Mythology of the Missing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He vanished five months ago after a cookout at his mother's home, a 33-year-old African American male in blue jeans and red Nikes. He smoked Newports and Marlboros, the authorities noted, and sported a tattoo on his right arm with the mantra, "Live by the sword, die by the sword."

Now Gerald Leander Betts stares glumly out from the missing-persons Web site of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. A mute statistic. A son and brother mysteriously gone AWOL. A man whose identity has been reduced to a stony litany of dates and numbers, punctuated by question marks. Like an estimated 41,000 other Americans at any given time, he has stepped out of mundane reality into a twilight zone between fate and possibility, being and not being. He has become a missing adult.

In the slightly Kafka-esque language of investigators, that classification could mean anything or nothing--an emergency or a hoax, disaster or deception. It could mean you're already dead or that your life is in grave danger. Or it could mean you've wiped the slate clean and are about to begin a new life, perhaps in a distant city under an assumed name.

Being considered missing in modern society is, it seems, not only a matter of where you're at, but also how you got there, and why. It's a question of motives and intentions, an almost metaphysical matter, at least when it comes to grownups.

Missing adults have long been a symbol of social upheaval. They confront us as disturbing alter egos, reminding us that the flipside to the national credo of relentless "self-reinvention" is the risk of losing your essential being. They make us consider that "dropping out" of society--regarded as a positive act of conscience in the free-wheeling '60s--today could mean falling permanently through the cracks and down, down, down into oblivion.

The FBI receives nearly 900,000 missing-persons reports every year, the vast majority of which are concluded when the person returns or is otherwise accounted for. Whereas missing children are almost always assumed to be victims of others' foul intentions, missing adults in the U.S. are generally presumed to be acting on their own freewill, unless substantial evidence exists to the contrary.

That crucial element of choice, or imputed choice, is what makes missing-adults cases so intriguing, and so problematic. Missing kids get their pictures on fliers and their names entered in an FBI database. Adults can be MIA for weeks or even months before anyone pays attention, especially if they're junkies, prostitutes or homeless. Unless they're on the social register, their absence may not even make the late news.

"When we magically turn 18, we can vote ... we can go to war, and that presumption is no longer there," says Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI agent who helped track down the Unabomber and is now president of a private investigative group for major businesses. But if missing adults are given short shrift legally, they're casting a long shadow culturally these days. Even before this summer's strange disappearance of Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy sent the media into 24-7 prattle mode, missing persons were on the national radar. They've been stalking our novels and haunting our cineplexes. They're embodying some of our worst phobias about the instability of social status and the fragility of identity in a restless, quick-changing world.

As with the characters played by Tom Hanks in the desert-island drama "Cast Away" and Guy Pearce in the neo-noir celluloid thriller "Memento," our contemporary fear is not simply of disappearing. It's of becoming missing persons in our own lives, strangers in our own time. In "Cast Away," Hanks' Federal Express agent reclaims his inner sense of self after an involuntary four-year exile as a contemporary Robinson Crusoe. In "Memento," Pearce's Leonard Shelby must sift through the shards of his splintered personality and traumatized memory to resolve a murder case.

And in Anne Tyler's 1995 novel "Ladder of Years," middle-aged housewife Delia Grinstead impulsively walks out on her husband and three children after suddenly realizing that she was "expendable" in her own home. "Most untraceable of all," Delia thinks, "would be dying."

With technology nibbling away at our privacy, Internet hackers kidnapping our identities and advanced robotics supposedly threatening to hijack our very souls (i.e. Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"), the idea of disappearing or going missing may have taken on a new spiritual and psychological urgency. Stephen Tatum, a professor of English at the University of Utah and author of a book about the mythology of Billy the Kid, believes our fascination with missing persons may be a reaction to these dehumanizing trends.

"One way of thinking about it is, the more our lives--at least in the First World--are administered, packaged, commodified, rationalized, the more we lose mystery through that," Tatum says. "It's almost like a response to the rationalization and insulation of our lives." Maybe our attraction to stories about the missing, he adds, "is a symptom of our desire to retain some sort of sense of fundamental mystery about life."

Missing Persons: An Old Story

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again .... "He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand."

--Dashiell Hammett, "The Maltese Falcon"

Actually, of course, missing persons are an old, old story.

Ulysses, the wandering hero of Homer's 8th century BC epic, was the Western world's original Most Wanted case. It took him 20 years just to get home from Troy, during which time nearly everyone but his long-suffering wife, Penelope, gave him up for dead.

In 16th century France, the soldier Martin Guerre disappeared during the European religious wars, and an imposter tried to lay claim to his wife and farm. Guerre returned just in time to have the interloper hanged.

Until the mid-1990s, the myth endured that Tsar Nicholas II's daughter, Anastasia Romanov, somehow had survived the Bolshevik massacre of Russia's last royal family, until new DNA evidence proved she'd met her fate in 1918. Prior to then, Anastasia sightings were as routine as Elvis spottings at Burger King.

But America, land of wide-open frontiers and second chances, seems to have produced an unusually large corpus of missing-person mythology. Among the most famously romanticized incidents was the disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alton, daughter of Aaron Burr, while traveling by schooner off North Carolina's Outer Banks in 1812. Years later, two pirates allegedly confessed to having massacred the ship's crew and passengers, or the vessel may have been destroyed in a monster gale.

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart, perhaps the most famous missing person in U.S. history, disappeared in July, 1937, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean during a much-hyped world flight attempt. Conjecture about her fate continues to this day.

Then there was Joseph Force Crater, a New York state Supreme Court justice who on Aug. 6, 1930, ate dinner at a Times Square steakhouse with a Follies showgirl, stepped into a taxi and was never seen again.

West of the Mississippi, Everett Reuss, an artist and naturalist in the John Muir mode, caused a regional stir when he disappeared while hiking in the Utah canyon lands in 1934.

American culture has steadily reflected an interest in missing persons and abandoned lives. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1835 short story "Wakefield," a London man for no obvious reason decides to desert his wife and live for 20 years in the next street over. One day, just as suddenly, he returns home and resumes living as if nothing had happened. "By stepping aside for a moment," Hawthorne concludes, "a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe."

Sixty-five years later, Theodore Dreiser explored how industrial society was causing physical and psychological dislocation in his novel "Sister Carrie." Unable to fall in step with America's money-grubbing ways, George Hurstwood, the novel's aristocratic male protagonist, ends the book as a Bowery bum, so transformed (in the wrong direction) that his rich ex-cronies wouldn't recognize him.

But the missing-person motif in pop culture may have reached its zenith in the immediate prewar and postwar period of pulp fiction and film noir. That's when hard-boiled private dicks like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were trailing flibbertigibbet heiresses and shady assassins lurking in dark, morally ambiguous corners of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Expressing a festering skepticism about the prevailing social order, they discovered that sometimes the "best people" have the most reason to go underground.

"I guess Chapter 11 bankruptcy's kind of the same thing today," says professor Tatum. "You can absolve your past and start anew."

Missing Pieces Of the Puzzle

A handful of missing Americans were famous even before they pulled a Houdini. Aimee Semple McPherson was an L.A. radio evangelist with a national following when she caused an international uproar by faking her kidnapping to mask an affair with a married man. Union boss and alleged Mafia consort Jimmy Hoffa was still a political force to be reckoned with when he went missing in action from a Detroit restaurant 26 years ago. Others, like Chandra Levy, have had celebrity tragically thrust upon them. (Last seen at a Washington sports club on April 30, the 25-year-old USC student left only a scattered trail of e-mail and unkept plans to hint at her whereabouts.)

The vast majority of adult absentees, however, are unknown outside a narrow circle of family, friends and co-workers. They might be drug addicts or mentally ill. They might simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many are fleeing creditors, the law or an estranged lover or spouse.

So they fake a suicide, change their name, remarry, move to Alaska. They wander out of an Alzheimer's ward and melt into skid row. They fly off into a clear blue sky and alight in another world.

For women especially, some experts say, disappearing may represent a last chance at escaping an abusive relationship, or a mountainous load of domestic responsibility. Says Ann Rule, a former Seattle police officer and bestselling true-crime author ("Empty Promises"): "I think all of us, maybe particularly women who gradually take on more and more responsibility, wonder: 'What if I just kept driving? Would anyone miss me?"'

Rule thinks the impulse toward flight is pretty universal, though fleeting in most of us. What pulls us back? "Obligations," Rule says. "The love for people we left behind. The realization that things aren't better on the other side of the state or the other side of the country or the other side of the world, that your problems come attached with you."

Yet even battle-hardened sleuths admit they sometimes indulge in wishful speculation that a missing person is really safe and sound, riding out the storm, sipping Margaritas on a Pacific atoll. The temptation is especially strong when the alternatives seem so awful, so irrevocable, as in the Levy affair.

"I wish that Chandra had [disappeared voluntarily]," Rule says. "I don't think she did. I don't think she was mature enough or independent enough. I think we're going to see a tragic ending or no ending at all, which would be worse. I must admit that I was trying to find any reason that there wouldn't be a tragic ending, and I thought, 'What if she just wanted to see him [Condit] twist in the wind?' One person said to me, 'Maybe she'd read one of your books."'

Whatever the circumstances, friends and relatives are left to grieve and puzzle, while the rest of us are left feeling terrified, tantalized and--if our secret thoughts were revealed--perhaps a bit titillated as well.

Moved by pity, fascination and horror, it's common to create mental plotlines about love affairs gone sour, old scores being settled, double lives led. We invent stories to explain the seemingly inexplicable: How does a human being one day just fall off the planet?

"People are naturally inquisitive," says Dr. Philip J. Levine, chief dental forensic expert for the city of Pensacola, Fla., medical examiner's office and an authority on identifying human remains. "This is perhaps the only country in the world that would go to the extent that we do to put closure with these cases. And I personally believe that that's just basic human dignity that we do that, that we bring closure and try to seal these cases and find out the truth. Because it affects so many people."

As a people, the questions still must haunt us: Will there be a final chapter to the Chandra Levy case? Will Gerald Betts' family ever know, beyond a reasonable doubt, what happened?

"I hate the word 'closure,' I just absolutely hate it with a passion," says Van Zandt, the former FBI agent. "That emotional and psychological porch light, you leave that on every night. Because you want to believe against all odds that your loved one is the one that's going to make it, that he's been carried away by gypsies and is going to come back to you. If you're a parent, you want to believe that some nice, childless couple has your child and is going to raise him in a loving environment and that some day you will be reunited. I guess people need those things."

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