Grant’s Trail, a biking-walking-jogging-rollerblading trail in St. Louis some 10 miles long, begins about a mile-and-a-half from my house in Kirkwood, officially the oldest incorporated suburb of St. Louis. The trail is a converted railroad track bed, and I’ve been biking it for years now. Counting the round trip and an occasional side meander, it’s a good 20-mile ride.
Just before the trail begins, there’s a brick apartment complex of some 40 to 50 units in five or six buildings. Rather nondescript, it’s neither at the luxury end of residential living nor the housing-of-last-resort end. Nondescript, and rather anonymous, sufficiently describes it.
Each time I’d go to Grant’s Trail, I’d bike past the complex, barely giving it a thought except to watch for doors suddenly opening from cars parked on the street (bikers have to watch for these things). But it wasn’t the kind of building or complex that you’d pay much attention to.
Until January of 2007.
One cold, icy day (I remember because we eventually lost power from the ice coating the trees), police made a startling discovery. Inside one of the apartments was a 13-year-old boy, kidnapped a few days before as he rode his bike home from school in rural Franklin County, near St. Louis. And with him was a 15-year old boy, kidnapped when he was 11. The good news was that both boys had been found alive. The bad news was what they had endured, one during a short few days and the other for several years. Police arrested Michael Devlin, 41 at the time. He later pleaded guilty and is now serving 74 life sentences in a Missouri prison.
The story became international news. During the next few weeks, news media from all over the United States and several other countries converged on the complex, the local pizza parlor where Devlin worked, his family’s home in neighboring Webster Groves, the police department and everywhere else in Kirkwood. To see it shook Kirkwood residents’ perceptions, including mine, of our rather self-idealized community is an understatement. A year later, the murders of several council members and police officers by a disgruntled resident shattered whatever images of our community we had left.
The news cycle eventually turned and went on to other things. But I can’t ride or drive by that apartment complex now without thinking about Michael Devlin and those two boys. What happened there horrified all of us who live in Kirkwood and anyone who read or learned about the story.
For me, the horror went deeper. I don’t really understand why it did – there’s nothing repressed or anything that happened to me when I was young that would trigger such a reaction. But I was profoundly affected. For a considerable time, I biked a different route, simply to avoid the association.
Many people asked why or how this had happened. Why didn’t the older boy try to escape when he had so many opportunities? How did neighbors ignore screams coming from the apartment? Why did the police ignore tips? Why didn’t Devlin’s family question some of his odd behaviors?
I didn’t ask how or why. I understood. For some unknown reason, I knew the answers to all the questions. Instead, I focused on the shock, the fear, the horror, the desolation, the pain, the hopelessness, the desire to survive that became part of these boys’ experiences. I said little to anyone about this.
I finally knew what I had to do to deal with it. I wrote it out. More than 44,000 words poured out of me until I knew it was time to stop. I wrote it as fiction, far removed from Kirkwood and the events of February 2007. And then I set it aside. Anyone reading what I wrote today wouldn’t recognize the original inspiration.
In The Right to Write, author Julia Cameron says that “when we commit our thoughts to paper, we send a strong and clear message that what we are writing about and whom we are writing to matters.”
In my head and in my heart, I became a conduit, what Cameron refers to as “becoming a channel.” I don’t understand why this happened, only that it did. No one except me has seen the manuscript, but it’s now becoming the fourth novel in the Dancing Priest series.
Because I finally realized the story needed to be told. It mattered.
Photograph by Aaron Mello via Unsplash. Used with permission.