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

September 19, 1989|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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