On December 24, 2002, a 27-year-old woman disappeared from her home in Modesto, California. Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant. Four months later, her body and that of her foetus, whom she had named Conner, washed ashore near San Francisco Bay. Her husband, Scott Peterson, was convicted of killing Laci and their unborn baby.
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When I first heard of your disappearance on the news, back in December 2002, I was living in the woods of Western Massachusetts, renting the third floor of a beautiful house. With a family living downstairs from me, I felt safe. I had left my abuser several years earlier, but I still struggled with PTSD and anxiety.
“Pregnant woman goes missing” is what the journalist said. Chills ran up my spine. Due to my own violent past, I have a tendency to assume that if there’s a husband involved, he’s guilty. I feared you were dead, but I hoped you had run, that you had escaped. That you were hiding somewhere in a small village maybe hundreds of miles away near Puget Sound, with its wildlife, thick trees and small islands. Far enough away from your home in California but still in the United States. I imagined that there you could birth your baby alone, in safety. It was Christmas, after all, a time of sacred birth, of miracles.
I instantly believed your husband was Bluebeard from the old fairytales, Bluebeard who had killed his wives. But these were the days when I had recently graduated from my MFA programme in creative writing, days when I was obsessed with poems of revisionist fairy tales and myths.
In my poems, women were no longer victims. Instead of being kidnapped and raped, I wrote about Persephone as a young woman who sat in fields of daffodils and begged for Hades to whisk her away from her possessive and demanding mother, flee with her in his chariot to his welcoming and warm underworld home. In my versions of these stories, Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, fled the sacrificial altar her father delivered her to, and Antigone herself escaped the death tomb in which her uncle had imprisoned her without food or water. Back then, when I was rewriting those women’s endings, I did not realise that I was mirroring my own life, celebrating the fact that I myself hadn’t ended up dismembered, in a pool of blood, tossed in a corner of Bluebeard’s locked cellar.
The discovery of the body of your unborn baby Conner and then of your corpse the following day, four months after your disappearance, was not a “John F Kennedy” moment for me. I was five years old when President Kennedy died and remember how I had been learning to tie my sneaker laces when some neighbourhood kids shared the news of his death. But I am unable to capture the exact moment I heard that your body had been found.
You see, depression and anxiety had slowly built inside of me in the months that you were missing. Yours had been the first major news story I’d followed since leaving my abuser and the mention of your name would make all my old fears fly to the surface of my memory. The panic attacks and stomach aches I’d experienced while I was with him returned. In my weekly therapy sessions, I would talk about your case, connecting your situation to my own, wondering what it would have been like for my family and friends had I gone missing, asking why you and not me.
Eventually, my therapist had suggested that I stop watching the news. I was allowed to watch the weather but that was all. So I imagine I heard the news of your corpse washing up on the radio while I was driving on a dirt road in Western Massachusetts on my way to teach English literature to freshmen at Springfield College. Or I may have heard it on a television set in a restaurant in town or from a colleague as we passed in the hall. I only think of JFK on the anniversary of his assassination, when news outlets remind their viewers. But I think of you often, whenever I hear that a woman has gone missing and every time your husband is televised, asking for a new trial.
What I do remember, however, is seeing photos of the freshly painted blue walls of the nursery you had created before you disappeared with its white crib and old-fashioned life preserver in the shape of a doughnut hanging on the wall. “Welcome Aboard,” it said. Even now, the irony creeps up my spine. No one knew how desperately you and Conner would need some kind of rescue device to save you. It’s a feeling I know well; the isolation and secrecy that comes with living in a difficult relationship, when your smile hides the fear beneath the surface. When others, even those close to you, are unaware of the danger you are in. I know how easily it could have been my body, head and limbs missing, found adrift instead of yours and Conner’s. What happened to you was my worst fear. When I lived with my abuser, we had guns and hunting knives in the house and in the months before I finally left, his violence and aggression had increased to the point where I realised that he could kill me. Initially, this thought paralysed me with dread, but eventually, I gathered the strength to make a plan and leave.
You were 27 years old when you disappeared. You had been married for five years. When I was 27, I had been with my abuser for two years. I had already been slapped, pushed around and intimidated. For me, the worst was yet to come. I haven’t heard that there was a legacy of physical abuse in your marriage. It has, however, been revealed that your husband had affairs that you had discovered. All that winter and early spring, as I waited, wondering, worrying about what happened to you, all I could imagine were the secrets you had hidden. How many secrets had died with you? The picture of you on the news and in the flyers and billboards that went up as the search for you continued showed a pretty, happy, smiling woman in a satin red pantsuit. I couldn’t help but wonder if that happy face was meant for your family and friends. Because I was afraid of being judged by my family and friends, I would smile through the pain and sadness whenever they visited.
In the Bluebeard fairy tale, just as he is about to behead his wife, she is saved by her brothers. From what I have witnessed in the media of your brother in grief after your disappearance and from what I know about my own brothers, yours, just as mine, would have come for you with every life preserver he could find if he’d only known.
I imagine still your final day. Were you taken by surprise? Was there a fight? How long did the struggle last? How long did you resist? I read a book once that said resistance was the secret to joy. When I read this, I felt all the cells in my body pulsating, the way they do when you understand a great truth.
With Conner in your womb, I can only imagine how you, a soon-to-be first-time mother, would have resisted your death. Would have fought with every ounce of strength you possessed. In this resistance I imagine you using, I find a fragment of joy for myself. Whatever energy you fought with to hold on to life, I feel is forever wild within me. There is a strength one carries inside upon surviving violence. I was not able to tap into that until I had worked for many months with my therapist. But now I feel that inner courage the way I feel my spine as it holds my body solidly in place. I hope you felt this in those final moments.
I have many questions for you, Laci. Did you suspect in the days or hours leading up to your death that doom was approaching in the form of your husband? With my abuser, I would sense the tension rising in him over days or weeks until something I did or said sent him flying into a rage. Was it like that for you? Was your dog there fighting for you too in those last moments? Did you call for your brother, your mother? Did a shark cleave your limbs after you were thrown into the sea, or had your husband performed the horrific act beforehand? And how long did your corpse continue to cradle Conner in the safety of your womb before expelling him into the bay where you were dumped?
The truth is that knowing the answers to these questions wouldn’t change anything for me. The only real question I want answered is bigger than you and I, bigger than your home state of California, bigger than The Unborn Victims of Violence Act your mother helped pass, bigger than all of us who still remember you. That question has three parts: where are you now, is Conner with you and are the two of you finally at peace?
I still wonder, when it comes to living with huge uncertainties, is there room enough for no answer?