Maybe it would have happened anyway. With Trump about to be president — a nightmare that has already cut into my sleep — I probably would’ve yanked the leash and said to my son, There are just some things you can’t do. This is not, mind you, The Talk: I’m a white Jew, my wife is Chinese, and my son is an amalgam who doesn’t resemble either of us. No, what I intend to impart, either verbally or implicitly, is that the freedom I enjoyed when I was his age will not be hereditary.
I didn’t decide this all at once. And it wasn’t inevitable. It happened gradually, over the course of the year.
Darkness descended in March, on my birthday, when my friend Sarah told me to read David Kushner’s Alligator Candy.
I don’t really read books anymore, not like I used to, so when I do, I want to make it count. I’d asked Sarah for true crime, which it is, but Alligator Candy is mostly a memoir. The author’s brother, you see, was a kid named Jonathan. He was abducted in the autumn of 1973; he’d pedaled to the store, through the woods, and was murdered by John Paul Witt. And David, who was four years old at the time and is now a very fine journalist, was among the last to see him alive. He investigates, beautifully, the horror from his past; he documents his parents’ grief; he interrogates his own recollections.
I spent a lot of my childhood on a bike, too, staying within a mile or two of home in New Canaan, Connecticut. I had friends who didn’t wear a helmet because they liked the feel of the wind in their hair. Not me. I have a nearly congenital shunt in my head, and a cranial injury would’ve finished me off. The bike was a means to go from Point A to Point B. Or, as Kushner puts it:
I just wanted mobility, the freedom to go off, to discover, to ride to my friends’ houses on my own and feel a sense of independence and power.
That freedom, however, as Kushner notes deep into the book, “comes with fear, too.” And I feel it now. My son doesn’t, of course, and he doesn’t think twice about running off without me or his mom.
As I got to the last page, I knew that, in all likelihood, I wasn’t going to give my son freedom just to take it away.
In September, I began a story for this magazine. In my teens, there was a three-month period when I watched MTV. What I remember, still, are the songs that were in heavy rotation: Metallica’s “The Unforgiven,” REM’s “Drive,” and Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train.” The latter, which featured names and photos of real missing children, spurred a story about the state of the band and the kids, 23 years later.
For weeks, I was steeped in it—just interview after interview about missing kids. And amid the reporting, I took my son to our town’s Italian Festival on Long Island, and was thoroughly paranoid that he’d happily scamper off and would be gone. Dave Pirner, Soul Asylum’s frontman, told me that, even during his child-free rockstar days, he knew that losing your kid “was probably the worst thing that could happen to a person.”
Not that I doubted him, but talking to Jim Kerze a couple of weeks later proved him right. Jim’s son, Christopher, was featured in the video for “Runaway Train” after he left his Minnesota home and didn’t come back. What stays with me from talking with Jim is how much losing Christopher damaged him, but also how, as much as he wanted to curl up and hibernate, he couldn’t.
“I have two other kids. I had to get on with life,” said Jim. “But it’s always there, if you understand what I mean. It’s like you’ve got a chronic issue and you want it solved. On one hand, you’re afraid it’s going to be solved; on the other hand you’re afraid because of what the outcomes could be.“
I resolved to yank the leash.
About halfway through our first interview, Jim mentioned Jacob Wetterling. Until recently, Jacob was easily the most famous missing kid in Minnesota’s history and, a mere week before Jim and I talked, Jacob’s killer had confessed. I asked Jim if he’d ever spoken to Jacob’s mother, Patty. No, he said, because the tragedy of a missing son is not analogous to that of a murdered son. “I would have been embarrassed,” he said. “I would have felt like I’m bringing up this little straw when she’s got this giant bale of hay to carry around.”
I closed out the year listening to “In the Dark,” Madeleine Baran’s investigation of the Wetterling case. On an October night in 1989, Jacob was abducted at gunpoint as he biked back from the Tom Thumb convenience store in the town of St. Joseph’s. He would not be seen again until he was exhumed, 30 miles from where he’d gone missing, 27 years later.
Baran’s podcast focuses, more or less, on law enforcement and how it failed to catch Jacob’s killer, Danny Heinrich, but what ate away at me was the ease with which Heinrich separated the boy from his friends and faded away in the dark.
This is what happens, I thought, when you teach your child to ride a bike.
I know this is irrational. As Baran told me not long ago, child abductions like Jacob’s — and Jonathan Kushner’s — are “the rarest of rare crimes. It’s a crime that almost never happens.”
And I am aware that, realistically, there’s only so much I can do without driving the kid nuts. (He doesn’t know it, but I switched our New York Times subscription from print to digital, because I don’t want Trump’s visage littering the house.)
As we approach 2017, I know that, however bleak the world, my son is not statistically in any great danger. I know this! But that’s my brain talking. And it’s gotten overruled by my heart.
So, yeah, I’m yanking the leash.