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Mythology of the Missing

Americans have long been consumed with the dark vagaries of people who have vanished.

July 25, 2001|REED JOHNSON | 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.

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