Here’s how Robert Kolker describes the five woman at the center of this book:
They weren’t angels. They weren’t devils. One was the aimless dreamer of her family until the pressures of adult responsibility became impossible to ignore. Another was both adored and feared by all factions of her warring family, but she placed her hope for the future in the hands of her boyfriend. A third was raised by an older sister, also an escort, whom she worshipped and, at time, tried to free herself from. Another wanted to be a success, and coming home from New York anything less than that would have meant admitting defeat. Another was a self-made woman using her money to win a place back in her family.
These five women—Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber—were sex workers who disappeared in 2007, 2009, and 2010. Their bodies were found in the Oak Beach community of Long Island, along with the remains of several other women, a man, and a small child. The killer has not been found.
Instead of dwelling on the possible killer or even the investigation itself, Robert Kolker focuses this book on these five women, what got them into sex work, how they managed the work, and their relationships with their families and friends. This is a lot of material to manage, and it is difficult at times to keep the five separate stories straight. I eventually gave up trying too hard to follow the details. There was a list of characters in the back of the book that I wish I’d discovered before I started reading, as I think it would have helped. Still, despite my confusion, I enjoyed this book.
One of the things that I appreciated about the book is that Kolker is making visible people who often are invisible. In doing so, he presents each one as a fully fledged individual, with dreams and problems and flaws. He neither condemns nor celebrates their decisions to go into sex work. He merely presents it; he makes it understandable. He also makes clear that these women had connections—friends who missed them, and family members who loved them. But when they went missing, their cases largely weren’t taken seriously.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how important it is to understand the white working class and how their struggles have been ignored for years. In a way, this book looks at one slice of that world. Each of these women comes from a working class background, and you do get a sense that their options are limited. Kolker does not attempt to make any class-based analysis of their situation, but I found it interesting to think about.
Unlike many true crime books, Lost Girls does not spend a lot of time on the investigation. Instead, Kolker looks at the familes’ ways of dealing with loss, together and apart. The main mystery that he spends time on involves Shannan, whose body was not found with the others. She was last seen in Oak Beach, and the bodies of the other four girls were found during the search for Shannan. But it was unclear whether she was in fact a victim of the serial killer who took the lives of the other girls. He explores the questions surrounding her disappearance in some depth, but that’s partly because it affects how the families relate to each other.
Because, in the end, this book is about these women and their worlds. It’s not about the killer or the cops. And that’s probably for the best. Stories of cops and killers fill bookstores, and they’re often worth reading. But this book is different, and that’s what makes it especially worth reading.