It seems that the whole world raised their hands to their mouths in unison when it found out about the tragic disappearance and finding of the body of Gabby Petito. It is a pain that overwhelmed many — and for those of us who have lost a loved one to murder, it hit even harder.
In 2016, I experienced something I would never wish on anyone: my sister, Jessica Thomas, disappeared. My younger brother was the one who informed the police and at first, I was optimistic. I thought he was probably making a big deal out of nothing. “Well, that’s unfortunate but I don’t know what I can do from here,” I told my father over the phone from California, hundreds of miles away from where Jessica lived. Upset, he hung up the phone.
The truth is that I hoped and believed Jessica wasn’t making contact because she’d finally decided to put some distance between herself and her partner Shawn, who I suspected was abusive. Little did I know that we were about to find out he was also her murderer.
Jessica had been missing for three days by the time I found out about her disappearance. She hadn’t turned up to work, though she’d seemingly posted on social media a couple of times. And sadly, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. Not long after we reported her disappearance to the police, I received a phone call from my brother that I’ll never forget: “They found Jess, Jen,” he said. “She’s dead. Shawn killed her. The coroner’s office just called me.”
Though my family experienced nothing like the amount of attention Gabby Petito’s have, I’m still well aware from the small amount we had that press interest during such a hard time can be bittersweet. It is heartbreaking “privilege” to bear. And the politics of who gets coverage and when in a situation like this are complicated and nuanced. People have made much of “missing white woman syndrome” in the days since Petito disappeared, and they are right that many people of color receive much less press attention.
My own family is Latino, but I was well aware that Jessica being white-passing contributed to the small press frenzy that we did experience when she was killed. Nevertheless, I should point out that survivors are often forced into a space where we are asked to be grateful for whatever attention our case receives, even if that attention is deeply traumatic and damaging. We are left on the sidelines, powerless as folks speculate widely, using sometimes unproductive and hurtful commentary while we grieve and ache at the loss of a loved one.
It is important to consider that Gabby Petito’s family didn’t ask for this — and Petito herself certainly didn’t want to have her life cut short. Complaining about the large amount of coverage she has received doesn’t help any person who has disappeared or been murdered. We should not be seeking to ridicule people for caring about the Petito case; we should be seeking to draw attention to those cases which have been criminally underserved.
And then there are the keyboard warriors, the obsessive online spectators who like the draw conclusions about cases involving dead young woman as a hobby. In some ways, I understand them. I posted on social media myself after Jessica disappeared, speculating that Shawn may have been involved. I made it known that I didn’t trust him and that I felt they may have been arguing before she went missing. That hurt some members of my family, which I deeply regret, even if many of my suspicions were later proved right.
Seeing commentary about Petito brings back the trauma of losing Jessica. It brings back the frustration of systems that didn’t allow for people like my sister to have the tools that they might need to leave safely. It brings back the aching sadness and frustration of how the family must be processing all of the assorted nuances and speculation involved in the process, which has not ended in her death but just started. We must be mindful that even the family members may not know the details of Gabby’s story. They might be finding out at the same time as everyone else. Sometimes that’s how it works.
Gabby, like my sister, did not deserve what happened to her, whatever the cause of her death. Her family does not deserve to be part of an entertainment discourse wherein very online people attempt to play at sleuthing for kicks. And equally, those who have not had their cases discussed in public or given police resources deserve so much more. We have a long way to go before we treat every missing or deceased person equally.
Careful action is necessary now: action for domestic abuse victims, action for people of color, and action for the people who are left behind when someone is taken before their time. That is what will help us, survivors, the most during these triggering times, and what can make our burdens a little less heavy.