Written by Andy McWhorter
Photography by Liesa Cole
Over the past decade, Beth Holloway’s path through life has taken the kind of turns that few people will ever be expected to face.
After her daughter Natalee’s disappearance in Aruba in 2005, Holloway became a determined mother who persevered through years of uncertainty in search of answers and justice. She became an impassioned public speaker, spreading her family’s story across the nation to anyone who would listen, in the hopes that it might prevent another family from going through the same ordeal as her own. In 2010, she once again came face-to-face with Joran van der Sloot, the Dutch national who had been the prime suspect in Natalee’s disappearance, when he tried to extort thousands of dollars from her before fleeing to Peru, where he killed another young woman.
Given the hardship Holloway and her family have faced since 2005, the terms she uses to describe her life today might be surprising: peaceful, joyful, happy. “I’m in a place where I’m moving onward and upward,” Holloway says. “I’m not ‘over’ anything, because you don’t get over the loss of a loved one, but you do begin to move on. There’s never closure, because it’s never over. But you do begin to find joy and peace and happiness.”
That joy, she says, has not come easy. “When you lose a loved one, you feel like you lose part of your family,” she says. “You do, you lose your family, you lose the life that you once knew and loved. That life is gone. So you’re looking at redefining and rebuilding and reclaiming a new life.” Recovering from Natalee’s disappearance, she says, has been a matter of redefining and rebuilding. It’s taken 10 years and a lot of fight from Holloway to arrive where she is now. But it’s a good place.
Holloway lives in Homewood, Alabama, on the top floor of a luxury apartment building. Warm, antique furniture lines the living room, and pictures of her family are scattered around the room. A large photo of Natalee in her high school dance team outfit occupies a prominent place on the sideboard.
Holloway’s family has changed a good deal over the last 10 years in both good and bad ways. About a year after she returned from Aruba, Holloway and her then-husband Jeb Twitty separated. Since that time, however, her family has started to grow again, thanks in no small part to her son, Matthew. Now 26 years old, Matthew is a 911 operator with a commercial pilot’s license, and he is training for his airframe and powerplant license. Like his mother, Matthew sought comfort in those around him and work he found meaning from in order to endure the loss of a sister and his family’s long absence. “He went through a rough spell, of course, for a few years,” Holloway says. “But he really directed or channeled his energy into aviation. I think that just gave him what he needed between his friends and faith. Friends, faith, and flying. [Those were] his three.”
Matthew is also a brand-new father. Holloway’s first grandchild, a girl named Rylee Ann, was born on Dec. 23, 2014. “It was wonderful,” Holloway says. “I had no idea the love I could have for a grandchild. All my friends that have grandchildren, they’re always talking about their love of them. I love my children, Natalee and Matt, but I didn’t know how else I would feel about a grandchild. But as soon as I met her I thought, ‘Oh. So this is the love that they have for their grandchildren.’ It was beautiful.”
Though Holloway has gone through two divorces, she remained optimistic on that front and indeed has found someone with whom to share her life. “I’ll just say one thing,” she says. “I am engaged, and that’s it. He’d kill me if I said his name, though.”
Even in her work, Holloway has found a new normalcy. Though she still takes the time to go to public speaking engagements and spread her story, Holloway has also returned to work in speech therapy, which she practiced at Mountain Brook schools before 2005. Holloway now works with children of all ages in Cullman County schools, where she began working this past August. “I had kind of been in and out of it over the last 10 years, and I think that I’m in a good place in my life now,” she says. “I felt like I had settled down a bit from the traveling as I had done so heavily for all the speaking engagements. I kind of wanted to balance it, still do a few speaking engagements, but wanted to kind of get connected again to speech pathology work. So that’s how it started and Cullman County extended a job invitation to me and I said yes, and I love it. I’ve loved it.”
Altogether, Holloway’s life today looks much different than it did 10 years ago; she says arriving here has not happened on accident. “This is a point in my life where I’ve worked hard to find that happiness and joy, and I’ve done a lot of work over the past 10 years,” she says. That work began in Aruba, just a few short days after her daughter disappeared. The first few years after 2005 were a search for answers more so than a search for happiness; it took a moment of revelation at a small Catholic church in Aruba for Holloway to begin moving forward again after Natalee’s disappearance. Holloway was raised as a Methodist, with a mother who taught her that God is good, and a grandmother who told her, “Lay your burdens at the cross.” On her fourth morning in Aruba, those lessons came into sharper focus for Holloway. She found a taxi and asked the driver to take her somewhere to pray. “He pulled over and there was a large white cross, and he told me to get out of the car, and as I did, I walked to the cross and just fell to the cross on my knees and just started crying and begging and praying to God to give Natalee back,” she says. “I got up, and I went to next cross, repeated my same prayers and dropped to my knees and kept praying and crying and begging for God to give her back.”
After days of searching for her missing daughter, Holloway says she was in unbearable pain. Though she was unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition of the stations of the cross, she instinctively went from cross to cross, each time seeking an answer. Finally, on the fifth or sixth station, she found one. “Complete peace blanketed me, and in that instant somehow I then knew that Natalee was with God, and I knew that he had cared for her through whatever ordeal she had encountered that night, and that’s when I became at peace,” she says. “When my grandmother was always saying, ‘Lay your burdens at the cross,’ I got, at that point, what she was saying. I laid the burden of caring for Natalee at the cross. The work to find out what happened to her had to be done, but the burden was taken from me.”
Holloway spent years pressuring authorities to find answers about Natalee’s disappearance and to bring those she believed responsible to justice. At the same time, she felt another calling. In the first month she spent on the island, Holloway made a promise that she would spend the next decade trying to keep. “I made a pledge on the island of Aruba,” she said. “I made [a] pledge in June 2005 that I would get in front of as many high schools, colleges, and groups of people as I could, and I did. I have taken every opportunity since that date.” Holloway has spoken to tens of thousands of people over the last decade, and though the tone of her message might have evolved as she evolved, the content has remained consistent. “It’s a message of hope, and my definition of hope is that inexplicable empowerment that enables us to move successfully from challenge to resolution with courage,” she explains. “It’s more than just wishful thinking. It is real that there is light at the end of the tunnel. No matter what you’re trying to find your way through—It could be loss of a loved one, it could be terminal illness, it could be a financial loss. It’s a powerful inspirational message that I share that teaches perseverance and hope and that you can endure.”
Alongside that message of hope and perseverance, Holloway advocates for personal safety in her public speaking engagements. Her first major address, the one she says helped launch everything else, came in January 2006 and was directed toward the National Sheriff’s Association. “That was in Palm Springs, California, January 2006,” she says. “They endorsed the personal safety message and from there, I took it to every podium I could.” Though she took satisfaction in spreading a message that resonated so profoundly within her own life, Holloway says the first few years were more of a mission than a means to move forward. It was cathartic, she says, but it didn’t bring her peace.
Holloway’s path to the present day—the reclaiming of her life—began in 2010, when she confronted Joran van der Sloot for the final time. “Leading up to May of 2010, that’s when all the extortion was going on with Joran,” Holloway says. “So at that point, I was not in a good place, so to speak.”
Van der Sloot contacted Holloway’s representative near the end of March of 2010 and offered to reveal the location of Natalee’s body for $250,000. He received a $25,000 advance and in return provided false information. “Shortly thereafter, the extortion charges and the FBI sting [were] about to go down in Aruba,” Holloway says. “Then all of a sudden, Joran has fled the country. He surfaced in Peru, where he has murdered another young woman, not only the same scenario, but the exact date and the same time that he had murdered Natalee.” On May 30, 2010—five years to the day after Natalee’s disappearance—Van der Sloot strangled 21-year-old Stephany Flores to death in a Lima hotel room. During his trial, Van der Sloot was held in Miguel Castro Castro prison. It was visiting him there that gave Holloway the push to move forward. “I think once I visited Castro Castro, Joran in prison, and was able to walk away from there, it was almost a freeing experience for me to know that it was time now,” she remembers. “Joran was in prison, and this is what I had worked so hard for, for five years. This was what I had wanted in ’05.”
Seeing Van der Sloot behind bars did not bring complete closure—Natalee’s case will always remain open in the United States. It did, however, allow Holloway to start taking her life in a new direction. “It allowed me then to move onward…. I hadn’t found peace and joy and happiness yet—but I began to recognize it and learned how to embrace it, and then I think it just led to place where I am now, which is a good place.”