Not unlike many fans of Netflix’s gripping Mindhunter series, I am ashamed to say I had never heard of the Atlanta child murders, a focus of Mindhunter‘s season two. When the actual murders took place, I was little more than a toddler myself, but this is never an excuse for ignorance. After all, I find myself frustrated when I talk to youngsters who claim to “love Ted Danson” but know him only in the context of The Good Place, claiming never to have heard of Cheers because it was broadcast originally long before they were alive. So what? Sergeant Pepper was released long before I was born, but I know it, can sing along with it. The Donna Reed Show predates my entire existence, but I’m fully aware of it. We have had reruns in perpetuity. Perhaps we live in an age devoid of all memory, despite being able to conjure up the past with an instant internet search – nothing is ever gone. We are surrounded by and immersed in noise and content from the past and present. Maybe it’s too difficult to swim through all of it to find the linear path of, for example, Ted Danson’s long television history, given the onslaught of everything we are steeped in and the expectation to keep moving forward.
This digression is altogether too frivolous for the subject matter, though. Watching Mindhunter, I found myself having to Google whether the spate of murders it depicted was based on reality. I wasn’t alone. As the story unfolded, it grew more terrifying and shocking – all the more because, until recently, it is a story that seems never to have made lasting headlines. No one I asked (even people much older than me who regularly followed the news at the height of these crimes) had ever heard of this story. The horror of the crimes is viscerally disturbing enough, but what has disturbed and occupied me since seeing Mindhunter is the widespread ignorance to the fact that these serial murders ever happened.
These disappearances and deaths of children in Atlanta occurred at the tail-end of the 1970s and early 1980s – not too long after the high-profile reign of terror wrought by serial killer Ted Bundy. The difference? The Atlanta murders were all black children. Bundy killed young white women. As ever, who gets the public spotlight? This is not new, so I should not be surprised. Not knowing about the Atlanta children until nearly 40 years later makes me feel hopeless and helpless … not just because I didn’t know about it but also that this information has not been in the public eye at all during my entire lifetime (while Bundy remains, unfathomably, the object of constant discussion and fascination). Only now has a comprehensive HBO documentary series about the child murders been released… and even this does not seem like enough. It is not easy viewing – nor should it be.
My rambling has little point. What does a frivolity like Ted Danson have to do with something so completely soul-crushing? It’s a keen reminder that the past, whatever it is, is easily forgotten. Some of history’s most heinous events can be entirely lost, particularly if too little note was paid to them in the first place. And it’s an even keener reminder that, as a society, we see only what we want to see and what we are shown. It’s no wonder that we live in most fraught, divided and painful times, when not every life – wrongly – is seen as having the same inherent value.