then I read something so horrific that it made my blood congeal in my veins: the girl’s severed head had been found in a sewer.
My fear escalated with every new, uncovered fact. Still, I had to know it all, no matter how gruesome. Soon after her head was found, a leg was discovered in another sewer. Then a day or two later, the other leg, then her torso, and finally her arms. The police learned that Suzanne had been dismembered in the basement of an apartment building near the Degnan home. The janitor, an immediate suspect, was quickly cleared, and the manhunt continued. A month after the kidnapping, whoever had committed the crime was still out there somewhere, possibly searching for another victim. And it was going to be me. I knew it.
The fact that my bedroom was on the second floor, miles from the ground, did nothing to dispel my fear of being the kidnapper’s next victim. Climbing the stairs to my room every night became a dreaded ordeal. What my reasoning was I don’t know, but I began closing my eyes when I climbed the stairs, blindly feeling my way upward, one hand on the banister. Once I got to my room I would open my eyes just a slit and gaze at the floor while yanking the window shades all the way down; then I would throw a towel over my dresser mirror. Any movement reflected in the glass, even my own, filled me with terror.  

It was comforting to know that my parents’ bedroom was next to mine and could be reached in a matter of seconds. I insisted that my door be left open at night, but this created another problem. The door of my room faced the front of the house, and over the front door hung a heavy iron lantern on a long metal chain. At night the lantern swung very slightly back and forth, back and forth, sending eerie shadows dancing across my bedroom walls. Sometimes the shadows were long skinny arms that shot out to grab me. Sometimes they crawled over the ceiling like enormous spiders. They darted, shrank, swarmed, slid into corners, ready to pounce. My only escape was to burrow deep under the covers and shut my eyes tight, praying that sleep would take me before the shadow monsters did.
You may be wondering why my parents weren’t more mindful of my fears, and why they didn’t seek help for me. Today when a heinous crime occurs, especially one involving a child, not only are schools quick to talk openly about it and offer counseling, but parents are encouraged to sit down with their children, talk about the incident, and help them work through their fears. Not so in the 1940s. Then, the accepted procedure was to keep silent about any subject that might “disturb” a child, be it financial woes, divorce, serious illness, death, or violent crime. It was in child’s best interest, experts believed, to pretend that such things didn’t happen. Then along came television and the jig was up. With real life right there in front of them on the TV screen, kids could no longer be fooled into believing that deep down every human being has a heart of gold, or that life is all Good Humor bars and roses.
But back to the story of Suzanne and her abduction. After the Chicago police spent nearly six months arresting and releasing 370 suspects, they finally settled on a young man known for committing burglary who had no alibi for the night of the kidnapping. William Heirens, a seventeen-year-old university student, was convicted not only of killing Suzanne, but of murdering two other women prior to the kidnapping. He was given three consecutive life sentences. Until he died in 2012 he continued to insist that burglary was his only crime, and many believe that the newspaper stories of how he kidnapped and murdered Suzanne were complete fabrications.

My own reaction to Heirens’ arrest was overwhelming relief. This man was the killer; all the papers said so, and I had no reason to doubt it. The fear that the crime had instilled in me, however, took years to overcome. I did stop climbing the stairs with my eyes shut and eventually forgot to cover my mirror at night. But it was a long time before the monster in my closet stopped wearing William Heirens’ face.

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EMILY RHOADS JOHNSON is the author of three middle grade novels and a biography about George Rhoads, her artist brother. “The Face of Fear” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress about growing up in Evanston, Illinois, in the 1940s.

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