The Murder, the Flood, and Stories of Trauma

Rebecca Weaver-Hightower

Trauma causes us to have an internal experience that is frightening, angry, and shameful. When we feel threatened, as we do when we are traumatized, our entire organism is geared up to find the source of that threat and to do something about it.

—Peter A. Levine

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.

—Bill Bowerman

April is the cruelest month.

—T.S. Eliot

1

The newspaper stories I read in 2004 about the girl hinted that she should have been immune to violence. Dru Sjodin (pronounced “shuh-deen”), was exceptionally pretty, a sorority girl, and homecoming queen. A student, she had lived in Grand Forks, the small college town where I had just moved—in North Dakota of all places—in a rural farm state that, it seemed to me as a transplant, was full of nice white people who would no more directly harm each other than they would (now) vote Democrat.

The newspaper stories still running a year after her murder, with their “this shouldn’t have happened” tone, often included a picture of Dru Sjodin, typically her sorority photo, which showed an attractive young woman with a stylish blond haircut and large smile, neck and shoulders bared above a black photographic drape, the kind of middle-class girl who should marry, travel, and plan to leave North Dakota but never actually do so. But this pretty girl’s smile caught the eye of a killer who, the stories intimated, shouldn’t even have been in this town.

The murder in its time became notorious enough to make national news, most notably People Magazine. Published before her body was found, the People story began by narrating Dru Sjodin’s last hours. She worked at the Victoria’s Secret in the mall, where she had been on November 22, 2003, the day she was abducted. After her shift and while walking to her car around 5pm, she had called her boyfriend, an older man by a decade she had just begun seeing who worked in Minneapolis. After saying the word “OK” twice, as if speaking to someone on her end, her phone went dead. Still no one knows why she went with her abductor—whether by ruse or force. Nearly three hours later her phone again dialed her boyfriend, but he heard only static. Dru was never heard from again, and it would be five months before her body was found.

Stories I read about Dru Sjodin depict the man arrested a week later for kidnapping her as no stranger to violence. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., thirty years her senior, was a registered level three sex-offender who had been released six months earlier from a two-decade stint in prison for armed rape. Since his release, he had been living in Crookston, Minnesota, about 25 miles from the town where Dru lived. His criminal history and proximity to the mall where Dru was abducted, combined with a girl’s shoe and bloody knife found in his car, the newspapers reported, led to his arrest. Most of these stories began by stating that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was the son of migrant farm workers, though he had been living and working in Crookston for most of his life. Most of these stories juxtaposed the picture of the blond smiling Dru with his mug shot, showing a brown-skinned, pudgy, frowning and balding older man, someone to pump your gas but not be your prom king. These stories did not mention his mental deficiencies, which would become key fifteen years later as his defense attorneys argued for him to not be killed by the state.

I never met Dru Sjodin. She was murdered the year before I moved to Grand Forks in 2004 to work at the university where she had been a student. But her murder had permeated the fabric of the campus culture, right down to the white sheet painted with “We miss you Dru!” hanging on the exterior wall of her pink sorority house for the entire first year of my residence. I saw that sheet every day. Curious, I sought out her story. Even a year later it was in the local paper, but also I heard of Dru’s murder from locals and long-time university employees, new friends who in hushed tones reiterated the few facts while also telling about their stories of Dru’s murder. Even though most didn’t know her directly, her murder in this quiet town had created a collective trauma. And as with any trauma, it brought the community into a closeness through shared experience and a shared story.

2

This trauma and story were not the only that knit together this community. These same locals and long-time university employees, as soon as they learned I was new to town, also told me their stories of surviving “The Flood.” The town is located at the confluence of the north flowing Red and Red Lake rivers. This “grand fork” often floods in the spring when snowmelt from the south, blocked by still frozen water to the north, overflows the rivers’ banks. But only one year was the spring flood so devastating that it merited a “national disaster” designation, a visit from then-president Clinton, and a whole-town evacuation to the nearby Air Force base. When locals talk of “The Flood,” they mean this flood, the one of 1997, with its total estimated property damage of $3.5 billion to this and surrounding towns.

As a university transplant, my new friends filled my flood-virgin ears with stories of exhausted days spent sandbagging to try to stop the rising water, of harried rescues in boats rowed on swift flowing streams that used to be streets, of the eventual return to ruined homes with basements full of treasures that had to be hauled to the trash, and of the smell of spoiled food and rotten mud that for months soured the air. Many of these stories of trauma also included laughter, like that of one friend rescued by boat in the middle of the night, who only thought to grab one pair of clean underwear and not the laptop with her half-finished dissertation. Another friend told of the generosity of other communities that sent money and goods to help the town rebuild. When I arrived in 2004, this friend was still using the toilet paper and light bulbs donated seven years earlier. Everyone who lived in that town in 1997 had a story of collective trauma that they were eager to share. And in sharing their trauma with this North Dakota transplant, telling me their version of the story and in that way bringing me into it, I became initiated.

3

For me, the newcomer, these two traumas became fused. Even though six years separated their occurrence, because I heard the stories at the same time, they were flattened into the same time and space. These were the two stories locals would narrate to me, the naïf, in whispered voices. They remembered where they were when they heard that Dru Sjodin’s body had been found, just as they could tell me where they went when they were evacuated during “The Flood.” The same people who told me of search parties trudging through snowy fields and woods helping to search for Dru’s body also told me about the hours spent filling and passing sandbags, “bucket brigade” style, to be piled in a futile wall against the ever-rising waters. Both labors of love resulted in sore muscles, exhaustion, and a new neighborly closeness, born of despair but flowering into something more.

It has always struck me that collective traumas, their psychological effects, and a community’s response to them, say much about a community. How we respond in times of crisis can be a Rorschach test, revealing contours of our fears and desires instead of the ink blot on the page. In both the murder of Dru Sjodin and “The Flood” we see a community responding to a threat from without. And in both cases, the community responded by strengthening fortifications. To combat future floods, the town surrounded itself on its river side with impressive dikes and huge stone walls with metal sections that could be slid into place to fill in the gaps where roads cut through. When needed, the town could hunker down, feeling secure behind its seamless earthen, stone, and metal battlement.

And in response to Dru Sjodin’s murder, the town created another sort of fortification, “Dru’s law,” which, as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, required law enforcement to maintain a website with public access to information on sex offenders, comprehensive information available across state boundaries, as was not the case before. The town where Dru was abducted is on the North Dakota/Minnesota border. The law was created in the logic that information of a convicted sex offender living just across the border could allow parents to construct walls around their beautiful daughters.  

Also true is that in both cases, though one could see the threat from without, something that could be protected against, one could say that the more dangerous threat was from within. With the flood it wasn’t, in fact, the river that caused the most damage to the town’s residences but the overflowing sewers. The water didn’t flood into homes and businesses through doors and windows but arose from toilets, sinks, and bathtubs—from inside. One could see the threat of the sex offender in much the same way. News reports about Alfonso Rodriguez stressed his outsider status, that he was the son of migrants, not “one of us,” that is descendants of settlers who had themselves migrated generations before to take over land originally populated by Native Americans. Even his dark skin in this community largely populated by blond descendants of Norwegians showed him as an outsider, though ironically, other brown skinned people, who looked much like him, were the land’s original habitants. In truth, Alfonso Rodriguez hadn’t been migrating [or itinerant] when he encountered, abducted, and murdered Dru Sjodin. He was a resident of a nearby town, a neighbor, and probably one of hundreds of neighbors visiting town that day. What made him all the more threatening was not only that he lived right next door but that he went unnoticed. We fantasize that the real threats are from without because to recognize that they aren’t is deeply unsettling. For the Cro-Magnon man or woman in our genes, the terror is that the saber-toothed tiger isn’t on the other side of the fire but is behind us, inside the cave.

4

As a newcomer to this community and to this Northern Plains climate, I was also struck by how both traumas were, as so much is for North Dakotans, centered on the weather. Certainly, the story of “The Flood” is of the always fickle winter, that old intractable enemy that residents battle year after year. In 1997, the river won. The people suffered. And though they fought back and built their defenses, people in this part of the world understand the archetypal cycle of the seasons as what must be endured but also as the frozen fire that forges the soul.

After sixteen years of living in this community, I write this piece after surviving sixteen harsh winters (my first January marked North Dakota’s lowest recorded temperature at -43 F). I write this piece during quarantine for another collective trauma while a blizzard raging outside heralds the coming of another spring flood. After sixteen years I have come to understand the cycle of the seasons that knits together this community: the six months of dark, life-threatening cold that gives us something to talk about and a shared sense of superiority, in the commonplace that our winter “keeps out the riffraff.” We are proud to be heartier than the rest of the country, those warm-weather people who don’t appreciate how good they have it, who—because they haven’t survived the winter—can’t really appreciate the spring. The North Dakota weather provides a cycle of trauma we all share, year in and year out, a long night from which we know we must eventually emerge. But during 1997, emergence from the long night brought the horror of spring floods; and in 2003, the melting of the winter’s snow brought the emergence of Dru’s body.

I wasn’t here when teams of search parties were searching for Dru Sjodin and eventually for her body, but I have heard stories of what that cycle of trauma involved. Dru was abducted in late November, when the cold had newly set in and the promises of Thanksgiving and Christmas were keeping spirits afloat. But then, after Alfonso Rodriguez Jr’s arrest for kidnapping, as the search wore on and winter set in, so did the realization that Dru could no longer be alive. The frantic rescue deepened into a despairing search for her body, as hundreds of neighbors tromped through fields thigh-deep in snow and ditches dammed by ice, as the temperatures bottomed out in January and February, lingering into March. As the temperature sank and refused to lift, so did the spirits of the traumatized community. For five months they searched, on foot, over thirty square miles of country. But Dru’s body wasn’t discovered until April 2004, until the spring thaw, where it lay in a ravine, snow covered and wrapped in a frozen blanket.

Those of us that live in this part of the world have the mindset that we share this collective trauma of winter, but that we will get to the other side, that life will get better when the warmth returns. But what happens when you can’t get to the other side? When the despair of winter finds no relief in spring?

5

Coping with trauma can involve memorializing it—often concretizing it in a structure or event, with the dual aim of keeping the trauma alive in the collective memory while also re-asserting control. The community comes together not just in the trauma but in deciding how to remember it—or not.

Photographs of flood and fire grace the walls of many downtown businesses of the town where I live. And more than the stone dikes ever-marking the river’s borders, “The Flood” is memorialized in two public monuments. One is a statue and 12 plaques telling of events leading to the evacuation, placed in the courtyard of a new brownstone complex; and the other lies on the river bank itself, a large obelisk with marks showing the watermarks of five historic floods, with the pinnacle the 1997 flood. The memorials keep the memory of the trauma alive while also sending a clear message to the universe: the waters will never again reach this height. We will not allow it.   

Dru Sjodin’s murder, too, has been memorialized—and not just in the law that bears her name. A memorial garden was built in her hometown; and at the university she attended, a scholarship for women now bears her name. The young women receiving the scholarship were babies when Dru died, so they, too, have to be told her story and brought into the fold. And thereafter, these “Dru Sjodin Scholars” carry her name. Dru couldn’t live and flourish, but through the scholarship and law, by hell or high water, the young women carrying her name will.  

Every year since 2004, at its “Clothesline Project,” where UND’s hearty feminists gather to remember women abused and murdered with a room of displays in the university’s Memorial Union, a large shrine to Dru Sjodin marks the community and campus’s loss. In a corner of that same room is a much smaller display of another kind of community loss, one marking the murdered and missing indigenous women of the community, who are largely, instead of memorialized, erased. This collective trauma of hundreds of murdered and missing indigenous women, known nationally as MMIW, is not much remembered and not memorialized by this community, at least not by the community where I, the university transplant, had become after sixteen years mostly accepted. My hope is that on the reservation and in the community of “New American” Somalis in town, where I (because of my own lack of effort as much as my white skin) am definitely not an insider, in those places, surely the comfort with remembering and marking this loss of indigenous women must be different. I wouldn’t know.

To repeat the opening line of this section: “Coping with trauma can involve memorializing it—often concretizing it in a structure or event, with the dual aim of keeping the trauma alive in the collective memory while also re-asserting control.” What does it mean when a trauma is willfully not remembered or a story deliberately left untold? When does not telling the story become the trauma itself?

6

As I look back at this essay, I see that storytelling is its theme. Dru’s story. The flood’s story. The MMIW story. The un/shared trauma. This essay is about the stories we tell ourselves—or don’t—to be able sleep at night. And as I look back at this essay, I see that it has become a story of my own relationship with these stories—how I, the outsider, first encountered and spread them, and how through this act of storytelling, I am inserting myself into those stories, seeking belonging in these communities (while also, no doubt, seeking the writer’s eternal pursuit of immortality).

Just as memorializing is storytelling; storytelling is memorializing, though in the larger sense, of course, all stories are ephemeral. The harsh truth is that no story survives the eons. Storytelling faces the same entropy that grinds rocks into dust and then molds that dust into stars. We tell stories as a way of remembering, but with each telling, the sharp edges become smoothened out, until not even the planes remain.

The people who lived through 9/11, who can tell you where they were as they watched footage of planes crashing into buildings or who are even now collecting stories of quarantine during our global pandemic, these people will pass into memory. The story of these national traumas will survive, not forever, but much longer than the people. And then people who didn’t share that trauma will share the story, so that when they encounter their own future traumas, these will be layered onto those foundational stories, just as the pandemic of 2020 is being layered on the palimpsest of global pandemics that came before. In the same way that stories and collective traumas bind a culture together through the act of remembering or of forgetting, one might say that stories and traumas are the building blocks of life; each block gets placed on the one placed just before it, and if there is a hole where that block should be, the wall is weak.

 

Rebecca Weaver-Hightower

Rebecca Weaver-Hightower is a Professor of English specializing in postcolonial studies and Chair of English at Virginia Tech. Her monograph Frontier Fictions: Settler Sagas and Postcolonial Guilt (Palgrave 2018) focuses on settler colonial literatures of South Africa, Canada, the US, and Australia, arguing that stories of 19th century settlers provide a means for individuals and communities to work through guilt over indigenous dispossession and genocide.  She has published a monograph on island castaway narratives, Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals and Fantasies of Conquest (Minnesota 2007); co-edited with Peter Hulme the collection Postcolonial Film: History, Empire, Resistance (Routledge 2014); co-edited with Yuting Huang another collection on settler literatures Archiving Settler Colonialism: Culture, Space and Race (Routledge 2018); and recently co-edited with Janne Lahti the collection Cinematic Settlers: The Settler Colonial World on Film (Routledge 2020).  A theme of her research has been examining the psychological and social work that texts, monuments, and films perform during times of colonial conflict. In her spare time, she is working on a mystery novel.