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My youth was filled with warnings. “Just Say No,” “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” and “No Means No” pervaded the cultural ether in the early ’90s. The advice came from our teachers, police officers who came to our classrooms, and my parents. My mother was particularly good at training me to recognize and avoid stranger danger. As a kindergartner, I learned adults never ask for help from children (which now as an adult myself, I can confirm; they are useless at directions). If a stranger attempted to pick me up, I was to yell “NOT MY PARENT” as I melted into dead weight, rendering me nearly impossible to transport into a vehicle. And if a family friend came to pick me up from school, my parents and I had a secret code to ensure they were legit messengers vetted and verified (PocahontasDaisy, if I recall correctly). As far as I can tell, no attempts were ever made, but I was (and continue to be) on the lookout for shenanigans. My friends have similar stories regarding the ways in which they were warned against becoming victims — with similar threads — stranger dangers, candy vans, and codes. Our parents clearly survived their youths in order to pass down these lessons, which made it all the stranger that they were so afraid we wouldn’t survive ours.

By my birth in 1985, there had been two world wars that affected generations of our families. Men came home traumatized, women shifted their priorities, children adjusted until they inevitably feared Russians and nuclear war. As if Charles Manson’s destruction of the ’60s had been a battle cry, the 1970s and ’80s saw the proliferation of high-profile serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Robert Hansen, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac Killer (and that’s just a handful) invading the public’s conscience. They were the “everyman” who lived in any town next to any person. Bundy was a charmer who volunteered at suicide hotlines. Gacy and Hansen were pillars of their community. And the nameless — like Zodiac — were so adept at blending in they were never caught. More… “Girl Afraid”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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A scene in the “new hit series” The Killing seemed déjà-vu familiar, until I realized it’s a standard moment in crime dramas. The victim’s parents are in the police station to answer some questions, and they accidentally come across the crime scene photos. The warm body of the daughter they knew and loved has become the cold corpse the police treat casually. Maybe they overhear a callous gallows-humor joke made by a detective. Their daughter’s dismembered body is cut into even smaller pieces by the police camera as it zooms in on her bound wrists, her broken nails left bloody stumps from trying to claw her way out of captivity, the petechial hemorrhage pinking the white of her eyes. The viewer is not allowed the same reaction as the parents. What they see as defilement, we see as aesthetics. When the body of the young girl is discovered, her body… More…

My friend Bob took me into his basement the other day to have a look at his hobby.  This was not a stamp or coin collection; there was no woodshop, pool table, recording studio, or S&M chamber, for that matter. Instead, the room was taken over from one end to the other by a model train village. Bob had worked on this village with his now-adult children since they were very young, and the hobby stretched back even further to his own childhood, when he acquired his first train set. What lay before me was thus a kind of embodied landscape for my friend’s development into the person he is today. There were the old trains and the newer ones, there was city hall (the city named after his daughter), the county seat (named after his son), his parents’ pizzeria, his wife’s dress shop. He could tell me when and… More…

The National Museum of Crime and Punishment opened in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago with McGruff the Crime Dog greeting guests outside the entrance. The museum (which was financed by an Orlando lawyer and produced in conjunction with the Fox TV show America’s Most Wanted) strives to bring interactivity and entertainment to a museum about crime. I visited on a soft opening day, and then again the next day for the grand opening, the major difference between these days being that on grand opening day, McGruff high-fived me at the door, John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted was rumored to be in the building, and entrance was free for all law enforcement officers.

 

Both days, though, were united by the strange tonal shifts one experiences when one engages in silly fun, reads random factoids, and is then… More…