The Perils of Girlhood

The bodies of Liberty German and Abigail Williams were found in a wooded area about 50 feet north of Deer Creek in Delphi, Indiana. They weren’t far from the Old Monon Trail, where Liberty’s older sister dropped off the middle schoolers to go hiking on an unseasonably warm day on February 13, 2017.

Liberty excelled in math and science. In all the newspaper photos the eighth grader’s broad face grinned wide with confidence. Her corn-silk colored hair hung in loose waves, maybe unbrushed, or maybe just indifferent. Liberty was also the one who carried a cell phone with her that day. She loved softball and that year Abigail had promised to join Liberty’s team.

At thirteen, Abigail was a year younger. In the photo printed in the newspaper, she wore a sundress with an oversized sunhat. A two-inch band of fabric at the crown matched her dress. Her front teeth were nubs, not yet fully grown. Everything I learned about them came from newspaper articles I read and reread.

That was four years ago, when my twin daughters were eight and years away from being teenagers. Now they are twelve, just one year younger than Abigail, and I have become a crucible of fear. When a TV show featured a special on Liberty and Abigail in April 2020, I didn’t let the girls watch it. But I did. Riveted by the screen, I tried to make sense of the murders.

We live twenty miles from Delphi, in West Lafayette, Indiana. We moved here in 2010 after living in Philadelphia while my husband finished school and I worked as a freelance writer. In between time at my desk, I took care of our girls. In the mornings I pushed them in a double stroller to Fairmont Park, which we nicknamed Tree Park because it was hidden beneath a towering mass of craggy oaks. During afternoon strolls we bumped along cobblestone streets southeast of our apartment past million-dollar flats to Schuylkill Park. There were only two baby swings, so I placed the girls in one swing, back-to-back, like some chubby two-sided mammal. Then, in December, at thirteen months old, Eva had her first seizure.

Despite subsequent testing, the doctors never could provide a reason for Eva’s initial life-threatening seizure, one that left her intubated, a respirator tunneling up and down, breathing for her. All of this alerted me to my daughter’s mortality.

One of the reasons we moved to Indiana was because we thought it would be a safe place to raise our girls. For a while it was. They were eight when Liberty and Abigail were murdered.

I’ve read numerous articles about the murders, searching for some shred of evidence, some hidden rationale for this crime, but the more I read, the faster the details fade, like water smearing ink on a handwritten letter. The girls were hiking alone on a day off school. Liberty actively posting on Snapchat as they walked. I imagine them goofing around, teasing each other about crushes, asking if they like the latest song by Dua Lipa, maybe singing a few lines at the top of their lungs. I see them on the bridge and then I see myself walking with my own best friend from junior high. Twenty years later and it could have been me or my classmates. It could still be my daughters, their friends.

I’ve shared these concerns with my husband. What if the murderer is living in our midst? How could we keep our daughters safe? He looked at me, my arms full of a stack of folded clothes, then gently said that we couldn’t live that way. And I thought: but we will, we do. All women at some point fear.

Images of my own daughters blanket our refrigerator. In the girls’ preschool photo, they wear matching corduroy dresses and hold hands. Jolie wears a headband that highlights her apple-shaped face. Eva’s lips are pursed together like a walnut as she blows a channel of air at an unforeseen yellow duckie. Meanwhile, the school photographer stands behind her camera and squeezes the toy as she prepares the shot. “Blow on the duckie,” she says to the girls, and my daughters, obedient as ever, comply.

One day soon after the murders, the girls were with me as I exited the grocery store when a pickup truck with wheel wells taller than their heads jerked forward and nearly hit Eva. I grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her close to me. “That truck could have hit you!” I yelled. The truck had passed, so I turned around, pointed. “What would happen if you were hit?”

“I’d get run over,” Eva said.

“You’d be crushed!” I announced, wanting her fear to match or exceed my own.

The truck grumbled away, its gruff sounds gradually fading.

“When we leave the house or car, you should not be looking at your shoes,” I said. “You should be taking stock of what’s going on around you.”

“What’s ‘taking stock’ mean?” asked Jolie, turning her head like some wind-up toy.

“It means taking note of. Noticing. Does that make sense?”

“Uh-huh,” the girls said.

I pushed the grocery cart to the car and opened the trunk. The girls darted for their doors.

Groceries in cloth bags. A peerless sky. Birds twittered overhead as the giant flag at the front of the grocery store flapped. Somewhere in Delphi two women sat waiting for the murderer of their daughters to be brought to justice. Their eyes were blurry and headachy and in this way time passed. Maybe one spooled yarn to keep her fingers busy. The other could be tapping a fingernail against an empty can of soda. Another day.

My daughters slammed their car doors. I heaved the bags into the trunk. Already they had begun to fight over whose turn it was to read the same book they’d been reading all summer. It’s a graphic novel about a girl with embarrassing braces and an awkward existence. “It’s my turn,” said Eva. “You read it before.”

“But I didn’t finish it,” said Jolie. I glanced at them in the rearview mirror yanking the paperback between them.

As they argued, everything inside me stiffened; I centered on the chirpy sound of their voices, brilliantly alive.

I remember my daughters in denim overalls with snaps inside the “U” of their legs, hand-me-down floral Gap raincoats from their cousins, pink snowsuits and knit gloves on strings that looped the arms of their jackets. We were told that it was dangerous to put them to sleep with blankets or pillows, so during the girls’ first two winters we put them in cotton sleepers and then zipped them into second fleeces.

They ate sitting upright in high chairs: Cheerios and toast cut into one-inch strips, yogurt and scrambled eggs. I inserted chunks of melon into a mesh contraption so the girls could hold the fruit like a Popsicle and gum it without choking. But after Eva’s initial hospitalization and subsequent seizures, I remained on edge, and every potential harm could ignite fear in me like flammable gas.

During that year in Philadelphia, the girls woke early and after breakfast I popped them in the stroller. We headed to Tree Park. Just off the Ben Franklin Parkway, and east of the narrow steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with its bronze sculpture of a triumphant Rocky Balboa, morning traffic crawled alongside us. As I pushed the stroller, I watched the perimeter where the girls had been known to toss their shoes. There was a small translucent square of vinyl on the top of the stroller and I could just make out the bowls of their heads.

On one early-morning jaunt, I turned the stroller into the park, pushed it over the cracked sidewalk with its exposed tree roots, and discovered three men fast asleep beneath the play structure. They were nestled inside sleeping bags, heads pillowed on backpacks and duffels. Their hair was matted and disheveled, the nylon of their sleeping bags sooty. I paused.

Something about their sleeping shapes made them familiar, as if we were personally acquainted, and I felt as if the longer we remained, the greater likelihood that the same misfortune might befall us. I know it makes no sense, but who is to say what, if anything, draws trouble? Would any mother be willing to gamble her child’s future well-being?

I’ve read that a woman’s brain actually changes with motherhood. In the maternal brain, the amygdala, which manages memories and fear reactions are strengthened in the weeks and months after childbirth. Coupled with hormones, some of the new neural pathways that develop are dedicated to vigilance and survival. It’s nearly impossible to communicate the fears we hold for our children or the way our minds react to those fears. Few crimes are committed by unknown perpetrators, yet this part of my brain with its well-worn track of fears is far from rational. All I ever wanted was to feel safe and protect the ones I love from harm.

I backed up the stroller, and turned in the direction we came. I sped walked home. Somewhere these men had families—mothers who once woke to feed them in the middle of the night and rock them back to sleep. But now they lived here—wandered the city’s streets and playgrounds, made beds on mulch and leaves. All day I continued to think of those sleeping men. I wondered if their mothers knew where they were, felt the void of their absence.

One morning in my childhood home, as I poured milk over my cornflakes, I saw his face on the side of the carton. It was 1984 when The National Child Safety Council began its Missing Children Milk Carton Program, and I assumed the boy staring back at me was Adam Walsh. They’d announced on the news that he was missing, only this boy was the same age as me with straggly hair and bangs. It said he had blue eyes and was from New York and if you saw him, to call the 1-800 number.

Mom sliced bananas over my cereal, but her voice, her presence seemed far away, and for a moment I was Adam Walsh, locked away in a damp, dark place with only the memory of my parents, my bedroom, the breakfasts we shared around the kitchen table. I scooped cereal into my mouth and chewed harder as if the great churning inside my mouth could fix me forever in our sun-bleached kitchen.

In the 1980s, stranger danger was a real thing, prompted by the abduction of Adam Walsh, who in July 1981, had been shopping with his mother at a Florida mall when she left him alongside several other boys playing an Atari game. She was gone for less than 10 minutes. His abduction set the nation on high alert. Children like me were told to stick together and to be watchful for strangers. “Somewhere along the way, we allowed fear to get inside us,” says Paul Crenshaw in Salon. “Stranger danger made us fear strangers, so we began to see everyone as dangerous.”

Later that month, our teacher led our class to the gym and instructed us to line up in front of a long table. Police officers stood on one side with boxes of index cards and ink. The officer asked my name, printed it in large block letters on the top of a card, then he had me stretch out my hand. He pressed each finger on a small pad of ink, rolled it side to side, then did the same thing on the card, transferring the print. He did this with each of my blackened fingers and then put the card aside to dry. I wiped my fingers and stared at my card in its place on the table. Now, if someone took me, maybe I’d be easier to find.

Two weeks after the murders in Delphi, there was a new development. The Carroll County sheriff released an audio recording of the assailant found on Liberty German’s cell phone. “Down the river,” said the recording. “Down the river. Down the river. Down the river,” it said, and coupled with the grainy photo of a heavy-set man in a navy windbreaker, there was the sense that resolution was imminent.

In the morning, I whisked the newspaper from the lawn while still in my pajamas. I thought it possible to shelter our girls by learning everything I could about the fate of Liberty and Abigail. I began to play the Soundcloud recording two and three times a day. The phone was discovered half a mile down the bank of Deer Creek near the Monon High Bridge, the train trestle bridge where the girls were last spotted.

I wondered about Liberty. Hailed a hero for turning on her phone’s audio, she took two photographs that afternoon and posted them on Snapchat. The first was at 2:07 p.m. of Abigail, striking a pose on the bridge. In the distance, you can see a man approaching in the distance. The second photo was of the man with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. At what point did a weird unsettled feeling shift to out-and-out terror? When did their innocent hike during a day off school become a failed sprint for survival?  And then, what happened next?

By 3:30 p.m. the girls weren’t answering their phones.

Moments of terror happen fast.

The night of Eva’s first seizure, I had been at the store. When I entered our Philadelphia apartment, a sack of groceries on my shoulder, Pete stood in our kitchen like a man before a firing squad. He held Eva sideways in his arms. “Why isn’t she in her bed?” I asked. He held Eva as if she were made of glass, her head in the bend of his left elbow, her legs poking his right.

A cold whip of fear shot through me.

“What’s wrong?”

She wore a green fuzzy sleeper with a bear on the chest. Her tiny arms and legs were going jerk jerk jerk while her neck remained stuck in a one-two beat.

“What’s happening? What happened?”

Her eyes were slitted open but unseeing, the pupils sailing back and forth. The skin on her face had whitened, the lips a faint shade of blue. I called 911 and as I placed the phone to my ear my husband leaned over Eva, placed his mouth over hers, and breathed.

After Pete left with Eva to meet the ambulance, I ran down the hall, knocked on doors, begging someone to answer. My feet slip slopped on the waxed floors past fake ferns, my fists pounding on every door as sirens screamed down the street. Jolie was still asleep in her crib and I needed someone to stay with her. Help! Please help! I begged.

No one answered.

I returned to the apartment and once I saw that Jolie was fine, I paced the floors. A wall of windows lined one wall of the apartment and tall buildings burnished the night with boxes of light. Beyond were nameless people enjoying their dinners, laughing and chatting, breathing without worry.

I balled my fists and began to cry.

In my own experience, if the ER had not been a seven-minute ambulance ride away, if the attending physician had not been able to intubate Eva—two other doctors that night had been unsuccessful—I might be another mother, one of the ones I imagine in Delphi, gazing out the window at nothing in particular. I cannot help but imagine how different the world looks to these women now: the blank spaces in the trees shred the light; remaining leaves curled up like an old man’s arthritic hand while others skitter along the sidewalk. The fear and hope intermingling.

At twelve, my daughters made plans with friends away from home. They liked to go to Happy Hollow Park; a nature area nestled in the woods about a half-mile from our home. The park has several picnic shelters and two large climbing structures with a twisty slide, monkey bars, and half a dozen swings. Hidden behind feathery green leaves, two miles of paved hiking trails surrounded the park. A creek bisects all of this, the constant woosh a backdrop to children’s play.

While they were no longer interested in scrambling up the climbing wall or playing hide and seek, they spent hours on a rope swing someone had hung from one of the ancient trees. They went with Violet, a neighbor girl who is the same age as them, and each time before they left, I told them to stay together.

“We will,” they sang.

It was a Saturday in late fall, the sun milky white when the three of them skipped away for the swing. While they were gone, I might have read the paper or answered an email, or done something else without consequence. What I do know is that I was home when Eva fled in the back door with a red nose and gummy eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Where’s your sister?” Panic tore through me and I shot up from my seat as if I’d been struck with a diviner rod and it had touched a truth that had been there all along.

She wiped her face.

“What happened?” I asked. The drum of my own heartbeat filled my ears.

Eva began to cry harder.

“Okay,” I told her, placing an arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay,” and I led her to a kitchen chair. Even though she was too old, I pulled her onto my lap. Her weight settled on me. She fiddled with her hands.

“There was a man. He was watching us.”

A man? I asked, while pushing her up. “Let’s go. Show me.”

We jogged down our block and when we turned onto the next street, we spied Jolie and Violet walking toward us. It wasn’t until we stopped that I realized that I had lost sensation in the lower half of my body. “Are you all right? What happened?” my legs buzzed and my words couldn’t form fast enough.

Jolie and Violet looked at each other. Shrugged.

“What about the man?” I asked.

Jolie screwed up her mouth like she’d bitten something sour. “We didn’t see him,” and shrugged. This struck me as odd.

I talked the girls into following me back to the swing. They stood on the hiking path practicing pirouettes as I climbed over the split wood fence that bordered the path, and then headed down the hill to the swing. I circled the area, kicked at the brush, unsure of what I was looking for. There was no one there. The girls turned and ran ahead of me, headed back home. I took my time.

Sometimes the fear feels like a river roiling through my chest. Other times it’s like a smoldering fire that when fanned, erupts into a blaze. I practice acknowledging these feelings so that they do not take me hostage. But no amount of practice prepares you for when the fire, in a gust of wind catches on, and engulfs an entire forest.

In 2017, investigators released a sketch of a man they believed to be a possible suspect, but they updated it in 2019 to reflect additional witness accounts. This recent sketch makes the man look much younger than the initial image. Police say the suspect is between the ages of eighteen and forty, a white male with reddish brown hair who is “hiding in plain sight.”

During the episode that aired in April 2020 of In Pursuit of John Walsh, Walsh and his son Callahan asked viewers to call in the show with anonymous tips and leads in “an attempt to bring a killer to justice.” John Walsh’s own son, Adam Walsh, was murdered in 1981. He had been the boy from the shopping mall, perhaps the reason the police department fingerprinted me and my classmates. Anti-crime activism became the elder Walsh’s life work. A few days after his son’s funeral, Walsh’s parents started the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children and in 1988, he began hosting America’s Most Wanted.

Callahan Walsh made a trip to Delphi to examine video evidence, audio, and the two sketches from possible witnesses. After talking with the Carroll County Sheriff, Callahan Walsh walked the narrow rickety bridge where Libby’s photos were taken, the creek below a rush of brown silt. Callahan Walsh said he believed the killer was someone who grew up in Delphi and knew the area well. He believes the murderer is someone who knows the trails “like the back of his hand.”

Despite the tips received once the show aired, the new sketch, and audio recording, the recent arrest of an accused, the murder of Libby and Abigail may never be solved. One thing remains clear: something frightened Libby, put her on edge enough for her to turn on her phone’s recording device. And maybe this is what I find more unsettling than the fact a murderer walks free. In their final moments, these two girls were scared. Frightened to a degree that they most likely had never before experienced and only had trees as witnesses.

Sometimes I’ll look at the photos of my daughters on the refrigerator and I’ll be shocked by how much they’ve changed. Eva’s features are more defined. She tilts her head when she laughs, as if she’s trying to tip out every crumb of joy. Jolie’s face has thinned, her gaze direct. When she talks there is the sense that each word exists for her purpose alone.

And then I play a little game. I glance at the earliest image of them—ten-month-olds with round faces and chunked fists in Philadelphia, and then I look at the photo that follows this chronologically all the way to the most recent images from fifth grade. I try to glimpse the people they will become, as if by imagining their future, I can guarantee they’ll have one.

Baby Fever

That I might never be anything but alone in my own body. In my own mind. That no one could ever make me feel whole.

Plans for Future Disasters

“We might be broke, but we’re happy,” Carlos says..."And we’re happy because we enjoy ourselves in the moment. You’re broke and depressed.”


It’s less a breaking than it is a detaching. The way they lose their arms, the way they save themselves, is by going soft.