By Kim Powers
In my day job—my “barista job” as I call it—I’m the senior writer for ABC’s newsmagazine, 20/20. One of the highest-ranking and most moving shows we’ve done in the last several years was Diane Sawyer’s incredible one hour special with Jaycee Dugard, the 11-year-old girl who had been kidnapped by a crazed husband and wife in California in 1991. Held captive by them for the next 18 years, even forced to bear two children by the man, Jaycee was finally rescued during a rare trip outside the backyard compound, which had become both her prison and her home.
At the time of Diane’s interview with Jaycee and her mother, Terry Probyn, I hadn’t started writing my new kidnapping thriller, DIG TWO GRAVES, although I had written a version of the story as a screenplay. There was one moment in Diane’s interview that never left me, and that became a guiding light for me in my book; not a big, over-the-top, hysterical moment, but a much quieter, off-the-cuff, indelibly human moment. Jaycee’s mother, hard-worn and hard scrabble, said that one night in her backyard, years after Jaycee had been taken, she just looked up into the sky and said, “Jaycee, where are you?” To me, it was probably the most deeply-felt, intimate, naked moment in the program. And the way Terry, the mother, told it to Diane, replaying it: the cock of her head, just the slightest layer of tears that came across her eyes; I could visualize her in that backyard, probably taking out the trash or some completely humdrum task that said life went on, but she had never given up. Asking her question to Jaycee, God, the universe. Hoping that if there were any shred of justice or good in the world, she’d get an answer back.
That perfectly still moment found its way into DIG TWO GRAVES. (Write what you know, or at least see on TV, right?) A 12-year old girl named Skip has been kidnapped; her father Ethan Holt, a former Olympic Decathlon hero, saysto himself, “Skip, where are you?” after everyone else has gone home. Ethan, who had been proclaimed the best athlete in the world—jokingly nicknamed “Hercules” by his teammates; a man who, in his prime, could have ripped apart a thick metropolitan phone book. Now, all he has is himself, in the dark of the night. The one-time strongest man in the world is impotent; his muscles can’t solve the problem any longer. The police have packed up, exhausted and out of leads; they’ve been living on cold pizza and Red Bull for days. But Ethan can’t go to sleep while his daughter is missing. He can’t tuck himself into a nice warm bed, while something horrible might be happening to her.
Midway through my book, and almost unconsciously, I realized I didn’t need Diane Sawyer’s interview with Jaycee Dugard and her mom to teach me that. I had gone through the same thing in real life, when my twin brother disappeared for a three-day period, in our late 20s. It was after a period of his out-of-control drinking and a suicide attempt, and I thought he might indeed be dead this time. I had filed a missing person’s report with the police. They went as far as getting me into his apartment, to see that he—or his dead body–wasn’t there. That was the subject of my first book, a memoir called The History of Swimming. But unlike in DIG TWO GRAVES, where bizarre clues and ransom demands start coming in from the kidnapper, letting Ethan—and the reader—know that Skip is alive, I didn’t have that cold comfort. I didn’t realize I was resuscitating those old emotions, to get in the mindset of my hero.
There’s another indelible snapshot from my life, so profound it made its way into both The History of Swimming and DIG TWO GRAVES. In college, I had made a rare weekend trip to the local mall, where three members of a family were passing out home-made flyers, looking for their little girl who had disappeared. I can remember it to this day, especially that mother, with her desperate eyes, wondering who would be her lifeline. Who might have seen her baby? They were the same eyes as Jaycee’s mother, looking up to the sky. Have you seen this girl? Our girl? Our daughter? My little girl? Where are you?
I couldn’t help them. But worse than that—I arrogantly thought (at 20 years old) that such a thing could never happen to me. I wouldn’t ever let things get so bad to be in that place, of having to ask strangers for help. They looked lower-middle class, which I was, but pretended not to be. I thought surely drugs were somehow involved, or abuse. I was polite to them, concerned, but that’s what was going on in my mind. Then all those years later, going through that with my twin brother Tim, having to call up his friends and ask if they knew where he was, I had suddenly become that family in the mall. “Just as I am, without one plea,” that Southern Baptist hymn I had grown up on. All hope gone. Desperate, as I searched for my brother, the same way my fictional character Ethan Holt has to search for his daughter in DIG TWO GRAVES. I think everything I’ve ever written since that Saturday in the Sher-Den Mall has been my apology to that family: it can happen. Now I know. I’ve learned my lesson, and I hope you accept my apology. I hope you found your daughter. Somehow, I doubt they did, and it’s that moment of humanity at its rawest, that makes me keep putting pen to paper, asking their forgiveness.
Kim Powers is the author of the novel Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story as well as the critically acclaimed memoir The History of Swimming, which was both a Barnes & Noble “Discover” Selection and a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Memoir of the Year. He also wrote the screenplay for the festival-favorite indie film “Finding North.”
Powers is currently the Editorial Producer/Senior Writer for ABC’s 20/20, and has written for numerous ABC shows including What Would You Do? with John Quinones, and primetime specials with Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Robin Roberts and Katie Couric. He won both Emmy and Peabody Awards for his 9/11 reporting for Good Morning America, and for the past two years has received the Edward R. Murrow Award with ABC News for Overall Excellence.
A native Texan, he received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and lives in New York City.
To learn more about Kim, please visit his website.