When Phillip Garrido's neighbors learned he'd been keeping kidnap victim Jaycee Lee Dugard in his backyard for 18 years, their reactions ranged from shock to horror to the admittance that they'd always thought there was something strange about "Creepy Phil."
When I read some of these reactions, particularly a quote by neighbor Heather McQuaid-Glace, who told the New York Times that though she knew Garrido was a sex offender, "We never heard screaming; we never heard anyone crying for help," and so she never thought there was anything to be particularly worried about. It's a chilling quote in that one can't totally fault McQuaid-Glace for her reaction: she claims that neighborhood children were rightfully warned to stay away from the man, but with little evidence of any crime to go on, aside from a damning criminal history and being "creepy," it's hard to blame McQuaid-Glace, or any of Garrido's neighbors, for not breaking his doors down, vigilante-style, to look for evidence of any wrongdoing.
Our neighbors are accidental characters in our weird little story; we are connected to these people by proximity alone, and a relationship between neighbors is based solely on how much each party is willing to share. My parents, for example, still live in the same house they've lived in for thirty years: the couple who lived directly to their left for a good twenty of those years were acquaintance-type neighbors: they waved from the driveway, said hello while they mowed the lawn, and politely nodded as they headed out to get their mail. The woman who lived (and still lives) to the right of my parents has been my mother's best friend for thirty years, and is like a second mother to me. Sometimes, you move next door to someone who becomes like family. And other times, you remain relative strangers with the people who live a few feet away.
After reading about Garrido's neighbors, I began to think about the people in my own neighborhood. Turns out I don't know much about any of them, and that scares me a bit. Part of it, I think, is because we're so trained to be afraid of strangers to begin with; we don't owe our neighbors any kindness, or even any acknowledgment, and often times it's easier to just wave quickly and avoid them as much as possible. In Garrido's case (though I find it stunning that "Creepy Phil" was able to get away with such madness for 18 years), maybe his neighbors, working only on what they did know about him, found it easier to pretend he wasn't there. Sometimes, I suppose, we'd all rather live near strangers than know the truth about what's really going on next door.