You don’t have to listen very closely to realize we’ve been wrong for all these years. It’s not a difficult phrase to remember, and she repeats it again and again and again, clutching her knee as she rocks back and forth like a child hurt on a playground. It is, in fact, not a phrase at all, but a word—just one—and though we hear it mostly as a keening, inarticulate wail, it’s also impossible to mishear. The word is why.
In the video—which will be shown on the news again and again in the weeks that follow the incident—she says the word three times, stopping only when she is spirited away from the cameras in her father’s arms, her face pressed fearfully against his. She looks, in her lacy white costume, like nothing so much as an anxious young bride being carried over a threshold she isn’t quite sure she’s ready to cross.
For all the hours she has spent in the public eye prior to this moment, and for the many more hours she will spend there yet, she has been stoic, strong, reserved. She was famous before, for her skills as an athlete and as a performer, but this moment of anguish will make her an icon. Newspaper headlines and magazine covers and reporters and talk-show hosts and families joking in the car and around the breakfast table and on the couch as they watch her on TV will quote her, now and for years to come—or at least they will think they are quoting her. But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”
Twenty years later, we are still trying to answer this question. And if we have been mishearing something so simple for so long, we have to wonder what else we have been mistaken about.