As the nation nears the 20th anniversary of the death of JonBenét Ramsey, every news outlet (including the one I write for) and network are featuring specials and articles about the still-unsolved murder of the six-year-old beauty queen. One can't browse The Huffington Post or tune into Entertainment Tonight without hearing mention of her death, and for many, this influx of coverage is either an understandable annoyance or something to take passing interest in. Those who aren't abuse survivors themselves might not understand why the JonBenét anniversary is so intense for sexual abuse survivors like me, but I want to change that.
I hardly remember Christmas 1996, the time when the story of Ramsey's murder broke. My memories of that era of my childhood are either fuzzy or entirely absent, and as far as I can tell, having fuzzy or incomplete memories doesn't normally persist in children up to early school age. On Christmas 1996, I was five years old. 1996 was the year the first of my four younger brothers was born, and was, I believe, the year I was sexually abused. I say "I believe" because the memories are repressed — hence the memory loss. One of the only things I remember about the 96-97 school year, in fact, was the Ramsey case.
On so many occasions in the last 20 years, I've looked at the TV screen and seen her young face and felt haunted, not just by the horror she must have experienced, but by the horror that's locked somewhere in my mind, too.
The seemingly out-of-nowhere influx of coverage of this shocking unsolved murder surprised me — I felt like I'd been living under a rock, and like the anniversary had crept up on me. It took me a few days to put the pieces together after first hearing about the TV specials about the case and my initial discomfort with them, but I realized exactly why this coverage has left such a bad taste in my mouth. It seems that my closeness in age to Ramsey (she would be a year older than me) and the closeness in time of our respective traumas (hers ending in murder) have, in my mind, inextricably linked her death (and the speculation about what might have happened before it) to my own abuse.
It's well-known at this point that many survivors of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape advocate for "trigger warnings," or warnings before any media depicting or discussing those traumas so as to allow us to brace ourselves for the potentially upsetting impact. We do so knowing that any change to the ways in which this sort of material is addressed and shared publicly will be incremental.
The recent spate of headlines about the Ramsey case prove just how slow this change is — that even if an article or taped news report were to feature a trigger warning at its beginning, for me, just seeing the name "JonBenét Ramsey" is enough to at best cause me to feel a dull sense of dread and at worse have flashbacks to the fragments of memories I have of my own abuse. As such, seeing it a dozen times a day when scrolling headlines or through my Twitter and Facebook feeds has made functioning normally and battling the intrusive thoughts that accompany such mentions next-to-impossible.
There's likely only one person or a handful of people who know what happened to Ramsey before her death, and with my repressed memories, there is only one person who knows fully what was done to me that same year. The identities of both of these parties remains unknown — another unsettling link between me and Ramsey that I wish didn't exist.
On so many occasions in the last 20 years, I've looked at the TV screen and seen her young face and felt haunted, not just by the horror she must have experienced, but by the horror that's locked somewhere in my mind, too. I'll continue to drudge through this anniversary as I've had to with so many other anniversaries of national tragedies, but while doing so, I'll keep in mind the countless other survivors who feel similarly when they see the name JonBenét Ramsey on the screen.
Image: Noor Al-Sibai