Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Meg Tilly's Book Has to Do With Journalistic Integrity

When I was 12, I came home from school one day to discover that my parents had brought home a girl from church. “She’ll be living with us for the next week, and so make sure you show her all of your dolls and things,” my mother whispered as I put down my stack of school books.

My parents were Salvation Army officers – which is another way of saying that they were pastors. I was accustomed to life revolving around the ins and outs of their mission. We would get phone calls in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner, for example, and my father would rush out to deliver a food basket to someone who had a last-minute need. And my brother and I spent hours on end at the local Salvation Army, especially during December, when my mother ran a “toy shop” for people who couldn’t afford to buy gifts for their children.

But this was the very first time that they’d actually brought home a child to stay with us.

I remember taking the girl’s hand and leading her upstairs to my pink and white room. “Would you like to play Barbies?” I asked. She shrugged, eyeing my tall Barbie townhouse. “I got this for Christmas,” I explained. “See? It even has an elevator.” I pulled on a string to make the plastic box go up and down. She sat down and silently held my dolls, stroking their hair and not uttering a word.

The week was difficult. The girl never wanted to play in my room. She preferred to stay in the basement, where my parents had created a guest room. I didn’t feel like she liked me very much, despite my attempts to engage her. When she left, I was relieved to have life back as it was.

Years later, as I studied in college for my chosen profession of journalism, I had a class in which my professor asked the ethical question: “Is it right for journalists to cover all crime stories? Should journalists stay away from stories about child abuse and child sexual molestation?”

It got me thinking, and suddenly, the girl’s visit to our house of long ago made sense. I remember asking my mother, and she confirmed my suspicions – the child had been abused by her father, and my parents had agreed to take her in as soon as an emergency until foster care could be lined up. I never saw the girl again, and her name and face still haunt me to this day. What happened to her?

As a reporter, the memory of this child ate at me whenever I was asked to do a police write-up on a child abuse case. And because I come from a conservative religious background, many of my friends were highly critical of my chosen profession and the types of stories I was assigned to write.

“Don’t you think that’s exploitation?” they would ask whenever I would bring up a story about a victim of child abuse.

It bothered me. Was it? Was I taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune so that I could advance my career? I had to dig deep and look at my motives, and I realized: The stories had to be told. How else would these victims have a voice? How else would justice prevail? How else would the public be made aware of criminal activity against society’s innocent members? How else could it be stopped? It had to be printed. It had to be told. And I felt a deep connection to the girl of long ago, realizing that her story was a story being repeated over and over again – and people needed to be made aware.

Fast forward to this month, when, out of curiosity, I picked up a book written by the actress Meg Tilly.

The title: “Gemma.”

The premise: A 12-year-old girl is abducted by a sexual predator and has to survive a harrowing journey from his car trunk, to hotel rooms, to finally being rescued, to confronting him in a courtroom.

I have to be honest with you.

The initial chapters made me so physically ill that I had to put the book away. I didn’t think I would pick it up again. I asked myself: “What’s the point of reading this? What’s the point of filling my mind with this?”

But then I realized that I was being quite hypocritical. If I really believed what I told myself those years ago – that these stories had to be told – then I could at least see if this book/author had the same purpose.

It did, and she does.

I am now mom to a 10-year-old boy. The much publicized stories of the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University have hit me hard as a single mom, because Sandusky’s victims were children of single moms. I have closely followed that case because I want to be made aware of how someone like Sandusky managed to get away with his atrocities undetected for as long as he did. What could those moms have done differently to protect their boys?

As I read through “Gemma,” I was struck by Tilly’s gift to put me squarely in the mind of a monster like Sandusky. And I was equally struck by her gift to illustrate the mind-set of a child who is thus victimized. Seeing the world through Gemma’s eyes, one realizes the deficiencies of our educational system, our court system, our system as a society to keep watch over our young and innocent children, and our steadfast denial as parents of lurking dangers that could snatch our children from our chests.

The result is a heart-pounding, non-stop ride through Gemma’s soul – an opaque window that allows us to glimpse the sufferings of tiny human beings who don’t have a chance … unless we are willing to help.

If you shy from reading a book like “Gemma,” it’s understandable. None of us really wants to look at the underbelly of the worst of humanity. But I’d strongly encourage you to give it a chance, especially if you are a teacher, pastor, social worker, court official, lawyer, police officer – and especially, a journalist. Tilly gives us insights into a plight of a reality that most of us can only guess.

I still think about the girl in my house in 1977. I still see her sitting on my bedroom floor and holding the Barbies as if they were alien creatures. I still see the look on her face as she made it clear to me that I was in a completely different league – I was still a child. She was not. Adulthood had been foisted on her, and she had missed out on the beauty and innocence of a simple activity like playing with Barbie dolls.

I see “Gemma” when I think of her now.

And I am extremely grateful to Meg Tilly for having the courage and insight to write a book on a subject that society continues to largely ignore. 

"Gemma" is easily available on Amazon. Here's a photo of the book cover and link to where you can get it:


  1. I think child abuse cases are awful to read about. Digusting, but how can we learn anything without reading them? We need to try to make it stop one child at a time.

    1. Thank you, Anonymous ...

      Yes, it's really difficult to look at this crime squarely in the face. Unfortunately, that is what perpetrators count on -- that society will turn a blind eye to what they are doing because it is so sordid and horrible to comprehend.

      I personally HATE writing anything on this subject, and as a mom, it haunts me and scares me out of my mind, to consider any harm coming to my own child.

      But it is so important for us to stay vigilant and for journalists to continue to shine a light on it, even when we want to shove it into the deepest recesses.

      I personally was so moved by Meg Tilly's book that it brought me to tears more than once. She was extremely courageous to write it.

      Thank you for posting your comment!