Amanda Gates

Jacob Wetterling, Free-Range, etc.

I remember vividly when it happened. I remember sitting in the basement watching the around-the-clock (or at least it seemed like it – it would be now) coverage of the missing boy from St. Joseph. I was 8 almost 9. We watched Paul Magers and Diana Pierce of Kare 11 follow the story, hoping he’d be found. My brother was at college at St. John’s in St. Joseph - so we heard his perspective of how that little college town changed on Oct. 22, 1989.

Someone local on Twitter said they don’t remember a bigger local news story from their childhood – and I don’t really either. Maybe there was, but honestly nothing has stuck with me like Jacob Wetterling. And his face. The fact that he was basically my age. The ribbons – all the ribbons. And his mom. His amazing mom.

The case resurfaces every few years and you always hope.

When I saw the news yesterday that they had a new person of interest, my heart dropped. Tears sprang to my eyes. When I saw the eerie resemblance between the police sketch and this man’s picture, I wanted to puke. Because even though I don’t know this family, if you have even one ounce of empathy in your body, you want closure for them.

Paul Magers tweeted yesterday, “The #jacobwetterling case was so impactful - I've always personally believed it was a crime that stripped Minnesota of all of its innocence.”

I think that’s the truth.

I actually have to commend my parents because it doesn’t feel like this changed my childhood. I was coming home on the bus alone at age 10. I was riding a bike or walking to my friends’ houses alone around that same age. There were no cell phones, just the promise to call them at work when I got home. When I was in junior high, I was walking the 3-mile loop around our lake by myself. (I liked time to myself.) I had a great, free-range childhood.

Today as a parent? I don’t think I could be that open or that willing or that trusting of the outside world. It’s a fact that for the last 25-30 years, parents have slowly tightened that grip on their kids. It happened so slowly, but it happened. Even if the world is SAFER than it was “back then.”

Believe me, I WANT to be free-range. I do. I’m a rational person; I went to journalism school and understand the FACTS; I’m married to a rocket scientist who was born to look at things rationally; I know that the odds of abduction or other dangerous things happening to my children are slim to none. I know they’re far more in danger driving in my car with me.

I know.

But when you’ve had a story like Jacob’s in your brain since age 8, then add to it TV shows like CSI or SVU, the 24-hour news cycle, Amber Alerts, and most recently all these stories of CPS being called on GOOD parents who ARE free-range… it’s just like, what’s the point? Because when I read these news stories today about this man and what he could’ve have done to multiple boys (or if it wasn’t him, then SOMEONE did) it makes me want to throw up. If a tighter hold on my kids keeps them safe from this awfulness, so be it.

If something bad happens to your kids under your watch, it feels so different than if something bad happens when you weren’t there – but maybe could’ve been?

This is so often why I try to live in a bubble. Whether it’s irresponsible or not to NOT to think about the hardships and disasters and wars and injustices around the world, sometimes that’s just easier, you know? It’s how you can get out of bed in the morning and drop your kids off at places where they stay all day without you. It’s how you let your spouse go off to work in a dangerous profession. It’s how you watch a daughter go off to college… and arm her with mace.

For as long as I’m alive I will shed tears for Jacob. He represents all the pain of all the kids who have had to endure anything like this. He represents our innocence lost, yet also our fight to hold on. 

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