"The Problems of Victory are more agreeable than the Problems of Defeat, but no less difficult." --Winston Churchill
There are no reliable statistics on the number of people who disappear each year. This is obviously due to the nature of the action, the goal of which is to remain undetected, and also to the method used to collect such statistics.
All disappearance statistics are ultimately based "on official" records of "missing persons." These records are completely unreliable because of the way they are compiled. The two main sources of error are: (1) the large number of disappearees who are never officially reported as missing persons; and (2) the smaller number of people listed as missing who are not. Let's start with the first category and see why some people are never cataloged as "missing."
A person who disappears has to be formally reported missing before the police will take any official notice. Most disappearances are reported to the Missing Persons Bureau (MPB) of the local police department. There are many reasons for truly "missing" people to go unreported.
Fugitives from the law are almost never reported as missing persons. Think about it for a minute: if you were a close relative or friend of someone who skipped bail, would you run to the nearest police station to report your relative or friend missing? Aiding a fugitive is against the law but keeping silent about his departure is not. Most people in this situation would just let the police find out in their own sweet time.
Statistics on the number of fugitives are not collected by MPB's. Federal and state law enforcement agencies usually handle such cases and it is doubtful they will ever reveal the actual number of fugitives; the reaction of Congress and the public to the huge number of criminals roaming free in this country would focus unwanted attention on their operations.
Other disappearees go unreported because nobody cares enough about them to try and find them. Many disappearees do not have broad social ties. They are loners who do not suffer from guilt or regret at leaving loved ones behind. Indeed, it is the emotional attachments people have to family, friends and co-workers that keeps those who have good reason to leave from doing so. If they do leave, it is these attachments that either force them to come back or lead to their capture.
A good example of this kind of unreported disappearee is the clever embezzler whose carefully-planned theft goes undetected. In these days of computerized finances such misappropriation of funds is easier to hide, and many companies are reluctant to admit publicly that they are vulnerable to such a crime. They may call in detectives but almost never the police.
Most adult missing persons reports are filed by wives whose husbands have ducked out. As we shall see later in this chapter, the majority of legitimate disappearances come as the final act in an unhappy marriage. There are many sensible reasons why a great number of such disappearances would go unreported.
If the relationship between husband and wife is one of mutual hatred the wife may be relieved to have "hubby" out of her life. She won't report her husband missing because she couldn't care less. In fact, she might be afraid that if she does report him missing the police will find him and bring him back--and that's the last thing on earth she desires!
A wife might feel shame that her husband left her or guilt that it was her failure as a woman that drove him away. Reporting her husband missing would force her to confront the reality of their messed-up lives. She'd rather believe he just went somewhere to cool off. Or maybe she feels if that's what he wants, fine; she'd rather work things out, but she won't interfere with his decision to leave.
For other women there is complete disbelief that their husbands would want to desert them. They are loath to report their husbands missing because of the adverse publicity: "What will the neighbors think?" Again, it is easier for them to believe that he's out on a drunk--no need to report that. As days turn to weeks turn to months she comes to accept the disappearance although she never reports it.
Those are the main reasons disappearees do not get officially reported as missing persons. Now let's look at the reasons for reporting people missing who are not. We'll start with the married couple and look at them from the other side.
It is not uncommon for a fierce argument between cohabitants to end with one of the partners slamming the front door on their way out. The police have learned through years of experience that the husband off on a hundred-dollar drunk will be back before the week is out. The wife who was so eager to run to the MPB and report him missing forgets to notify them of his return amidst all the apologies. In some cases the police stumble on someone who has been on the missing persons list for years but was back in the harness long ago.
Probably the largest source of over-reported disappearees are juveniles. In fact, teenage runaways make up such a large proportion of officially missing persons that most MPB's are part of the juvenile section of the police department. It is not uncommon for teenagers to flee unhappy homes or strike out on their own in search of fame and fortune. Even though their parents may have started out the same way, they are quick to report Junior's disappearance to the MPB.
The not-so-amazing fact about teenage runaways is that they seem to find their way home as soon as the money runs out. If Mom & Dad forget to notify the authorities it could be a long time before Junior is stricken from the
rolls of the missing. And if the parents move around a lot (especially common with military personnel), their child may be listed as missing in several cities even though he's always come back home. In such a case it is unlikely the MPB's in those cities would ever learn the child's fate or be able to strike him from their records.
Teenage runaways do not fit into the scope of this book because they seldom change identities. They are young and it is relatively easy for them to establish new lives once they reach their destinations. They are not encumbered with the problems and established lives that require adult runaways to build completely new identities. In fact, most teenage runaways re-establish their family ties somewhere down the road.
One of the interesting aspects of teenage runaways is that they often possess the skills and background to become successful adult runaways. They have severed their emotional family ties early in life while developing the skills to survive as "strangers in strange lands." Successful identity-changing later in life will be much easier for these kids than it is for the run-of-the-mill estranged spouse.
The foregoing are only a few of the many reasons for the inaccuracy of missing persons statistics. Some others: people who are murdered but whose bodies are never discovered; people who die without identification, particularly when they are some distance from home; people killed while posing as someone else. Many people who die in airplane crashes and shipwrecks are never identified or incorrectly identified.
WHY PEOPLE DISAPPEAR
Now that we have examined who disappears, we will try to understand why they do it. What motivates reasonable people to take the severe, difficult and often painful act of complete detachment?
Through my encounters with the disappeared I have found three major motivations for the decision: legal, financial and psychological. While some of the cases described below fall neatly into just one of these categories, most people who disappear are motivated by a formula combining all three.
By far the strongest motivation for disappearing is psychological. There are many ways to deal with life's difficult situations without disappearing. Most people fight to overcome their problems through the use of marriage counselors, attorneys, accountants, etc. When they lose, most people do their time, whether in prison or an unhappy marriage. Those who disappear are neither willing to do their time or to battle for something that's not worth the fight.
Generally speaking, deliberate disappearance is a defensive reaction to overwhelming and intolerable social pressures. Furthermore, successful identity change takes a special kind of psyche. Many of those who attempt disappearance are unable to cope with the stark reality of displacement or with the longing for reunion. They find that it's easier to deal with the problems of home than the problems of not having a home. The successful disappearee usually has a taste for risk, the ability to think and act quickly, and either a strong resistance to, or fear of, re-connecting with their past.
Let's look at some of the specific reasons that compel people to abandon their former lives and create new identities for themselves.