Babes in the Woods

Anybody could be tracking your children online. Even me.

I spent the summer I was 19 at my parents’ house on the north shore of Long Island, which was pleasant enough but hardly the last word in teenage excitement. When a friend called and invited me to spend a weekend with her family in Delaware, I was packed by bedtime. At first light, I was sitting at the Stony Brook train station with a round-trip ticket and a tin of cookies for my friend’s mother. Life had taken a delightful turn, and the only fly in the ointment was that a young man was trying, desperately, to catch my eye.

He walked past me once, turned around and walked by again, and finally made a wide circle around the bench, sat down next to me, and said, “Hi, Caitlin!” That caught my attention. “Hi,” I said politely and tried to place him. He was scruffy and a few years older than me—was he a handyman my mother had hired? There was something mocking about him, but he asked about my parents very respectfully, calling my father “Mr. Flanagan.” He wanted to know if I still lived on Gnarled Hollow Road. I did. He said that he’d called me the week before, but that no one had answered. And then he did something that changed my feeling of annoyance to one of alarm: He rattled off my parents’ phone number.

My mother had taught me quite a few things about men: I should be wary of those I did not know, polite to those I did, and tough as nails with those who were disrespectful or in any way threatening. But none of these rules seemed to apply in this situation.

That young man didn’t do me any harm, but neither was he a good-natured kidder. The train arrived, and he lingered behind me as I boarded it. Then he pulled himself up to the bottom step and called my name. When he had my attention, he said—quietly, but with just enough menace that I have remembered him to this day—“You ought to be more careful about what you write on that tag.” I stared dumbly at the cardboard luggage tag I had filled in so carefully. He jumped back down to the platform, the train pulled away, and that was the last I saw of him.

He’d tricked me by using two things against me: some personal information and my youth. My ability to recognize social cues, to distinguish an approach that was well-intentioned from one that was threatening, was not what it would be in five years’ time. I wasn’t an unworldly person or an especially naive one; I was just young. My mother hadn’t left me at the train station for five minutes before someone caught sight of me—a pretty girl, dressed for an excursion. That’s the way of things, I suppose: Set your children loose, as you someday must, and there will be all kinds of people waiting for them.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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