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Have you seen these children?

Pictured, Jaycee Dugard Pictured, Jaycee Dugard (Associated Press)
By Katharine Whittemore
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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You may have heard that kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard’s memoir, “A Stolen Life” (Simon & Schuster, 2011), shot to the No. 1 spot on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction list at the end of July, and it’s still there. Thousands of us are reading the book, in other words - but thousands more can’t bear to.

The acutely awful basics: Jaycee was abducted in 1991 in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., at age 11, by Phillip Garrido, a paroled rapist and kidnapper, and his wife, Nancy. The couple took Jaycee to their home in a Bay Area suburb. She lived there for 18 years in a tent in the backyard, was sexually abused, and gave birth to her first daughter at age 14, her second at 17.

Since her 2009 rescue, Jaycee’s case has continued to break news as government officials issued scathing reports on how she could have been held in plain sight for so long. You just want to cry about Garrido’s parole officers, who did few home visits, ignored positive drug tests, and let him get a job as a door-to-door salesman.

I won’t lie: The first third of the book, the stuff about her kidnapping and early abuse, is profoundly sickening. But, unbelievably, Jaycee keeps hope alive. She plants roses and morning glories around her tent. She is allowed some kittens and lavishes them with love. She keeps a journal full of longing for her mother and dreams of escape (“I would travel around my world on a horse the color of fire with a mane of snow”). She tries to be a good mom, home-schooling her girls with help from the Internet. All throughout, Jaycee’s voice just crushed me. No ghost writer here; her narration uncannily flips between immature (her education stopped at fifth grade, after all) and insightful, as she gains perspective post-rescue, through sessions with her therapist, Rebecca Bailey.

Two other books on kidnapping have also come out this year. This next one is about Adam Walsh. In 1981, a drifter and admitted serial killer with a low IQ approached the 6-year-old at a Sears in Florida - his mother let him play the video game Asteroids for a moment while she asked a clerk about a lamp. The man lured the boy with candy, then abducted, beat, sodomized, and killed him. Les Standiford’s “Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America’’ (Ecco, 2011) traces how, after 27 years, the killer was brought to justice by a retired cop named Joe Matthews, who had been kicked off the original investigation. The story is mesmeric and gruesome.

Adam’s tragedy has one saving grace. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was founded in 1984, prompted by the abductions of Adam Walsh and Etan Patz in New York City in 1979. Before that, there was no central record of missing children; the states didn’t coordinate, and the system was a mess. Then came the photos on milk cartons, the phone hotlines, the newspaper listings of sex offenders. The world we live in now - more fearful, less naive - is partly due to the legislative and publicity efforts of Adam’s mother, Revé Walsh, and father, John Walsh, former host of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted.’’

Apart from the Lindbergh baby, we tend to think of child abductions as a newish American travesty. “We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America’’ (Overlook, 2011) by Carrie Hagen begs to differ. The propulsive story of what is thought to be the country’s first documented kidnapping for ransom kicks off in July 1874 in Philadelphia, where city officials are gearing up to host the centennial celebration and don’t want tourists scared off by reports of crime. A pair of river pirates step from a horse-drawn wagon to offer candy to a 4-year-old named Charley Ross and his older brother Walter (who is let go).

Soon they demand a big ransom - not realizing the boys’ wealthy father lost most of his money in the Panic of 1873. They warn of police interference (“don’t flater yu self that yu will trap us’’) and send 23 ransom notes over the next five months. The story hits the national press. Some 700,000 posters are placed in railroad depots across the country. About 600 street children claim to be Charley. The Ross family tries to meet with the kidnappers and grant their demands but there’s a twist. The notes stop. Charley’s fate remains unknown.

Such painful books, all three of these. I wanted to stop reading many times. But then I’d think of something I heard at a safety training workshop at the church where I teach Sunday school. We all had to watch a video of pedophiles explaining how they lure children, so we could learn how to spot the telltale signs. It was shattering. “None of us want to know things like this,” our minister said quietly when the lights came up. “But we must lose our innocence - so our children can keep theirs.”

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.