Over the summer, I sat down with Noreen Gosch for several hours over several days. To be brutally honest, I expected to find a shattered woman, broken by 30 years of wondering and 30 years of being criticized for not only wondering out loud what happened to her son when he didn’t come home from his paper route, but for seeking answers to the questions that nagged her.
I had already written pieces of the story on scraps of paper that I wadded up and recycled after my first meeting. Noreen Gosch has not been driven to madness by the disappearance and probable kidnapping of her son, although I’m not sure why.
I suspect she has greater inner strength and courage than most of us can ever know, that we wouldn’t know we possessed unless we had to go through her hellish nightmare.
My first real exposure to her was years ago when I covered her talk to the ladies church circle, as it was called, in Adel. I was shocked by what she had to say, but more so by some of the reactions of those good, Christian women, most of them mothers.
They diced her up and had her for lunch along with the Jell-O salads.
“She doesn’t seem very sad,” I overheard one of them say behind her pink pudgy palm to a woman next to her, who nodded knowingly in response. “She’s probably making a lot of money going on TV.”
I’ve replayed that scene again and again as I’ve puzzled for 30 years over why Noreen Gosch irks us so much.
Did they think she enjoyed it, that she thought national celebrity was a fair trade for a child? Couldn’t they see that she was using the media’s bully pulpit not only to find her son, but to make their children safer?
Instead, they focused on this: Too beautiful. Too stylish. Not sad enough. They wanted to see her break down, to collapse, to require smelling salts.
She had valuable information to share about highly organized pedophile rings stalking and stealing young children from their innocent, carefree lives. She had information about human trafficking before anyone had put a name to it, and they wanted to see her bleed.
We know now that it human trafficking is real, that 2.4 million people worldwide are caught in its snare at any given time, and 80 percent of them are exploited as sex slaves in what is a lucrative $32 billion network.
Rather than thanking her for jolting them out of complacent worlds where bad things only happen to bad people, they made her the villain. Was it because what she had to say was so hard to hear, so frightening and so contradictory to their illusion of safety?
Was it because they doubted they possessed the same steely strength as this woman who knew in her heart that her child had not run away, stared down those who insisted he probably had, and shared her outrage that, in the middle of America while doing something as idyllic as delivering a paper, a child could be snatched and never be seen again?
Iowa was hearing a lot around that time from another strong woman, the first one ever to run for governor. Roxanne Conlin got some of the same treatment. American feminism was on the rise in the 1980s, but Iowa hadn’t quite accepted it.
Was that it? Was it that not spending her precious five minutes of airtime crying wasn’t feminine?
Or was it something more sinister? Was it plain, ugly Schadenfreudic glee in seeing others suffer?
None of us really has the right to judge Noreen Gosch.
Eileen Wixted, who covered Johnny’s disappearance as a television reporter, put it this way:
“It was fascinating to me that people were critical and surprised by her actions. People have not been appropriately appreciative of her efforts, and they have also failed to recognize the profound tragedy that occurred to that family.”
Here, today, three decades later, let’s correct that.
Read the Iowa’s Missing Kids: Innocence Abducted series: