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On Christmas Day 1997, mine was one of a few dozen cars on the Atlanta highway that morning, driving not to a relative’s house or a friend’s party, but to work.
At the Associated Press, holidays were work days for young reporters and I was on my way to that day’s assignment—stalking the grave site of JonBenét Ramsey.
Beautiful and angelic, Ramsey was only six years old when she was found slain in the basement of her parent’s Boulder, Colo. home one year earlier. We had all read and watched in horror at the tragedy that had taken away this innocent child and the curious details about her life that would slowly emerge afterward. Her dolled-up, delicate face — a fixture in child beauty pageants – was on the news almost nightly.
At the time, it seemed very far away. Perhaps, from afar, we all process these things similarly. You don’t know the child or the family, your heart aches for them, you question, you make judgments and you move on with your life.
Then, the Ramseys moved to Georgia.
Leaving their Colorado home behind, John and Patricia (Patsy) Ramsey moved back to the suburbs of Atlanta, where JonBenét was born, and buried their daughter in the St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Ga.
For the Ramseys, perhaps the move was an effort to flee the media chaos and find peace. Little did I know then, that our destinies would be linked.
I worked in the Atlanta office of the AP news bureau—my third assignment with the prestigious wire service, after graduating from college a few years earlier.
The venerable AP provides news stories and content to media outlets all over the world, giving them access to events which they normally wouldn’t have the resources to cover. The job meant long hours and high stress during times of breaking news, but also the chance of a lifetime to cover national stories and be part of the world’s pulse.
An aspiring writer didn’t say “no” to working for the AP, I was repeatedly told by my journalism professors and mentors.
After I graduated, I was given a shot as a temporary staffer in Phoenix, where I spent five months; then Minneapolis, another five months, before proving to my bosses that I was capable of handling a full-time assignment with the news service.
Now in Atlanta, this was the story to chase.
In the AP newsroom, our crew of reporters, some just a few years out of college like me, took turns night and day, either standing watch outside the Ramseys’ new home or at JonBenét’s grave, with the hope that the parents would speak, that something would emerge to solve this horrifying death.
Then, Christmas Day arrived and the one-year anniversary of the girl’s unsolved murder demanded a media story. It was my turn to stand vigil.
So, on a sacred Christian holiday, I was holed up in a car with an AP photographer, outside the graveyard, waiting to see if JonBenét’s family would show up. The photographer was chatting with an older, decidedly weathered guy — a paparazzi who kept talking about the “thrill of the hunt” that morning, waiting to catch the “money shot” of the mournful family.
As I stared ahead, I felt sick. It hit me with turbulent force that I shouldn’t be there.
I can’t do this, I thought. I don’t want to do this.
As I stared blankly at the empty, sun-strewn graveyard, I silently prayed that the family would not show up. I knew I wouldn’t have the guts to approach them. I mean, I was only 25. What did I know anyway?
How they would look at me, loathing in their eyes, wondering how someone could be so callous as to question them on top of the grave that held their little girl. What was wrong with me?
As a reporter, this is what you do. You take your feelings out of it. You tell the story. It’s the very heart of the profession. This was paralyzing weakness, and for me, it was just too much to bear.
I knew, at that moment, that I would never be a great hard news reporter. I didn’t want the hunt and I didn’t want the scoop. I just wanted to leave these people — these parents —alone.
I wanted to quit my very first job out of college — the first stop on my career path. It all felt like such monumental failure. I could already see my professors shaking their heads. Pathetic.
The Ramsey family never showed up at the cemetery while I was there. Years later, Patsy would succumb to ovarian cancer and JonBenét’s murder continues to be a cold case mystery, even after all this time. Yet, that day was a touchstone in my life, one that plays over and over in my subconscious.
It wasn’t long after that winter morning that I left my job at the AP—a move I can only imagine looked like career suicide to my fellow reporters.
With no plan, I gave up that glamorous job and moved back home to Arizona, where I started a new chapter, taking a temporary job as an administrative assistant. It was just a job at the time, but I wanted, needed, to be far, far away from that tragedy-driven, 24-7 news cycle.
The often soul-killing events that reporters face to tell the world a story and document its importance for the infinite record require a mental strength that, I realized that morning at the cemetery, I didn’t have. I wasn’t strong enough.
Today, I am a freelance writer and a mother of two. I have found my love of writing again and continue to work on it every day, just for myself.
I’ve watched some of my AP colleagues from Atlanta go on to have very successful careers, and deservedly so. I truly respect and admire them, as well as all the lessons I learned at that bustling news bureau.
I’m proud that I had the guts to walk away, knowing that it wasn’t a perfect fit. I do hope to publish meaningful work someday, but until then, I just keep on writing and prefer to watch the breaking news instead of cover it.