I've always wondered what's behind our morbid curiosity with death, but I don't have to look much farther than the time I spent with her for the answer …
"Tag, you're it!" I say to JonBenét Ramsey.
My hand reaches for her shoulder to tag it, but instead of the fleshy mound I expect from my limited experience with shoulders, I'm met with a surprising sensation.
Rather than making contact with her, my hand sinks down into a scratchy puff of red lace and taffeta, falling for what seems like forever before stopping short at a shoulder pad. For a second, I let it rest there, expecting the warm reaction of human touch arrive, but when it doesn't, I recoil my hand. It's like there's nothing living under the blazing scarlet pageant gown her parents have adorned her with. She's there, but she's not.
She forces a diplomatic smile and takes an uncomfortable step backwards. Her downward gaze and frozen posture are a non-verbal signal of refusal: she does not want to play.
She turns, then walks away. The swarm of rough-and-tumble, t-shirt-clad children I'm playing tag with abruptly stops and parts so that she can pass through unbothered.
Within the first three seconds of our interaction, I can already tell she's untouchable.
An unforgettable murder
JonBenét Ramsey's murder is one, if not the most well-known and most-obsessed about homicides of all time. You don't need to look much further than the current onslaught of JonBenét programming in media for proof — 20 years after her death, she's still TV's primetime darling; the center of attention in a world where much more current, pressing issues unsuccessfully beg for our notice.
This fall alone, at least five cable TV shows have presented their own investigations into the crime, including: "The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered" on A&E, "Who Killed JonBenét?" from NBC's "Dateline," "JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery," from Investigation Discovery, CBS' "The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey" the Lifetime movie "Who Killed JonBenét." Dr. Phil also interviewed JonBenét's father and brother for a three-part series, her story was featured on countless crime podcasts from Sword and Scale to My Favorite Murderer, and, decades after her body was found, she's still sparkling and glamorous on the cover of every magazine in America.
Not too many other slain children can say the same.
Despite the fact that one in five homicide victims are under the age of 19 and about 95,000 children are murdered worldwide every year, JonBenét's case stands out among them. There's something puzzling; something entirely unforgettable about her and her murder that, unlike the killings of countless other children, we can't let go. It's a morbid, shameless fascination we have, and it's one we've chosen to project on her alone.
For some people, it's that she was wealthy and white (and therefore received an unfair amount of media attention). For others, it's how beautiful — and blatantly sexualized — she was. And for those who work in law enforcement, or those interested in criminal justice, it's how stupendously police and prosecutors mishandled her case. For most people, it's a mix of all three.
Interacting with her during that tag game, though, I got a glimpse of something else; something much harder to explain.
Standing before her, with her pageantry ensemble and vacant demeanor, I got the sense that she was gone before she was actually gone. To me in that moment, she was a living, breathing foreshadowing of her own demise, and, at six years old, I had no other way to confront what that meant than to run away and keep playing.
On another plane, on another planet
The tag incident took place at a summertime birthday party she and I were at in Boulder, Colorado where I grew up. It was 1995. I was six, she was five. My family lived a few blocks away from hers.
We were strangers, and our parents never met, but we'd often show up at the same neighborhood birthday parties, co-existing in a shared space without much more than a silent, mutual acknowledgement.
That day, another child neither of us particularly knew was turning six. It was a late summer day, and the adults mingled over beers and pot while the kids played in the shade of a prehistorically large pine grove. All around, scruffy kids in overalls and muddy shoes ran after each other, tumbling and shrieking from the gleeful rush of being chased. Everyone wanted to be "it."
Not her. JonBenét was in full-pageant mode, stuffed into a red lace dress with a fitted bodice and what seemed like 37 layers of skirted frill. Her bleached-blonde hair was petrified in tight curls, held in place by a crunchy net of hairspray and teased for maximum volume. Her lips were ferociously red, so red that I remember worrying they were bleeding.
She was shy and distant, intentionally removed at a sacrosanct distance from the rest of us. At a party full of bombastic kids not dressed like antique dolls, her silence and her appearance were unnerving.
I lost her after the tag game, but that wasn't the end of her.
After cake and gifts, she put on a show.
I have, fossilized in my memory, the unforgettable image of her standing on a large rock in front of us. We — the other kids and our parents — were instructed by someone I don't remember to surround her in a half-circle. We were told to clap while she curtsied and waved: pageant moves. Slaps and patters of applause rippled through the air.
Atop the rock, a sequined tiara nestled in her hair caught the sunlight, refracting its rays into a halo around her that flickered intermittently as clouds took turns passing over the sun. She looked down at the small sea of adulating minions beneath her and managed to crack a smile, broadcasting a robotic blankness which she tried to conceal with long, slow bats of her striking green eyes.
We had to crane our necks upwards as she stood above us, on another plane, on another planet.
There's that Marie Antoinette kid
My dad remembers talking to her too.
He was the one that took me to that party, and he he says he'll never forget an interaction they had.
"She was sitting alone at this table while the other kids ran around," he says. "She was coloring. I remember thinking, 'There's that Marie Antoinette kid.'"
He and my mother had seen her in the neighborhood before. According to them, John and Patsy Ramsey used to dress her up and parade her around the neighborhood in their car. She'd lean out the window and pageant-wave to all the people they passed, who'd stop and stare at the unsettling sight of a lasciviously painted four-year-old undulating for attention. He felt bad for her, knowing that a child who is so starkly different is often excluded from the pack.
So, on the day of the party, intrigued by her Versailles-wear and concerned that she wasn't playing, he went over and asked her what her name was.
"JonBenét," she muttered, without looking up at him.
"… What?" he asked her. He'd never heard the name JonBenét before, so to him, her reply sounded like what he calls a "garbled squeak."
He asked her name again.
"JonBenét." She began to scribble rapidly with her crayons, visibly annoyed that he wasn't getting it.
Wanting to make light of the situation, he told her he was just a silly adult with a limited vocabulary and could she just repeat her name once more?
She got up and walked away, never looking at him.
"She was, without a doubt, the weirdest kid I've ever interacted with," he tells me. "I will never forget how strange it was. I felt bad for her, but I could kind of see why no one was playing with her."
I could see that too as she climbed down off the rock after her show was over. The transition from a place higher up, to a place beneath it — the one we were on — was almost too symbolic. While she had flourished above us, she appeared exhausted by our plane of existence upon reentry. It deadened her glow.
That distinct and tangibly understood separation between her and the rest of the world; that moment where it was made so blatantly clear that she was different from us, hints at was about her that we can't shake off. It's not just her strange familial situation or the details of her murder that strike us — it's her herself. She was exalted, revered, distant, and untouchable in a way that most children aren't subjected to; a tired soul designed by her own flesh and blood to portray someone she was not.
She was otherworldly, and therefore someone we wanted to, but could never truly understand.
A lasting impression
As I got older, I realized more and more than the impression I got of her as aloof, isolated and semi-supernatural wasn't due to any fault on her part, but to how she was raised and who raised her. She, like all children, are a product of their parents' design, and whatever animatronic sadness she conveyed that day was no doubt a result of adult interference.
Interestingly though, those who knew her much better than I did didn't get the same impression of detached divinity.
They knew her as lively and tomboy-esque, a normal little girl with friends who, according to Dateline NBC's coverage of her case, "didn't run around putting on makeup and dresses all day."
"That was something she did-part time," a family friend says in a clip from the TV special.
Parents whose children attended High Peaks Elementary/Community Montessori School with her told stories of how responsible she was, her surprising compassion, and how much she loved her brother Burke … things I, nor my dad, were privileged with seeing. And so, I recognize my fleeting interaction with her wasn't necessarily emblematic of her story. I hardly have the all the clues to that puzzle.
However, my relative removal from her and her life — and the relative removal of the rest of the country and world from it — does create an important aire of objectivity. It's possible that we see something that her friends and acquaintances were too close to pick up on; something that explains why we continue to gather around her presence, just like we did that day in 1995. Only this time, when we gather for our myriad ritual JonBenét congregations, it's not around a rock on summer day in Boulder, Colorado; it's around our TVs and iPhones.
To me, and many of the people that knew JonBenét, she was was perfect. Not perfect in the sense that nothing was wrong with her or her life, but perfect despite of what was going on behind the veil.
I don't have to recount the allegations of sexual abuse to you here, nor do I have to tell you her relationship with Burke wasn't quite as lovey-dovey as it seemed. And I especially don't need to go into Patty Ramsey's complicated relationship with her daughter; a daughter she may have seen a little too much of herself in. To put on an act of physical perfection and debutante charm to the extent that JonBenét did, in the face of what was likely happening to her behind closed doors, pays an eerie homage to the ideal of how people "should" seem when everything's not okay. People are expected to divert attention from their hidden traumas in the exact way that she did (or was instructed to do) — with perfect grace and an almost inhuman ability to seem outwardly unscarred.
It's an unsettling brand of perfection, one that invites violation in the same way that freshly fallen snow or a pristine sheet of blank paper does. That's why we obsess over her. We see her image, we hear her story, and we want to leave a mark.
The tendency we have to do that is more than a little messed up, and her memory deserves more respect than the current media craze is willing to give her. She doesn't deserve our morbid curiosity, and she doesn't deserve what happened to her. But, at a time when our culture is so microscopically trained on the supreme mystery of her death and her death alone, it's important that we look not only at her, but at ourselves. Why can't we let her go? Why, 20 years later, are we unwilling to give other children the same level of impassioned commitment and interest we are to her?
It's a question I've had to ask myself over and over as I relive the day we met. I've answered it for myself. Hopefully you can do the same.