It was a small headline in our local newspaper. And for those new to our area and those who didn't have children, it was not terribly memorable:
Local Teen Victim of a Hit-and-Run Accident
In the weeks that followed, though, the story took hold and spun wildly, as small-town news stories so often do. The boy hit by the car died, and another local teen emerged as a suspect and was later arrested. Because of their ages, both of their names were kept out of the paper. But that didn't stop everyone - particularly the young people in our town -- from embellishing the story. As days and weeks went by, the hit-and-run was said to have been gang-related, drug-related, a purse-snatching gone wrong, the inevitable culmination of a years-long vendetta between the two boys who, as it turned out, were from rival schools.
None of it was true, of course. But in a way, it didn't matter. Those spinning the various stories were younger kids, friends of my daughter who had never met either boy but who suffered from that nagging, yearning boredom so specific to kids growing up in small towns.
It was fake news, complete with a hero, a villain and various conspiracy narratives. And with the help of social media, it became something to follow, to believe in and swear by, to whisper about and post about and comment on incessantly, inaccurately... until the next bit of dark gossip took hold and spread.
Though the hit-and-run took place a few years ago, I am still haunted by the thought of both boys, of their mothers trying to learn the real truth, even as their children were transformed into characters in an ongoing gossip-fuelled narrative, their humanity disappearing as their bleak shared story took on a life of its own.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and went to college in the Chicago area, after which I moved to New York City for graduate school and wound up staying for several years. But when my husband and I settled down and had a child, it was in a small town, two and a half hours north of New York City - one of many lovely, idyllic hamlets on the banks of the Hudson River or nearby, with historic buildings and public squares and populations smaller than that of most universities. In many ways, my town a wonderful place to raise a family - the streets are safe, the cost of living is low, the public school is a good one and the pace is slower, less cut-throat than it is in the city.
But as many good things as there are to be had in a small town, so many of them - the slow pace, the familiarity, the utter safety of it all - can also make it a breeding ground for fake news and often malicious gossip, especially when something, or someone, happens to threaten that fragile status quo. It's been going on since the beginning of time. Think of the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthy era finger-pointing or, more recently, the persecution of the three bullied goth teenagers from Arkansas known as The West Memphis Three, who were imprisoned for a series of brutal child murders, until documentary filmmakers found the evidence that ultimately freed them. The early rape conviction of Making a Murderer's Stephen Avery (which was later overturned) arguably stemmed back to the disdain the citizens of Manitowoc County felt for Avery and his odd duck family, all of them clearly outsiders in their pleasant little community.
We all believe what we want to believe, and in a small town, those beliefs catch on and spread like fire, especially in the era of social media. Nothing is vetted on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, yet a false post or comment is all-too-often taken at face value, and repeated and repeated until it becomes an accepted fact.
It doesn't take something as devastating as a murder to get the rumor mill churning, but tragedy does send it into overdrive. Perhaps it's the desire to make sense out of the senseless, to restore that fragile idea of order by naming a villain, painting him as truly evil and punishing him for it, as quickly as possible.
But motivations and people are rarely as simple as we'd like to believe. And my heart still aches for those boys involved in the hit-and-run, whose truths most of us will never know.
A.L. Gaylin is the author of If I Die Tonight, published by Century, available now in the UK in trade paperback and ebook