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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

In the story of a missing boy, a mother as protagonist

I was only a dozen or so pages into Beth Gutcheon’s “Still Missing” when I realized I recognized the story she was telling. A young boy named Alex, not quite 7 years old, sent to walk the two blocks to school alone, who never shows up to class. “I know this story, how do I know this story?” I hadn’t read the book, despite it being a reissue of a book from the 1980s, part of Persephone’s excellent reprint series of lost classics. Then I realized I recognized it from the inspiration, from Etan Patz, the young boy who went missing and became a news sensation in the late ‘70s.

Gutcheon’s story diverts from its real-life counterpart as the story unfolds, and its main focus is the psychological profile of the mother. I e-mailed Gutcheon to ask her how the real story had inspired her. She responded, “I was out of the country when Etan Patz disappeared from the neighborhood where I was raising my own only child, a son, who had been in playgroup with Etan’s older sister Shira. I intersected their story late; it was shocking to get home and learn that a child we had known had disappeared, but the neighborhood (excepting, I’m sure, the family’s close friends, whom I didn’t know) had already moved on to a more shocking phrase.” Etan was eventually presumed dead.

The portrait of Susan, the mother, is one of a woman in limbo. With no ransom call made, no body found, and no real leads, she is a woman who waits by the phone. And while nothing really happens — for a long time – “Still Missing” remains tense as the investigation trudges in the mud and Susan spends days waiting by the phone. Gutcheon recalls that during the investigation, “pictures of Etan, headlined MISSING, were posted around the neighborhood with big stamps of the word STILL marked across them. The story was already losing momentum in the press and those not personally affected were moving on to other things. It’s a painful and frightening story to contemplate, and those not directly affected clearly wanted to be allowed to stop thinking about it. My first experience of this (though it wasn’t the last) was to overhear a couple looking at such a poster, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, we get it. He’s missing. He’s still missing. What are we supposed to do about it?’… It was very human to want to turn away, but doing it added insult to injury because you do it by demonizing the victims: ‘That happened to them because they are _____ (fill in the blank: careless; weird; unloving; Satan worshipers) but it can’t happen to me because I am not those things.’”

Etan Patz on September 16, 1978. The boy disappeared in May 1979. Although his body was never found, Etan's parents won a wrongful death suit in 2004 against a convicted child molester.

As much as the mystery of Alex’s disappearance drives the novel, it’s also the portrayal of Susan that keeps you reading. She’s not simply the tearful empty shell that so many stories of missing children use for mothers, Gutcheon makes her complicated and compelling, with her own interesting back story and personality. She wrote to me, “The most important point of craft was going to be creating a mother with whom the reader would identify. I made her smart but vulnerable, attractive but not a knock-out, warm and loving, but otherwise I went out of my way to make her something of a blank slate, so that readers would project themselves into her position. She is isolated; a single mom, grieving for the end of a marriage she cared about.”

But when it came to ending the book, which was originally published in 1981, she could not have foreseen the horrible limbo that the Patz case became mired in. She decided to resolve the story with a definite ending because “it would have been intolerable to write otherwise, and a miserable experience for the reader. Fiction does something true crime stories can’t; it creates a moral universe in which the patterns and structure mean something. ‘Still Missing’ was intended to work on three levels; first, as a police procedural: A child is missing; will he be found? Second, as a metaphor of faith: ‘Oh, Lord, I believe. Help, thou, my unbelief.’ Susan happens to be a Christian, but I don’t mean faith in a particular religious sense. Rather, it’s a story about what the exercise of faith does in a life, what kind of strength it takes to believe something in the absence of evidence, what emotional muscles does it use, and how does it work, if at all. Third, it’s a psychological study. Susan is in the position of the paranoid. She thinks something terrible has happened to her and she wants people to stop telling her to move on, as if it weren’t true, and still happening. But she isn’t crazy; that really is her situation. The difference from real life for all three layers is that she is shown to be right in her beliefs and world views, and her faith is redeemed.”

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut. She currently resides in Berlin.