Jayme Closs, Child Abductions, and Human Habitat

Last October, in the small town of Barron in rural Wisconsin, someone shot down the door at the home of James and Denise Closs, killed them both, and then abducted their thirteen-year-old daughter, Jayme. An extensive search failed to find her or create any leads to explain this seemingly random event. This is the stuff of nightmares, particularly in a small town.

It’s also the kind of event that inspires a community to band together—and the way Barron responded was certainly inspiring to me. The people who rushed to the scene to help recover the lost girl displayed some of the best features of small-town life. All those people lined up in common purpose along the roadside, trudging through fields and forests, hoping beyond hope together—it was really moving.

This past week, Jayme was found—alive—on the side of the road by a woman walking a dog. She had escaped from her abductor and, in a story that feels like a miracle, has been reunited with her aunt and extended family. A man completely unknown to the family is in custody and will apparently be charged with murder and kidnapping.

For the most part, our reaction is worse than what we fear. By closing ourselves off from each other, we do serious damage to ourselves and to society.

When a stranger abducts a child, it has a chilling effect on us as a society. No amount of statistics about how rare this is—and it is incredibly rare—frees us from the feeling of vulnerability. I have two daughters and I want nothing more for them than that they grow up to be confident, happy, and self-aware. They are old enough to be out in the world, and I want them to have that experience. Yet I have to admit that I still feel this reptilian level of protectiveness when they are out in the neighborhood playing. It manifests in anxiety that my better mind can overrule, but I’m sympathetic to the parents who lack that willpower.

I also try to be understanding of my urban friends who have anxiety over guns, even though this particular anxiety is more foreign to me. I grew up on a farm miles from town. For as long as I was aware, I knew there was a loaded gun behind the door. I’ve seen the statistics about gun violence and how you’re more likely to be shot by your own gun, but when you live in a place with no neighbors for miles, where nobody is going to hear you in an emergency, let alone come to your aid, having one seemed like a reasonable thing. There were more than a few times that people showed up on our doorstep in questionable circumstances.

All this to say, I have an appreciation for these forms of perfectly normal anxiety. But at the same time, there is a need for us to resist the impulse to allow stories like the Jayme Closs abduction to make us less trusting and open with our neighbors. By closing ourselves off from each other, we do serious damage to ourselves and to society—and sometimes, that damage is worse than the danger we feared in the first place.

At the end of last month, Russ Roberts featured journalist and author Sebastian Junger on the Econtalk podcast. If you don’t subscribe to Econtalk, you should, but either way, you must listen to this conversation. I did three times.

Junger talks about our evolutionary need for community, how humans are wired to work together as social creatures, and how that act provides meaning to our lives.

The problem with modern society is that, for most of the time for most people, we’ve solved the direct physical threats to our survival. So what you have is people….attending to their own needs and interests, but almost never getting dragged back into this idea of group concern that is part of our human heritage. The irony is that, when people are part of a group and doing something essential to a group, it gives incredible sense of well-being.

Junger notes how casualty rates have declined with each war, yet the rate of war-related stress injuries is skyrocketing. Today, he states, only about 10% of our troops are ever involved in active combat—shooting and killing others—yet about half of returning veterans file for some type of stress-related compensation.

Why would this be? Junger’s theory is simple: people in the past were returning to a more cohesive society, one that functioned more like a local tribe with interdependence and group problem-solving. Today, veterans return to an alienating society, one where we live mostly separated from each other, isolated in our homes, socially dealing with life’s challenges alone.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we are living with an epidemic of loneliness. And this loneliness has been connected to increased rates of heart disease and stroke, slow recovery from illness, an explosion of opiate addiction (as I discussed on the Strong Towns Podcast with author Sam Quinones), and even depression and suicide. We’ve evolved to live in close communities with others. We’d find it absurd to suggest that individual bees or ants would thrive living in isolation from each other, with only infrequent contact for doing necessary tasks. Why is it not absurd to believe humans should live this way?

I was deeply affected by the suicide of Robin Williams back in 2014, and remember this memoriam for him in the New Yorker by Andrew Solomon as particularly haunting:

A great hope gets crushed every time someone reminds us that happiness can be neither assumed nor earned; that we are all prisoners of our own flawed brains; that the ultimate aloneness in each of us is, finally, inviolable.

The story of Jayme Closs should give us cause to hug our children a little tighter, but then to love them enough to send them out boldly into the world—and while they’re out playing, we need to work to make that world just a little less isolating for them. The fear of one lost should unite us in common cause working for their speedy recovery, but our coming together over smaller things needs similar urgency.

We are evolved chimpanzees living in a habitat completely foreign to how our bodies and minds are adapted to live. Both sugar and isolation were rare among early humans, so it’s natural we would be wired to crave them, to maximize them when given the opportunity. Despite the marketing, we know what happens to us when we fail to moderate our sugar intake. And despite the marketing, we are slowly becoming more aware of what happens when we choose to live in isolation.