We seem to think that things have always been the way they are now

We seem to think that things have always been the way they are now, that girls have always been strong, that they’ve always been valued and studied and written about. That they’ve always been treated with the respect that they deserve, on a level with the boys. That they’ve always had the opportunities that they have now.

We forget that the Pill has not always been available, that a girl couldn’t always just go to the doctor or a clinic and go “on it” if she wanted to.

We think that a girl has always had a choice, that abortion has always been available, if not legal, and that a girl could find a place to go to get one if she needed to, if it ever came to that.

We think that a girl would know about her own body. That she’d know what she needs to know about sex and reproduction, about the risks of pregnancy and disease.

We think that a girl would know when a man was taking advantage of her. That she would know who to tell, that she would know how to tell.

We think that if a girl went missing, somebody would try to find her. They’d put out an alert, they’d put up fliers, they’d put her face on a milk carton, she’d be in the computers, she’d be on television, somebody would look for her, if she disappeared.

We think that if a girl was killed, if she was found dead, the police would try to find her killer. Somebody would be arrested. Somebody would be charged. Somebody would pay.

We think that if a woman was married to a man who performed illegal abortions for money that paid for her house and her food and her clothes, she would feel some responsibility if one of those abortions ended in the death of a girl. We think that she would step forward and say something to somebody then. And we think that the people who knew this woman and her husband, those who were well aware of what he did and what he’d done, her family and her friends and the members of her church, we think that they’d come forward, too, and say something to somebody when what was left of the girl’s body was discovered four months later, hands and feet bound with rope.

We think that if a man preyed upon girls, if he drove his car around the neighborhoods looking for them, if he found one and invited her into his house and offered her money for sex, if he offered her a job at his brother-in-law’s strip club, if she was underage—somebody would know, somebody would stop him, somebody would put him in jail.

We think that if a black boy fell in love with a white girl, it would be okay, nobody would mind. We suppose the black girls would find a way to welcome this white girl into their circle of friends. We think they wouldn’t hate her for taking one of their boys. We think they wouldn’t want to see her dead. We think the white boys wouldn’t hate the black boy. We think they wouldn’t burn a cross in a black doctor’s front yard. We think they wouldn’t threaten him. We think they wouldn’t tie an unpopular girl’s dog to the back of their truck, set it on fire, drag it through the street, past her house.

We believe that if a girl dreamed of becoming a model, she could do that. We think she could set off on her own, leave town, go to modeling school, if that’s what she wanted to do. We think her friends would encourage her. We think her family would help her out. We think they’d loan her the money, they’d support her ambition, they wouldn’t think she was crazy to hope that she could be something other than what her sister was—married at eighteen to her high school boyfriend and already pregnant with his kid.

We think that by the time she’s eighteen, a girl is already a woman. We think that she can vote. We think that she’s not a minor, that she can sign a contract, that she can get a loan, that she can get a credit card, that she can get a job that pays more than the minimum wage.

But in 1970, none of this was true. In 1970, Feminism as we know it was only just beginning. Girls in college were still called co-eds. Few people knew who Gloria Steinem was. Ms. Magazine wasn’t published until 1971.

In 1970, you couldn’t get the Pill unless you were married, and abortion was illegal in every state except California and New York. The Catholic church had just decreed that anybody who assisted in providing a girl with an abortion, legal or not—by loaning money, by driving her to a clinic, by holding her hand, by giving her support—would be excommunicated from the church. Roe v. Wade didn’t legalize abortion until 1973.

Girls didn’t go to law school or to med school in 1970. Most girls didn’t even go to college then. Girls still took “home economics” classes in 1970. They learned how to cook and sew and keep house.

In 1970, girls learned about their bodies in “health class.” There they learned about menstruation and hygiene. They weren’t told about birth control. They weren’t supposed to want to have sex, and they were told not to have it until after they were married. They learned that if they did have sex, and they did get into trouble, that would be their own fault, because they had been warned.

In 1970, white girls didn’t go out with black boys, or if they did, they were treated like trash by both communities.

There were no computers in 1970. There was no internet with websites devoted to missing girls. There was no such thing as an “Amber Alert.”  There was no place like Kinko’s where you could go and make a hundred photocopies of a flyer with a missing girl’s face on it to staple to telephone poles around town. There were no pictures of missing girls on milk cartons in 1970. A missing girl was not news enough to make even a mention in the local paper or on the radio or TV.

There was no talk about pedophilia or incest or sexual abuse or battered wives in 1970.

In 1970, a girl could be murdered, and her body could be dumped in the woods like so much garbage. The police could go about the business of trying to figure out what had happened to her, and when it was determined that she’d died of a botched abortion, that would be that. Even if the doctor who had performed the abortion was known to them. Even if the men who tied her up and threw her in the woods, left her there to bleed, to die of exposure and then rot away until she was just a skeleton, a carcass fed upon by rats and dogs, even if the men who did this to her were also known.

It would be as if it were the girl’s own fault, as if she had brought it on herself. Because she fell in love with a black boy. Because she let herself get pregnant by him. Because she went for an illegal abortion. Because she put herself into the hands of an evil man. As if by making these choices for herself, this girl had thrown away her own life and only got what she deserved.

12 thoughts on “We seem to think that things have always been the way they are now

  1. Dianna Jensen says:

    Excellent, well said…..truthful for the times in CR….hope you continue your rant….because the world…needs to know this story….and a concrete resolved needs to be found….She was to beautiful and to kind, not to find her the justice she deserves….
    No woman deserves what that poor girl had to endure
    Nor her family…

    Someone out there knows more than they are saying….and can bring this to and end….and allow the family to have some peace….

    Keep writing…!!

    We are reading….

  2. Nancy Bowers says:

    Very powerful, Susan, and so true — another reminder that we must defend abortion rights. Those days had to be lived to be understood. As for those who did nothing, it’s appalling how self-interested and callous many people are. Sadly, I don’t think that will ever change.

  3. J Fisher says:

    These observations and this project are Powerful and exceptional. I have yet to encounter literature or media of any kind that examines my hometown in such an evocative manner.
    I’ve only been alive since a year after Paula’s death but count many other, older residents as friends or family. And do you know what each and every one of them, all to my belief kind and open-minded, remember of Paula’s disappearance? That she likely was tied up and/or murdered by a black man. These rumors and suppositions died with Paula and the case for many normal, upstanding citizens just four decades ago.
    This alone, Susan, is cause for you to continue on with your work. It hurts to look, but we simply have to.

  4. Carole Wilson says:

    Susan, I’m so glad you are looking into this nurder and also telling people how it was to be a young woman 42 years ago. It doesn’t seem to me that there has been as much improvement as “womens lib” thought there would be. A woman is paid much ess than a man doing the sane job, wonen are being murdered at a gorrendous

    • Carole Wilson says:

      Unfortunately that got posted before I could correct typos!! I was going on to say the no. 1 killer of pregnant women by spouses/boyfriends. Violence against women is at an all time high

  5. Justin Addison says:

    Does anyone know where I can read a well-constructed account of this interesting murder case, that doesn’t involve going through infinite pages of garbage?

    • Hi Justin, thanks for asking about this. We are working on an ebook version of the What Happened to Paula website, which will make it simpler to search. But no, there is no well-constructed account of the case, because it is not a well-constructed case. And all the garbage… well, who knows what’s valuable there and what’s not. We are looking for connections. It’s difficult. It’s complex. And there are no easy answers…. yet.

  6. LK says:

    I’ve looked everywhere I can, and I still see NO explanation as to why she was wearing a nightgown when I assume that she didn’t put a nightgown on after she got home from her date and then left that night.
    Also, did anyone consider that since she was driving Debbie’s car that the murderer was after her instead?

    • That Debby was the target seems unlikely. But, according to Debby, her family was frightened enough that they immediately moved her out of the house she shared with Paula, because they were afraid that whoever had killed Paula might be after Debby as well. Yet if whoever it was meant to kill Debby, it seems unlikely that even though it was her car, the killer would have mistaken Paula for Debby?

  7. Jo Bell says:

    As an avid reader and fellow Franklinite and Washingtonian (WHS’59), I am happy to recently learn of yet another C.R. author and ready to crack her first book from our local Bradenton, Fla library. The Chehak name was noticed right away as a prominent C.R. family name as well as one our teachers along the way. Hope to learn more biographical info either from her stories or outside sources. And, as a Linn County Deputy Sheriff in the early 70’s I hope to review some of the investigative details she uncovers and reports on.

    • Susan Taylor Chehak says:

      Hi Jo, thank you for visiting the site and for commenting and finding me here. If you have any memories of the Paula Oberbroeckling case or would like to get in touch with me directly about it or anything else Cedar Rapids-wise, my personal email is susantaylorchehak(at)gmail.com and I’d love to hear from you! All best to you -Susan

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