the years the locusts have eaten
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten
It’s the end of 2018, and so I’ve been thinking I ought to put together a list of things I was proud of writing this year, if not for the traffic benefits, then because the people who put up with the process of my writing — subjects, editors, fact-checkers, graphic designers, videographers—all deserve another chance to be appreciated. (That is certainly true!) And there’s another reason, which has to do with missing time.
Missing time — usually the phrase describes a psychological phenomenon, wherein time passes without a person having any recollection of what took place. I use it to mean the time that elapses between some kind of traumatic injustice or injury and the point where the victim receives closure or justice or recompense, and is able to start again. Sometimes that point never comes. Entire lives can be lost this way.
It can be hard to develop in these lost years. People carry burdens all alone; they devote all their energies to bearing them. And while they do it, time goes missing. Where are the moments they were owed to give to joy and contemplation and love and learning? Inside the void. Time doesn’t stand still; history still unfolds. It just goes missing. A terrible thing happens, and seems somehow to keep happening, negating all of these things that should have happened instead.
I became obsessed with this kind of missing time in 2018. I started to observe it while I was working on a long investigative piece about an unprosecuted sexual assault. Once I had noticed it, I could see it in all kinds of lives. It’s a tough phenomenon to document, but I tried to communicate some sense of it in these stories:
What Do We Owe Her Now? Amber Wyatt reported that she had been raped in 2006, in our hometown of Arlington, Texas. When the city caught wind of the allegation, people turned on her. Vulgar slogans circulated, and crude graffiti appeared on a school wall; eventually, Amber disappeared from our high school, and the story simply seemed to fade away. And it did for some, but not for her.
The Coldest Day of Summer Michael Reading wanted to be a priest. He knew all of the stories about Ted McCarrick’s beach house in New Jersey, but he thought he could avoid the worst of it if he accepted an invitation to visit without spending the night. The night was supposed to be the dangerous time. But then it happened in broad daylight.
Who Knew About Uncle Peter? Maryland priest Peter McCutcheon began molesting his nephews in the early 1980s, and sexually abused another young teenager as he was moved from parish to parish in 1983. Other, unnamed victims were cited in the civil suits that followed his criminal trial in 1986. Who knew about Peter McCutcheon prior to his 1986 conviction? I spoke to several people who’ve wondered for decades now—including McCutcheon’s own family.
All of these stories had greater, more obvious public-interest aspects: They’re stories about the criminal justice system and the Catholic Church, about cover-ups and dangerous negligence, about cruelty and the ordinary people who aid and abet and perpetrate it. But they’re also stories about time —about intervening years, and everything that should happen after something vital is taken from you, but doesn’t.
I don’t know if anything can ever restore that time. I know life can begin again in earnest; I know it isn’t the case that, once some time is lost, it’s always lost forever. I just don’t know if there can be restoration. Something along those lines was an aspiration of mine in writing all of these stories at one point. In the end, the hope may have been as critical for me as for anyone, subject or reader. Not everyone who has lost time is able to account for it. It is hard to know what to say.
I imagine myself sitting on a staircase, maybe thirteen years old, dissolving into the shadows of the railings. Time is about to go missing. Police lights glint in the window panes ahead of me. Older now and less vulnerable, with the power I have and the things I’ve learned, I try to think of something to tell the version of me that is always huddled there in the dark. I open my mouth, but the words don’t come.