Disappearing Acts : Author Jonathan Coleman Draws a Bead on Why People Choked by Their Lives Simply Decide to Drop Out of Sight

Times Staff Writer

In fiction and our fantasies, we run away to sea, the circus and the Foreign Legion. Or build a raft to ride the Mississippi and just go somewhere.

In reality, stifled and stressed modern man opts for anonymity in more prosaic surrounds--a community college in El Paso, a computer company in Houston--usually settling for much less than they left.

Clearly, says Jonathan Coleman, author of “Exit the Rainmaker,” a new book on one man’s disappearance from his thoroughly successful and completely conventional life, the grass is no greener on the other side of our dreams.


Yet, he added, as society, careers and relationships continue to squeeze, we continue to fancy some clean and healing escape from what Henry David Thoreau described as the mass of men who “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Coleman sees the stay-leave dilemma in himself and in all of us: “At the very least, we want everything to go on hold for a while because there is this feeling that we’re heading down a path in a way that we never, ever intended when we were 18 and dreaming of what life would be like.”

The Male Factor

He doesn’t think it is a phenomenon restricted to men: “It’s a myth that it is only a male factor. Women take off but they often come back because of children. There is a sense that women are more anchored than men in our society.”

He suspects adults skipping to new starts forms the majority of current National Crime Information Center statistics that list 60,000 regular Americans as absent without logical explanation. And those are only the reported missing.

Coleman certainly subscribes to estimates of Charles Sutherland, head of Search Inc., a private missing persons bureau in New Jersey, who believes the total of adult Americans chucking it all for a period, or permanently, to be closer to 100,000.

Case Histories

It is nothing new. In 1930, New York Superior Court Judge Joseph Crater left his chambers and told an assistant: “Don’t forget to turn out the lights, Johnson.” He hasn’t been seen since, said Coleman, and could well have disappeared for a better, anonymous life.

Agatha Christie took off for a while and the late mystery writer’s quick exit remains something of a mystery. Gauguin left his wife and family for Tahiti. In 1926, at the height of her Bible-thumping visibility, salvationist Aimee Semple McPherson was believed drowned while swimming near Venice Beach and showed up five weeks later in a town on the Arizona-Mexico border.

The extensions are endless.

Eight years ago, Ed Greer, 33, a successful and rising engineer with Hughes Aircraft Co. of El Segundo, left work and never came back. He was discovered this year in Houston working under an assumed name for a computer software company.

His wife has remarried and has denied his request to visit with their two sons, now 9 and 16.

Might Be Back for Lunch

And seven years ago, Julian Nance (Jay) Carsey, the 47-year-old president of Charles County Community College, Md., married the owner of a 23-room Georgian house close to hunt country, left home and told his wife he might be back for lunch.

He didn’t show.

But he did cancel a dental appointment, withdrew $28,000 from a joint bank account, drove here and mailed five farewell letters and one postcard to family and friends.

Jay Carsey, still using his own name, eventually surfaced in West Texas where he has remarried and is a program director at El Paso Community College.

Carsey did not flee to avoid criminal prosecution. There were no financial difficulties at home or at the college. He had community authority, status, respect, a secure job, a fine home and a stunning wife. There was no other woman involved.

But in subsequent interviews, Carsey said: “I felt as if I was dying inside. I didn’t know whether (wife) Nancy was driving me harder or I was driving myself against some concept of what I should be, or both.

“I decided I wanted to do something else with my life and I didn’t want to go through the wrenching session I would have if I had left in a conventional way.

“I was not going to talk to anybody about what I was planning because it was a very clean-cut decision in my mind, a perfect decision, actually. I did what I wanted to do the only way I, Julian Nance Carsey, could see of getting it done.”

So Julian Nance Carsey was outta here.

Turning Into a Sleuth

Intrigued by newspaper reports of Carsey’s disappearance, Jonathan Coleman--a book editor turned broadcast journalist turned author and English teacher at the University of Virginia--began investigating.

Coleman’s primary curiosity has always been for human behavior, particularly the clouded, complex motivations behind all that we do.

That obsession was displayed in Coleman’s 1985 book, “At Mother’s Request,” about a Utah woman who persuaded her teen-age son to murder her father. It shows in his admiration for the depth of human study displayed by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Robert Lindsey’s “The Falcon and the Snowman.” In Carsey, he believed, the analysis would be more mainstream.

“After hours of talking with him, I realized there are a lot of people like Carsey,” he said. “Because his is a story about expectations and dreams and what happens when you achieve them and they turn out not to be what you thought they would be.”

So he has written a vehicle by which to measure ourselves?

“Absolutely. I think the book is a very threatening book. I think what people least like doing is being introspective because that is very painful.”

Through months of interviews that took him from Greece to West Texas, from endless talks with Carsey, his former wife and some 150 friends and business and college associates, Coleman, 37, traced one man’s anguish to its beginning.

Child of the Depression

Carsey was a child of the Depression who grew up in Bryan, Tex. Homer Carsey, his father, was trumpet player in a circus, a Linotype operator and tamed vagabond. Bea Carsey, his mother, was of higher graces, played bridge, sought status and placed her son on an enormous pedestal.

Floating on those expectations, Carsey attended Texas A&M;, earned degrees in chemical engineering and business administration, and went to Washington. He drove a red Corvette, dated a campaign worker for John F. Kennedy, was a Polaris missile manager at the Naval Ordnance Station--and tagged along behind carefully selected dates to Washington’s social functions.

Jay Carsey was on his way.

At 30, he had earned a doctorate in public administration from George Washington University and was president of Charles County Community College. He had married Nancy and her social status. Their mansion, “Green’s Inheritance,” was stuffed with enough souvenirs from world vacations that it was known locally as Smithsonian South.

Jay Carsey, clearly, had it made.

Then he dropped it and became a drop-out husband.

The post card he mailed to close colleague John Sine, the college dean who would succeed him as president, contained a single message: “Exit the Rainmaker. Good luck. Jay.”

It was a reference to N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” the venerable play that tells of an itinerant who charms a dusty community into believing he can create rain.

He eventually deserts the community and the woman who loved him. Sine once directed Carsey in a local production of the “The Rainmaker.” And so Carsey wrote his farewell that became the title of his biography.

Early reviews of “Exit the Rainmaker” have ranged from adulation to first-degree murder. USA Today called the book “riveting.” New York magazine brutalized it for “ridiculous, trite analogies.” The Washington Post talked of Coleman’s work as “a glamorous mystery (that) ends with two irredeemably shallow sociopaths (the Carseys) squabbling over the division of goods.”

Missing Person Resurfaces

After he resurfaced some months after leaving Maryland, Carsey and his wife began a year of long, complex legal wrangling that eventually resulted in divorce and disposition of their joint property.

Thus, added the review, “What the book in fact has to tell is the story of a long and rancorous divorce case, spiced briefly by the disappearance of one of the principals. Mystery dispelled. What ‘Exit the Rainmaker’ finally illuminates is how utterly banal the act of desertion is.”

To Coleman--interviewed here at the start of a national book promotion tour that Thursday sees him in Los Angeles--dismissal of his book as overpadding a simple domestic dispute is the reflection of a reviewer skipping the multiple directions and nuances of his analysis.

“I don’t think I have made a mountain out of a molehill,” he said. “This (book) isn’t about a guy who walked out on his wife. This is a book about a guy who walked out on his whole life.”

Examines Base Meaning

His attempt, said Coleman, was to get beneath the myth of success and examine its base meaning. His fascination was Carsey’s transition from early years of searching for material and social gain, the standard currency of America, to his final years in Maryland when “all he wanted to do was go home and be by himself and watch ‘Monday Night Football.’ ”

Coleman says he can see many areas of common ground between Carsey and Ed Greer, California’s most recent disappearing act.

“I think there was a similarity that both realized that it was not wise to be good at something you didn’t like,” Coleman continued. “Because then you might find yourself doing it for the rest of your life.

“The other (similarity) is that, having spoken to Kit Clark (Greer’s former wife, now living in Northern California) I know that Greer was a non-confrontational person and, just like Carsey, did not reveal much of himself.”

The author believes he knows Carsey better than Coleman knows himself. He sees a man once cowed by his mother’s shrill anger, who married a woman whose temper was equally intimidating. Coleman believes Carsey was pushed into seeking personal achievement by his mother’s elevated expectations. When, all the while, his true character leaned more toward that of his restless father.

Nor could he be straightforward, “preferring to circle the building a few times before entering . . . and he’s a great one for answering a question with a question.

“Anomie,” Coleman continued. “That’s what Carsey believes is the root of what he has done.” Or as Carsey explained to the author in a partial denial of the first reference of anomie: “Total rootlessness. That what you’re dealing with as much as anything.

“As I’ve said before,” Carsey said, “I have no sense of links. It’s funny, but I used to be slightly suspicious when I would look at someone’s resume and see 14 jobs in 14 years. Now I understand.”

A Self-Analysis

In a later self-analysis, said Coleman, Carsey referred to a passage in Walter Lippmann’s “A Preface to Morals.” He said it spoke for him. Coleman thinks it may speak for many men in today’s frantic crush of marriage and career and the telescoping of satisfactions.

“At the heart of (modern man’s discontent) there are likely to be moments of blank misgiving in which he finds that the civilization of which he is a part leaves a dusty taste in his mouth.

“He may be very busy with many things, but he discovers one day that he is no longer sure they are worth doing.

It is suggested to Coleman that a person simply might resign formally from the job, call an attorney, organize a divorce settlement and seek a new life and spouse in freedom and with peer approval.

“I believe I understand why Carsey did what he did,” Coleman said. “For one thing, he would have been awfully susceptible to other people talking him out of it. He was weak in ways like that.

“He wouldn’t tell his wife because he was afraid of Nancy in the same way he was afraid of his mother. He had seen her rage with him as he had seen his mother’s rage with his sister and he was frightened by rage.”

Coleman’s book is no mystery story of tracking a man who doesn’t want to be found. Neither is it a condoning, nor condemning the act of running away.

‘People Hurting Each Other’

“It is a story about how people keep hurting each other from a distance . . .

“It is about getting into relationships for all the wrong reasons. He married her because she (Nancy Carsey) was polishing him, this shirttail-out, rough-hewn kid from Texas, on the way up. She married him because she saw somebody clearly going places . . .

“It is about how we do not have the desire to right wrongs because we’re always trying to please. Carsey is a man who always looks for smiles because he is destroyed by frowns . . . “

Although, Coleman agreed, there is a piece of all of us and all of some of us in Jay Carsey, his is not a path to be followed if children are involved in the marriage. Nor should it be a choice for those persons who do not have Carsey’s flair “for landing on his feet . . . things always turn up for Julian Nance Carsey.”

But for this one man it was worth it.

“I’m really sympathetic to what he did. I wished he could have done it differently. But I can’t blame Carsey for trying to save himself. Rightly or wrongly, he was going down fast.

Yet returning to his roots, by remarrying, by settling for less money, attention and position than he had, has Carsey indeed saved himself? Is he happier now than then?

“What he didn’t have and what he never had in Nancy was being loved for who he is,” Coleman said. “He was loved for what he represented, his status, money, all the accouterments.

“Dawn (his current wife) loves him for what he is. Warts and all. And that is the pivotal point in the book.”

Exit the marriage maker.