Taking a Wrong Turn at Albuquerque

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When I was about 4, my cousin Stephen and I were playing at my house when we got into some kind of mischief and were sent to my room. While we were waiting for my dad to come pronounce our punishment, Stephen and I put on some old clothes we found in the closet as a means of disguising ourselves, figuring my dad wouldn’t recognize us when he came in and we could tell him Eric and Stephen had escaped through the window.

You chuckle at this story and think, “Man, kids sure are stupid.” And that is my defense: I was 4. I was not, for example, a 32-year-old woman who faked being kidnapped in order to avoid her own wedding.

Part of the uproar regarding this story is how big a deal the news media have made of it, and while I am loath to add to the media overkill, at the same time, I don’t care. You see my dilemma.

Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared near her Duluth, Ga., home on April 26, days before her lavish wedding to John Mason was to be held. John called the police to report that Jennifer had not returned from her evening jog, and the police assumed what everyone always assumes when a husband or fiancé reports his partner missing: that he had murdered her.

This turned out not to be the case, however, and Jennifer was presumed kidnapped. Everyone figured it wasn’t just cold feet, because she had left behind her keys, money, identification and engagement ring, four items that a person with cold feet generally carries with her, as the FBI’s Cold Feet Division will tell you.

As is usually the case when a thin upper- or middle-class white woman goes missing, the nation sprang into action. Was there foul play at hand? Mischief? Tomfoolery? Shenanigans? For three days, our hearts and minds were captivated by what CNN called The Story of the Bug-Eyed Georgia Woman Who Nobody Knows Where She Is.

On the fourth day, Jennifer contacted police in Albuquerque, telling them she had escaped her abductors. She wove a fanciful tale of two kidnappers, one Hispanic male with rotten teeth and one chubby white female, who had taken her from Georgia to New Mexico and had sexually assaulted her. But whoops! After only an hour of questioning, Jennifer caved like a French soldier and admitted the abductors did not exist, which probably explains how she escaped them so easily. It turns out she had simply fled Georgia, and not for the reasons you would expect someone to flee Georgia — the oppressive humidity, the racist underpinnings, the pervasive stench of peaches — but because she was overwhelmed by the upcoming wedding.

As you know from watching the parts of “Gone with the Wind” that happened when you weren’t asleep, those Southerners know how to throw a gala. The Mason/Wilbanks wedding was to include 14 bridesmaids and a like number of groomsmen, with a reception for 600 guests planned at the snooty Atlanta Athletic Club. (I’ve never understood how these private clubs manage to be snobbish AND include the word “Athletic” in their names, but there you go.) They had even hired a fey, genteel Kevin Spacey to show up and say catty things, but then it turned out that was in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” not real life.

Here is where I tell you what you already know, which is that many people spend way too much money on their weddings. It’s no wonder some brides and grooms become overwhelmed, with so much riding on it. The event itself lasts only a few minutes, with the reception stretching it to only a few hours, yet people spend thousands of dollars on it. Does all the lavishness somehow strengthen the couple’s love? Is the reasoning that if we blow $10,000 on it, then maybe we won’t be so quick to get divorced two years down the road? Sometimes I think I don’t understand the desire for a gigantic, expensive wedding because I’ve never been married. But then I think no, that can’t be it. I’ve never eaten glass, either, but I still know it’s a stupid idea.

So Jennifer came home, postponed the wedding (but did not cancel it, and neither did her fiancé), and CNN went back to filling your TV screen with logos, crawling news tickers, and Aaron Brown. But now the city of Duluth, Ga., is faced with a question: Do they charge Jennifer with a crime? She did lie to police, but not for very long. Was it her fault that a nationwide manhunt was initiated to search for her? These are questions Duluth must answer. Helpfully, hundreds of people have e-mailed Duluth officials with suggestions, as reported by The Smoking Gun. Here is one of my favorites, from one Randy McDonald, who was appalled that the city was considering filing charges against the runaway bride:

“Hey You inbreeds The bride dident start the man hunt His family did If any one should go to jail it should be him .In the United States a adult should be able to go anywere they chose with out fear of a FBI manhunt . There was no evidance of a crime but yet you fools created one and are now going to try and hold her responsable for your overreaction? The way you folks think it is no doubt the south will never rise agien .”

As usual, it is an undereducated Southerner who is immune to irony who has shown us the way. All Jennifer is guilty of, when you get right down to it, is being terrified of her own super-sized wedding and wanting to disappear for a while. Who among us hasn’t sought to flee responsibility on occasion? If taking a bus to Albuquerque means getting a little peace of mind, then I say go for it. Just be sure to take your engagement ring with you so men will know you’re not available, you tease, you.

I'd been unsure whether to write about this subject, but reading that e-mail from Randy McDonald convinced me I should. It was too good to pass up.

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" actually takes place in Savannah and not Atlanta, but oh well. You get the idea.

The incident of the boys disguising themselves to avoid detection was previously cited in a 2001 column, "This Old House."

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