PETALUMA — And so the search for Polly Klaas has ended. It has ended just as those rare town skeptics, who stood at the edges of a remarkable community search effort, wary, detached and always assuming the worst, whispered that it would. It has ended with a corpse . . . stashed beneath a sheet of plywood . . . at an abandoned sawmill . . . close by the Redwood Highway.
The body apparently had been there all along, dumped on that same night nine weeks ago when the 12-year-old was abducted at knifepoint from her home. "Count to 1,000 and Polly will be back," the kidnaper had told Polly's guests at a slumber party. In a sense, many people here took him at his word. They believed that she would be back. They were convinced that with relentless hope and hard work, with what they called "Polly Power," they themselves could will this little girl back to the safety of her mother's bungalow.
And so they plastered pictures of her face all over town, in almost every storefront, on car windows and telephone polls and billboards. They conducted searches through ravines and river bottoms. They generated nationwide publicity, enlisted celebrities such as Winona Ryder and Robin Williams to the cause. They festooned the town with purple ribbons, said to be Polly's favorite color. They suspended doubt and scolded skeptics, correcting the grammar of anyone who dared to speak of Polly Klaas in the past tense.
Eventually the case captured the heart, not only of Petaluma, but of people throughout Northern California and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the state and country. Why this girl, this case, when missing and dead children fairly dot the landscape? Theories abound. It was because she was pretty. It was because she was pretty and white. It was because she was snatched by a stranger, and from her own home. It was because she lived in an otherwise placid community. It was because of the organizational skills of her family and friends, their knack for public relations. It was the celebrities.
Whatever, it happened. Polly Klaas became known across a broad landscape as simply "Polly." She became a celebrity--"a goddess," declared a local writer in a letter to the New Yorker; "America's child," in the words of Polly's own father. Nowhere was this transformation more complete than here in Petaluma. Little toddlers would point to posters and tell their mothers, excitedly, "Polly!" Retirees would speak of her as a grandchild. Schoolmates traded in details about the girl, her littlest likes, habits, intentions.
"They said her favorite color was purple," one junior high classmate confided Monday, after the body had been found. "But really it was blue." He said this as though it mattered still.
The perils in this obsession were obvious. A month ago, halfway into the search, a psychologist who counseled children about the kidnaping put it this way: "When she was kidnaped, most people didn't know her at all. Now everyone in town has seen her poster; they see it 30 times a day. They've seen her on television. They have seen her parents at events. And so now everybody has made a connection to Polly. They know her, not in the abstract, but really know her. And it will be much harder to take, as a community, when the other shoe drops."
The other shoe dropped Saturday, and the days since have brought much weeping and rage. In the end, the people who refused to assume the worst, who invested so much effort and emotion in finding Polly, left themselves exposed, and now is their time to pay. Now they must grieve, not for a neighborhood girl, but for a goddess. They must grieve, not just for a victim, but for themselves--"for our hope lost," as Polly's mother put it, "for our faith betrayed."
As consolation, they talk of carrying on with the cause, the creation of new foundations, the crafting of tougher legislation, better techniques. This focus on the machinery, while well-intended, misses the larger meaning of the Polly Klaas tragedy. Which is not about mechanics, but about emotion.
The meaning of Polly can be found in all those people who put aside reason and harsher realities and put their hearts on the line, who tried. They were burned, but they tried. And in trying, they tapped something fundamental, something with potential that, like Polly, can transcend Petaluma.
Imagine, just for example, if the people of Los Angeles were to make a cause out of every child in trouble, if they decided as a community to put the face of every slain or missing child on the window of every storefront, to treat every young victim as front-page news. Imagine if they only would try.