Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Gone. Why?

I wrote the following essay in 1980, before Theodore Kaczynski became a household name and we began to find weekly missing persons flyers in our mailboxes. Paul Auster’s novel Oracle Night (2004), which I have yet to read, is based on the Wakefield and Flitcraft stories.

Newton, Mass. – As Christmas approaches, my stubborn, habit-ridden mind persists in recalling that my oldest brother has not and probably never will return home. Fifteen years ago, he failed to telephone the family on Christmas Day and has not been heard from since.

His disappearance has motivated my interest in similar dropout cases, and has led me to several unexpected findings. The first is that a relative’s sudden disappearance is not as uncommon as one might think. Thousands disappear from their families into silence ever year. A second finding is that the literature on the phenomenon is hard to find. While social scientists have examined the problem of runaway husbands and wives and children, they have not systematically looked the phenomena as a whole, as far as I can gather. Finally, and most surprisingly, only a handful of writers have written in any fashion about it, according to my findings.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is of the few to explore the motives and consequences of absenting oneself form one’s family. In 1835, a magazine published Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield,” a “not very uncommon” tale about a man by that name who tells his wife he will return in four days from a business trip into the country. Instead of returning, however, Wakefield takes up residence in a house on a street adjacent to his former home. From there he watches his wife for 20 years.

Like Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, my brother "went away like a fist when you open your hand"

With Sam Spade’s story of Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett gave us a 20th-century version of “Wakefield.” Using words that precisely capture the sense I have of my brother’s disappearance, Sam spade says that one day Flitcraft went way “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Can Wakefield and Flitcraft tell us something central about the reason a brother, sister, wife or husband would unexpectedly break contact with the family? Do their stories explain why thousands arrange their own disappearance every year?

After his disappearance, Flitcraft is remorseless and oblivious to the similarity between his “old” and “new” lives. He falls back into the same routines, creates another family, manages another business, and goes to the country club as predictably as he had before. After his disappearance, Flitcraft is still himself.

I would rather believe in Wakefield’s end. After two decades apart from his wife, he steps across the threshold into his former home as unexpectedly and unexplainably as he had left. Life resumes in the “red glow and the glimmer and fitful flame of a comfortable fire.”

I would like to believe that all those missed by their families would some day return. At one time I did believe so. But now I cannot. Fifteen years have passed sine the Christmas my brother did not telephone. It is unlikely that more years of waiting will reunite him with us in the romantic glow of a Christmas hearth.

As the years have passed, my brother has faded until he lacks even the definition of a Wakefield or a Flitcraft. Like Wakefield’s, his motives remain obscure; like Flitcraft’s, he may now be whoever he was before he disappeared.

While this is not much to say, there is no longer much to say about it. The adult dropout’s motives, who he was, and who he now might be remain open, ineffable mysteries to the family left behind. Only the disappearance becomes tangible and complete.

Copyright © The New York Times, 1980

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