Essaying: Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls”

I’ve been reading the essays in Best American Essays 2013 randomly, so I never know what I’m going to get. Once I started Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls,” I couldn’t stop until I was done. She left her home in New York when she was fifteen in 1985 (the same age I was that year). At first, she was with her twenty-one-year-old boyfriend, but she was alone after about six weeks. She hitchhiked around the country, which means she met a lot of long-haul truck drivers. She was molested by some and left stranded because she wouldn’t consent to sex with the drivers by others. Once, on I-95 in the Carolinas, she was held at knifepoint and forced into the back of a truck’s cab. She talked her way out of that situation. Decades later, a friend emailed her a link to a news story asking if the guy in it was the same guy who almost raped her. It was.

The man was Robert Ben Rhoades, and he was a serial killer in jail since 1990. But serial killer is actually a very empty phrase. The man tortured women. He killed men, but it sounds like he killed them either to get to the women or as part of the woman’s torture. And I do not use the word torture lightly, but that is what he did. I won’t provide any details here to prove that. The essay does it well enough. I will be teaching the book in my first-year composition course next semester, and I’m wondering if I should require this essay or keep it optional. In the past, when I’ve made certain essays optional and explain why, a lot of students end up reading them. And other students thank me for the warning and the chance to opt out.

But the essay is powerful not just because it documents crimes that often remain invisible, crimes that eventually led to the creation of the Highway Serial Killings Initiative in 2009. The essay is about memory and how a woman can find evidence of what (almost) happened to her without any police reports or other official documentation to start from. It’s about how far you will go to find the answers to your questions; for example, do you visit the man himself in prison? That’s the power of this essay, that we get to read a deep, thoughtful account of how one woman tries to reconcile what she has learned about what almost happened to her decades earlier with the adult life she has today. What is worth knowing? What is worth leaving behind? Who has been forgotten?

The essay appeared in GQ in November 2012, so you can read it now (and you should). Here are a few of my favorite quotations, the lines that I had to underline and will continue to reflect upon. Page numbers refer to where they appear in the book.

“That first ride was a preview of how it would often go for me with truckers–dodging sex and getting stranded–but I had learned one crucial lesson: When a truck slows down, you get up” (42).

“I needed visibility to stay alive” (42).

“The question of what you do with your old SWAT jacket when you retire had never entered my mind. Clearly the answer is: Make a throw pillow” (48).

“The more I learned about Rhoades, the more I saw parallels between us” (49).

“Everywhere I looked, evidence of these girls was disappearing” (52).

“It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims” (52).

“Recently, the New Jersey State Supreme Court handed down a statement on memory, describing it as complex and often unreliable. The ruling went on to question the admissibility of eyewitness testimony” (54).

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