Women and Consent: An Interview with Robert Kolker about Lost Girls

Matthew Turbeville: Bob, it’s such a great pleasure to talk with you.  Lost Girls is one of my favorite books of all time.  It’s such an amazing true crime book, and one of those rare gems where the male author has such compassion and understanding for the female victims.  For readers’ awareness, the incomparable Megan Abbott once stated it is the best book of this decade [so far], breaking away from other authors who were asked and chose mostly fiction.  Bob, how did you begin investigating or learning about these murders? What intrigued you most, and why were you drawn to these women?

Robert Kolker: I can’t thank you enough, Matthew. I’m blown away by your praise for the book. And Megan’s, too.

I had started paying attention to the Long Island serial killer case at about the same time that many people did: at the end of 2010, when police found four sets of human remains in the bramble alongside a desolate stretch of highway between Jones Beach and Fire Island. The police had been looking for a young woman named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone missing seven months earlier just three miles from where the four bodies were found. It turned out that she and the other four women were escorts who advertised on Craigslist and Backpage. The police kept searching for Shannan, and by the spring, they started turning up more dead bodies and body parts—and yet Shannan was still missing.

The case was exploding, and the media was everywhere, and the local police weren’t saying anything; they even awkwardly were trying to downplay the case, suggesting that no one ought to worry because the victims were just hookers. That seemed more than a little cavalier to me.

When I talked to family members of the women, I was pretty struck by the bizarre situation they all found themselves in. For months and in some cases years, no one—not the police, not the media—had cared that their daughters and sisters were gone. Even something simple like getting a name on the national registry of missing persons was not happening—not for someone that law-enforcement wouldn’t take seriously. Of course, now that these women were in the middle of an open serial-killer case, the world was beating a path to their families’ doors. So these family members were both furious and exhilarated. They still stung from being ignored for so long, and now they hoped for a break in the case, even as they worried that nothing would come of it.

And then came the horrible hangover of seeing their daughters and sisters in the news, constantly referred to as Craigslist prostitutes. The point they made to me really resonated: These women were more than this.

Only after my article came out did I start thinking that the stories of these five families could be a book. Of course I’d hoped that there would be a break in the case (and I still do, five years later), but the story I would tell wouldn’t depend on that. It would be about five women and their families, and how the women’s murders changed those families forever while, affectingly, bringing them all together. It would be about a new, Internet-driven age of escort work, which for all its convenience manages to present its own dangers. It would be about the obsessive nature of crime ­solving in the Internet age, where conspiracy theories are able to metastasize and amateur sleuths can crowd-source data to remarkable effect. And finally, by implicit suggestion, the story would be about the various forces that made these women vulnerable in the first place.

MT:  What about these women makes them “lost”? Is that a label you’re giving these women or a word America uses to describe them? I feel like it’s such an important and complicated word, even in the title.

RK: The title, and the saying, has been used a lot in various contexts. My publisher and I thought there was some risk in using it. But it had the advantage of multiple possible meanings.

We all have, in our minds, stories that can explain how people become escorts, but most of us have only pop culture as a reference point—and there, we see them fully formed, and often mythologized or romanticized. We don’t see how they got there, so we come up with explanations and backstories: drugs, runaways, childhood abuse. We decide they were “lost” long before they were lost. The problem with this explanation is that it robs the women of their own agency. It suggests they were simply helpless—buffeted by the currents of circumstance or class or economic pressure.

But just as there is no single form of poverty, there also is no distinct set of family patterns or life circumstance that leads to the choices these five women made. No set formula or blueprint exists to explain what brought them all to Gilgo Beach. Human trafficking is, of course, a major factor for some, as is addiction and psychological trauma—and each of these causes affects a few of these women to varying degrees. But if there is one similarity they all share, it’s that while some of them were less proud of it than others, none of these women fell off the grid or lived on the streets the way one might imagine. They all remained close to their families. That’s the other way of looking at the title: They were only “lost” insofar as we—the police, the media, the social safety net—elected to lose them by deciding they were not worth paying attention to.

Serial killers know all about this second meaning, of course. Jack the Ripper targeted sex workers for presumably the same reason that the Green River Killer and Joel Rifkin both have gone on the record invoking: These were women they believed no one would ever go looking for. And more often than not, sadly, they’re right.

MT:  Why did you decide to focus mostly on the women’s lives more than the actual murderer? Which victim compelled you most, and who did you feel the strongest bond with?

RK: I’ve said elsewhere that while I certainly want the killer to be caught, I’m not convinced that we aren’t a little over-invested as a society in what makes these killers tick (though I did like Mind Hunter). It was the women that intrigued me more. I hoped that telling their stories would lead to a greater understanding of what made them all so vulnerable to a predator. Their decision to lead the lives they led felt like another unsolved mystery to me. Why take such a risk?

It wasn’t lost on me that all five women came from struggling parts of America, areas that never really got over the big economic downturn in 2008. By telling the story of these families, I could explore those places, too. My models were Calvin Trillin’s Killings, David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner, and Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family—all books where the procedural elements of true crime share the stage with a close look at places and people that readers would never otherwise know about. While the money wasn’t a complete explanation, it was a major clue. All five women grew up in families where, in the social sense, sex work was not seen as a move up, and yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves. This was only possible because of the Internet; why share your income with a pimp or escort service, or hang out in a dangerous part of town, when you can run your business from home with a smart phone?

As I learned more about the women, I recognized a certain double edge in each of them—an appetite for risk that made people love them, and also allowed them to feel comfortable making decisions their sisters and friends never would have. And yet they all were different, too. While Shannan seemed so vulnerable to me, Megan’s willpower seemed superhuman. Maureen’s journey—from impetuous naïf to seasoned veteran—was amazing to learn about. Melissa mystified me until I saw just how determined she was not to live the life her mother lived. But I personally found Amber most compelling. Her relationship with her older sister Kim was like nothing I’d ever seen or written about before.

MT:  There is something so unstoppable about the way you write, and the way you describe this long, heart-breaking process of finding a serial killer—and the bodies of his (or her) victims.  Was it difficult to write about these women and their lives?

RK: It’s certainly true that I don’t break away from the story that much to offer long discourses on anything, and for good reason: I’m not so good at that. I really love narrative writing, and I’m more comfortable with that than with, say, writing essays or polemics. From the start, I had a rough structure in mind that I’d hoped would keep the whole thing moving. Part one would tell the stories of all five women, and part two would be about the case. My model there was The Executioner’s Song, which had two very different parts.

I think I was so taken up with the reporting of the whole project that I never thought about what it would mean to focus on these women’s stories for so long. It was only after the book was published that I deflated a little and needed some recovery time. That said, in my magazine career, I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing vulnerable sources—people who have been through many kinds of horrible ordeals—and so I have no pretense that anything I’d personally go through would ever hold a candle to what the people I write about have been through. The people who really deserve the attention are the families of the women, who took a big risk in trusting this story to me. They were very candid and heartfelt, and I can only imagine the leap of faith it took for them to open up the way they did.

MT:  Where do you begin when writing a book like this? How do you find a definite beginning (and, readers, the beginning to this book is jaw-droppingly good, completely brilliant and will undoubtedly drag you into Kolker’s world)?

RK: This is the fun (and horrifying) part of writing a book for the first time. The first section I wrote was a long passage about the history of Oak Beach, the secluded beachfront community where Shannan Gilbert disappeared. I figured that would make a good mysterious prelude. Once the first draft was done, it was clear that whole thing belonged somewhere else. So how would I start the book? My editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh, suggested something more like a movie trailer: A short scene that would give readers a sense not just of the mystery but of the stakes. That clicked with me. I came up with an action scene of Shannan’s disappearance, plus a quick, carefully crafted rundown of how things only got more bizarre after that.

MT: Do you ever know where exactly to end the book? Do you ever want to end the book, or is it something you anticipate from the beginning of the process of research and investigation?

RK: With a lot of my magazine articles, I’ll be reporting, and somebody will say something, and I’ll sit up suddenly and recognize that it would be a good ending, and that will be that. That happened here, too. I was searching for some sort of grace note that would be at least slightly hopeful, suggesting a certain potential for growth and healing for the people in the book. While I was writing the first draft, I learned about something that happened to Maureen’s sister, and I saved it for the end.

MT:  Could you describe some of the aspects of your research and investigative practices to our readers? What was the most challenging part about investigating these murders? What would you say was the most interesting thing you came across (although please, no spoilers!), or maybe what might have been the most intriguing piece of information you came across in your journey?

RK: I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  I took more time with them than a lot of others, so after a while they opened up in ways that they just never had been given the chance to before. What I hadn’t expected was that I would meet a few old friends of some of the victims who still were engaged in sex work, and that they’d be able to describe in detail how these women lived and worked. I had one particularly tense night in Times Square, where a friend of Melissa’s showed me where she used to work. I won’t say more except that we had a run-in with some people.

MT:  How long did it take you to write this book? And what do you feel is the major difference—other than in obvious ways—between writing fiction and writing nonfiction? Has this changed your viewpoint on crime, especially against women, at all?

RK: I wrote the first draft in a year, and I revised it over the next six months. That tight schedule kept me from going down any reporting rabbit holes, so I’m kind of glad (in retrospect) that I didn’t have more time. One difference between nonfiction and fiction that I think a lot about is that while many novelists sell their books after a complete draft is done, most nonfiction authors (or at least narrative nonfiction authors) sell their books when they’re still very early their reporting. So there’s a certain mystery there: Will the book you end up writing be anything at all like the one you thought you’d write?

MT:  Suppose President Trump were to read this book.  Just suppose.  What would you want him—or anyone in his position—to take away from this specific story? What do you hope people walk away from reading Lost Girls  thinking?

RK: One very valid way to read this book is as a book about class. When I read books like The Unwinding by George Packer or Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, I recognize that a lot of the people in those books are experiencing the same pressures the people in Lost Girls experienced. I’d hope anyone reading Lost Girls would see how it’s another way of telling the story of norms being destroyed, society being unjust to those most vulnerable, and those in power not paying enough attention.

Lost Girls also is obviously about gender and consent, and the long debate within feminism about legalizing sex work—is it self-actualizing or self-negating?—and it’s not that far afield from the discussion we’re all having now about sexual abuse and power. This story is about a killer who has victimized women who tried to gain control over their lives and were thwarted at every turn—not just by the killer but by social forces they were born into.

MT: Do you think there will ever be justice for these young women, all lost too soon? Do you believe there are more bodies yet to be discovered? What do you think the future is for these lost girls?

RK: In the short term, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Suffolk County police to get much of anywhere. It’s nice that the FBI is finally involved, but they don’t have the resources they used to have for cases like this. But we’ve all read a lot about serial-killer cases that are solved more than a decade later, once some piece of evidence shakes loose or a witness comes forward. I think that’s quite possible here.

MT:  It almost feels like, at the end of the book, there is a sense of hope for the families of the victims.  A sense of moving on. Some family members and friends are accepting the deaths; others are even creating new life and giving birth. How do you feel about the ending of this book? What were you trying to say—if anything—about how people move on, if they move on, and about how the memories of victims do or do not last in the minds of the rest of us?

RK: I did not want to suggest that real satisfying closure exists for any of these families. That wouldn’t have been accurate; it’s just another fairy tale from pop culture, like the murder that’s solved at the end of the one-hour procedural. But everyone’s perspective changes over time, and though the loss of these women will always be an open wound, I’m interested in how the family members processed and viewed their wounds as their own lives inevitably changed. That’s what I was hoping to get at in the final passages of the book.

MT: Lost Girls created a sort of fandom that I’ve never seen before. There are message boards and Facebook groups and so on dedicated to uncovering the killer’s identity.. How does it feel to have had such a powerful impact—to make people aware and also interested in finding the identity of this killer? In finding justice for these young women’s deaths?

RK: I can’t take all the credit! This case had prompted a lot of online activity before Lost Girls was published, and more recently docu-series like A&E’s Killing Season have taken up the case in new and interesting ways. Books, I think, have an interesting role to play in a market that’s more often driven by cable true-crime and prestige docu-series and podcasts. Books end up being source texts that, if you’re lucky, are constantly referred to and drawn from and cited as others take up the reigns and start investigating on their own. I’m really glad this book is playing that role for some people. And I imagine that I’ll be back in the pool, updating Lost Girls when the time is right.

MT: What’s up next to you? How will you follow up such a grand success, a book that has inspired empathy and compassion in so many people? Readers are dying for another book from you.

RK: I’m in the middle of another narrative nonfiction project. This one is more of a family saga and medical mystery about schizophrenia. What’s exciting for me is that, like Lost Girls, it’s a way to be able to tell the story of one family, this time through several generations, and at the same time help readers understand something new.

MT: Bob, thank you for agreeing to talk with MysteryPeople about the book, the women who inspired it, their murders, and the killer who is still at large.  You are truly an inspiration.  Do you have any closing thoughts or remarks regarding this book, crime or true crime books in general, or anything else?

RK: I’m so glad you wanted to talk!  I’ve been as amazed as anyone at how since Lost Girls  was published in 2013, Serial and Making a Murderer and The Jinx have all affirmed innovative and unconventional ways of telling stories that move beyond the initial shock of an event and better understand the people and the circumstances and the broader social issues surrounding it. The wealth of true-crime books coming out this year is a testament to the innovation out there. There’s a lot to read now, and that’s exciting.