Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
The introduction to the American edition of The Missing strikes a strange note. Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan’s meditation on the phenomenon of kidnapped, murdered, and otherwise missing people, particularly children, began as an essay in Harper’s and was widely praised upon its British publication. The intro seems to promise fresh insights into the issue—which would be more than welcome, for this is surely a difficult topic to write about. Everyone has heard about the rising number of children kidnapped and murdered every year; most recently, the awful revelations in the investigation of accused Belgian child-killer Marc Dutroux have reinforced the bleak conclusion that life imitates horror movies. But aside from deploring such cases, there seems to be little—or at least, little new—that can be said about their meaning.
Puzzlingly, though, O’Hagan’s tone betrays no awareness of the depletion of his topic. He catalogs anecdotes with wide-eyed solemnity, sounding almost like some insulated retiree aghast at the nightly news. As Chapter 1 opens, there’s already a dubious hint of yea-saying hanging over the whole project. There’s also a question in the air: Are O’Hagan and his reviewers all living in a box? Or could it be that there’s some difference in the perception of this issue on the other side of the Atlantic?
The answer turns out to be a bit of both. The Missing is something of a hodgepodge, alternating between nostalgia and realism, old ideas and new. O’Hagan interweaves descriptions of a series of missing-persons cases with a memoir of his childhood in the ’70s. Growing up in Glasgow and later Ayrshire, Scotland, he encountered more than what one might call the usual number of unnatural deaths and disappearances. His grandfather was lost at sea years before he was born. When he was a toddler, Glasgow was rocked by a series of unsolved murders committed by a vague figure dubbed “Bible John”—murders that, he says, haunt the city to this day. Then, when he was 8, a child disappeared from the building site where he and his friends played.
These incidents affected the young O’Hagan, as one might expect, giving him an early lesson in the permeability of society’s sheltering walls. But rather than traumatizing him, they apparently had a hardening effect. O’Hagan seems well used to living with harsh realities that might come as a shock to others. “I’ve been looking for missing persons, in my own head, for as long as I can remember,” he writes.
Unlike O’Hagan, the people who appear in The Missing are left reeling from their encounters with the winds of chaos. The lives of those who survive the lost ones are never the same. “Where the missing person is being missed,” O’Hagan reminds us, “it is usually the case that someone visible, someone back home, will be going through a sort of hell, a misery of endless doubt and speculation.”
But the family and friends of the missing aren’t the only ones affected—the whole community suffers. O’Hagan describes how the Bible John killings changed everyone he knew; though inured to the ordinary dangers of city life, Glaswegians were forced to acknowledge a bizarre new reason to be afraid. Adults in every family huddled close, looking fearfully for unseen fissures in a society that once felt reasonably secure.
Americans, O’Hagan assumes, experience these incidents in the same way. “We are none of us safe in the world,” the U.S. edition’s introduction begins, and on the surface it appears that O’Hagan is right. The thousands of children abducted every year, the reports of international pedophile rings based in Brussels and Bangkok, the countless, eventually indistinguishable young faces printed on milk cartons remind us constantly, and wrenchingly, that our society is in crisis.
But O’Hagan underestimates our familiarity, even obsession, with the issue he’s discussing—a worldliness learned from Hard Copy and America’s Most Wanted that places his American readers far apart from the sad, innocent parents in Glasgow and Ayrshire. We seem almost addicted to the issues of child abuse and abduction, even to the point of exaggerating their real scope. One of the (unattributed) statistics O’Hagan cites as evidence of “a vastly grown and growing threat” is a 1983 finding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-and-a-half million children disappear every year. If this were true, it would mean that every school in the country lost as many as 30 kids every single year. Misleading or downright false statistics like that helped ignite a countrywide obsession with kidnapping and child abuse in the ’80s.
In fact, the number of children kidnapped by strangers annually is only a few hundred. The vast majority of abducted children are taken by divorced parents who don’t have custody. Though certainly not benign, these incidents have little to do with the image of the omnipresent child-snatcher the inflated statistics of the early ’80s conjured. The abuse and abduction of children is, of course, an issue of the gravest concern—certainly one whose dimensions wouldn’t seem to require exaggeration. But that’s exactly what has happened.
The eager reception of the statistics and the systematic obscuring of their real meaning are symptoms of a craving for the missing-child drama that’s quite at odds with the shocked disillusionment evinced by the people in The Missing. O’Hagan mentions the milk carton phenomenon, noting that “the faces of the missing, the unending nightmare of their loss, became a part of your daily consumption.” He doesn’t ask why people are so hungry for this bitter dose.
The answer is readily available. It appears in movies like Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, in which a search for a missing child becomes a dreamlike quest for meaning. The effect of the sun-drenched, communal search, juxtaposed against the characters’ isolation and despair, gives a clue to the appeal of the missing-child scare. O’Hagan speaks of communities destroyed by such loss, but here the process is reversed—in the face of eroding American communities, public anxiety about the safety of children soars to a hysterical pitch.
In this context, O’Hagan’s poetic, melancholy musings feel almost anachronistic. The latter half of his book turns from memoir to accounts of present-day missing-persons cases. It isn’t as engaging as the first half, which is rescued somewhat by vivid, careful prose. In the second part, O’Hagan interviews runaways as well as people who have seen their loved ones murdered, considering these forms of missingness to be somehow related. The stories he recounts, written in a style reminiscent of Joan Didion’s in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, actually feel more reassuring than chilling. Here, at least, are clear-cut cases, understandable in simple human terms, that offer occasions for straightforward mourning. Even the most grisly of his tales are a far cry from the surreality of today’s headlines. One almost envies the grandmothers of Ayrshire. Their complacent worldview may be under attack, but at least they have one.
In a sense it is O’Hagan’s similarity to his American audience—his obsession with his subject—that destroys his message. Attempting to regain his own lost innocence, O’Hagan obsessively scrutinizes ordinary people’s sorrow. If only he weren’t so determined to find meaning in their sadness, perhaps he might realize that in cases such as these, there’s not much one can say.