In 2010, police discovered the bodies of four young women on a remote Long Island shoreline. Writer Robert Kolker decided to ditch the more sensational serial-killer hunt potboiler for an in-depth look at the lives lost. Amber, Megan, Melissa, Maureen and Shannan (whose body was found in 2011) are all petite, pretty, in their 20s… and escorts. Their disappearances—like those of Robert Pickton’s victims, or the three abducted women recently rescued in Cleveland— barely register with the police and media.
Kolker resurrects them—whether it’s Melissa doodling plans for her future salon, or Megan cannonballing into a hotel pool—via extensive interviews with family and friends. “I hope it helps people understand the worlds these women came from,” he says. Indeed, it’s impossible not to see yourself in their ambitions and struggles. “Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decide to go into business for themselves. Prostitution is mainstreaming. More women who lead normal lives are drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise.” The investigation was “hobbled from the start because the initial disappearances weren’t taken as seriously as they would have been if these women weren’t written off as prostitutes,” Kolker says. While there’s no satisfying Law & Order–style ending, there’s a different kind of victory. The mothers and sisters of the missing girls become friends and advocates; as with Kolker’s book, they give the lost girls the dignity and attention that eluded them in their too-brief lives.