1. Thomas J. Garth’s Article “Vanishing in the Burmese Jungle” Part I of III that appeared in The American Voice on December 18, 2009
In the 21st century, is it possible to disappear? In the age of the Internet, GPS, and microcameras on street corners, is anyone really unseen? Merriam-Webster defines “vanish” as “gradually ceasing to exist”—suggesting that the act of vanishing takes place not in a distinct moment, but over time, as a slow unraveling of fact and memory, a disintegration of the threads that linked you to the known world.
Elizabeth MacArthur is vanishing. It began on July 17th, 2009 when she lost contact with her team in the jungles of northern Burma. Five months later, it continues. There have been no letters of ransom, no demands, no surveillance tapes to review, no garments found by search dogs. Many suspect foul play, but equally many suspect disease. Much mention has been made of the brutality of the Tatmadaw, now more affectionately referred to as the Myanmar Armed Forces. Just as suspect is the Kachin Independence Army. Her family remains optimistic, as the families of the fading away often do.
Of course there have been sightings. A seventy-year-old man says his cousin saw her dragged by her hair in a field near the Irrawaddy river city of Myitkyina in Shan State. A boy who shines shoes on the streets of Rangoon says that his uncle saw her during a raid near the Chinese border town of Ruili. A Burmese activist is seen on the ABC Newshour lamenting the fact that it took a Western woman getting lost in Burma to attract Western media attention to his country, which is one of the ten poorest nations in the world and home to one of the most brutal Southeast Asian regimes and prisoners of conscience such as Aung San Suu Kyi. I hope they never find her, the activist says, his eyes sparkling with hurt confusion. A Missouri Paper misreported Ms. MacArthur’s disappearance as occurring in Brunei. An Inthe Villager who took MacArthur and her husband on a boat ride in the Inle Lake region says MacArthur has been inhabited by a Nhat, or evil spirit, and driven to madness. He offers to perform the necessary exorcism if she is found. A taxi driver in Rangoon says she fell in love with a Karin leader and is pregnant with his child. Her mentor and fellow botanist, Bradley Penfaulk, says she is still in the jungle and will emerge from the Western outpost in twenty to forty days time. A translator says she lost her mind after eating the seed of a poisonous berry and now she wanders the jungle with leaves in her hair and river mud smeared on her face, masturbating with tree roots. A blind basket weaver says she is dead.
2. Tom J. Garth’s Office, The American Voice News & Publishing Company, New York City, December 14, 2009
The intern stands outside Tom’s office with a carefully cited document that he has spent the last two days preparing. He is sweating, his freckled face is flushed, and he has a growing sense of dread that though he is only twenty, he will forever be an imposter, a poser, a slightly less than capable person in a world that steamrolls over the lowly for nothing more than amusement and the elevation of those, who through some miraculous act of happenstance, are not imposters. He blames this sensation on Tom. It is not that Tom is a bad person per se, but the kind of man who enjoys the sight of a trembling intern. The worst of it is that the intern likes Tom, thinks Tom is cool, a fine reporter with good taste, and the way that Tom seems to be able to peer right through him is particularly damaging to his recently formed ego.
“Quit lurking out there and lurk in here instead,” says Tom without turning around from his desk. He hurries through the doorway and reminds himself that this is his second to last day of the internship and that in three days, he can join his parents and sister in the Cayman Islands where they are celebrating Christmas and forget his brief glimpse of adulthood.
Tom still doesn’t turn around. “Did you get what I asked for?”
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
The intern is not invited to sit down, so he remains standing, and this is alright with him because it allows him to flee if that becomes necessary and he’s heard that your voice is more clear (and less prone to cracking and strange wavers in pitch) when one is standing.
He clears his throat and begins, “Every third article published by an American publication that mentions Burma also mentions Elizabeth MacArthur. Last week, she became the most written about lost woman in modern history with the exception of Amelia Aerheart who has over seventy years of lost-ness on her. Chandra Levy is a close second. Lacey Peterson and Elizabeth Smart have just over half as many stories written about them, even when you consider the stories printed on the latter’s recent engagement. The last person known to have seen MacArthur is a Burmese national named Aung Win Myint. He is 27 years old, speaks no English, and was employed by Dr. Penfaulk as a water porter. No journalists have interviewed him. Two weeks after MacArthur’s disappearance, a childhood friend, Ben Charging, suggested in an interview with the LA Times that it was “not outside the realm of possibility that Beth had had enough and just went into the forest.” The next day, the New York Post ran the headline: “Beth Macarthur, Runaway.” After that date, there was a 300 % spike in the number of stories reported on the case. There are 52 websites devoted to chronicling MacArthur’s disappearance, the most visited of which is run by MIT computer science student Jared Gambol called “Lost Footsteps,” likely an allusion to Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps, which itself is an allusion to a Rudyard Kipling poem. 46 of the 52 sites either openly embrace the idea of MacArthur as a runaway or produce the majority of their material in favor of this hypothesis. None of these sites appear to be run by anyone who has ever met the MacArthurs, or her husband, nor have any significant connection to any of the above. In the three months since her disappearance, she has been mentioned in four items of popular music including Brooklyn rapper Machine X’s song Jungle Fever in which he says, “Hit that road, Jack. Take a hike like E Mac.” A character, Ellen McMurtrie, from “Jungle Woman,” a popular online comic book series, is said to be based on MacArthur. On the streets of Rangoon, it is possible to buy a Shepard Fairey-style t-shirt with MacArthur’s face on the back and the words, “Leave Me Alone,” on the front. Images bearing resemblance to MacArthur’s face have been found graffitied in downtown London. Paige Park, an expert on street art, says that stylistically, the image bears resemblance to the work of Banksy, the famous London graffiti artist, though these days, most street art resembles that of Banksy. A sixteen-year-old boy named Gilbert Sullivan in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has created a computer game loosely based off of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego where the purpose of the game is to rescue MacArthur. The rights to the game are rumored to have been purchased by Zynga, purportedly for a seven-digit figure. MacArthur’s mentor, Bradley Penfaulk, who was one of the last people to see her, has asserted in numerous publications that the idea of MacArthur as a runaway is “entirely outside the realm of possibility” and that assertions to the contrary are “ludicrous” and “in hard-headed opposition to the facts.” There are twenty-two thousand missing women in United States today, not to mention the world.
Tom leans back in his chair. The intern doesn’t breath.
“Which Rudyard Kipling poem?”
“The River of Lost Footsteps—which Rudyard Kipling poem is that an allusion to.”
“I don’t know,” says the intern. The truth is that he’s not sure who Rudyard Kipling is.
“Doesn’t matter. Read the last line again.”
“There are twenty-two thousand missing women in the U.S., not to mention the world.”
Tom leans back further in his chair. He takes off his glasses, which the intern has often suspected don’t actually contain a prescription, but are worn to project intellectual superiority.
“Okay, thanks. Leave the papers over there. You can go.”
3. Cat Walling, Arlington County Virginia, December 14, 2009
I had the most terrible dream last night. In the dream, a reporter called (here is the link to reality: yesterday, a reporter really did call, though the real reporter had something different to say). In the dream, the reporter said he had found Beth. At first, naturally, I was thrilled, sobbing, clutching the phone, everything you would expect when you are catapulted from despair to ecstasy. But the reporter was cautious. Not so fast, he said. There’s something I can’t quite explain, something you’ll have to see for yourself. You’ll find her much changed. I told him I understood, but of course, I didn’t, I was just eager to see Beth. He told me to go to the airport alone (why alone? In my dreams, I am always alone) and I could see her for myself, but that I should try not to seem alarmed, for her sake. When I arrived at the airport, I was led down a windowless hallway by the reporter. It bothered me that I couldn’t get a good look at his face. Every time I tried to meet his gaze, he turned around and I was left staring at the back of his head. I knew something was wrong because, of course, everything felt wrong; there was wrongness in the walls, wrongness in the fluorescent lighting, wrongness in the void of the reporter’s face, wrongness inside of me. We kept walking and walking down a series of windowless hallways. She’s right down here, the reporter kept saying. Just over here. I grew frustrated that he was leading me into the bowels of a building from which I would never emerge, and I shouted at him something like, where are you taking me! Take me to her now! Which is something I would never do in waking life. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, it’s all right Mrs. Walling, we’re here now. Remember, behave normally, he said, and I began to feel sick to my stomach. He held open the door for me and as soon as I walked into the room, I was overtaken by the most blinding white light, a light that was brighter and more eviscerating than direct sunlight, or a lunar eclipse. I felt like a sheet bleached in the sun, radiated by whiteness, and my bones ached with that terrible blankness. It was then that I knew I was blind. Sight—gone, forever—the weight of knowing I would never see again was unbearable. Beth! I called out, Beth! But there was no reply. Mrs. Walling, said the reporter, she can tell you’re not behaving normally, please try to behave normally. The blankness then seemed to have a noise, a swelling devastation of sound, which of course was no sound at all, but perhaps the first moment of non-noise, the inverse of sound, the other end of the spectrum, something never heard by human ears so I can’t explain it to you except to say that it was the echo chamber of the blast that disintegrates all things, the undoing of time. At this point, I’m sobbing, though of course I can’t hear myself sobbing, and I feel less and less, think less and less, become less and less, and it is as though I am being pulled from myself, ripped, shredded, gone.
I sat upright in bed and instead of light there was darkness. Wade snored beside me, a little whistling noise coming from this throat—I am envious of men. They sleep through things. I made a decision right then and there. I decided to call that reporter, the first one, the real one, and let him come to the house. Grace and Amy would be mad, Carly would be furious, but I am the only one who can get away with making unilateral decisions. I am the fragile one.
4. The Walling Residence, Arlington County, Virginia. Dec 16th, 2009
The irony is that despite the frequency with which they reproduce there are almost no MacArthurs left. The MacArthurs are a dying breed, a wealthy family of Scotch-Irish descent that is fading from the pages of its own history books as they are subsumed by Johnsons, Wallings, and Lowrys and before that by Bennetts, Cranfords, Arnolds, and Malloys. Of the four married MacArthur daughters, Beth is the only one to keep her name—indeed the only MacArthur woman ever to do so.
But it is not just this generation of MacArthurs; the family name has been in peril all along. For hundreds of years, the MacArthur family line has been dominated by women. Girl babies come one after another, in rapid succession. Allan MacArthur, Beth’s father, was the only son among four siblings. His father, Charles, was the only son among five. One must trace the MacArthurs back for five generations to find a MacArthur man who gave birth to more than one son. And this dearth of sons is not for lack of trying: over the past hundred years they have had an average of 4.8 children per household. In every generation, at the last moment, a son bursts forth, often the fourth, fifth, or sixth child, a phoenix, a final flicker at the end of the wick. Until now. In 2009, with six MacArthur women and no MacArthur men remaining, and with Allan and Mary Ellen MacArthur in their seventies, they are truly at their end.
“The buck stops here,” Catherine Walling, Beth’s middle sister jokes. “I think Beth was acutely aware of that,” she says, rubbing her hand over her tow-headed daughter’s head. Later, when asked why names matter, she says, “It’s something, I guess. Not a big something, but something. I hadn’t thought about it really.” When asked if it matters much to her that the MacArthur line is ending, she says, “Oh yes. It matters a great deal, though I can’t really say why. I guess I just feel like a bit of history will be gone, like one of the branches of a tree is dying and maybe has to be removed. I imagine some future son looking through family records and saying, ‘yes, I think there were some MacArthurs in there once.’ And like that, we’ll be gone, forgotten, because all that really matters is the now.”
“But then again, aren’t we all eventually forgotten?” Cat says smiling sheepishly, averting her eyes. Her question is met with silence, followed by a polite subject change, and uncomfortable shifting in seats.
A sunny Tuesday finds me in the Wallings’ Arlington home. The neighborhood is idyllic. Sun filters through evergreen trees, and I am nearly mowed down by a child on a razor scooter who is followed at a loving distance by his mother. Every yard has a dogwood tree in it, and the air is crisp. Lawns are well kept and set with timed sprinkler systems. The neighborhood has an intentional feel to it, as if every plot has been carefully planned to have an appropriate mix of privacy and community, to have a controlled amount of greenery—the kind that requires only modest mowing and gardening, to have houses that are roughly the same distance from the wide road. The houses were built in the same late sixties upper-middle class suburban development style with bay windows and beige colored brick. Every house has tasteful Christmas decorations, mostly lights, a wreath at the very minimum.
The Wallings have a two-car garage that is discreet, appearing to be just another room of the house until you drive around the side. They have three cars: a sedan for Wade, who works as a lobbyist, a suburban for Cat, and a minivan for the nanny who helps out three days a week.
It is difficult not to like Catherine (or, as her sisters call her, Cat) Walling. She is tall and thin, with sun-streaked blond hair that is just unkempt enough to discourage the notion that she is vain. Her face is attractive but, much of the time, kept tightly behind an inscrutable smile, a fixed expression that is reminiscent of girls one might know from a high school cheer squad. Though occasionally, she appears to have abandoned this act, lost the ability to use this expression, or perhaps is no longer convinced of the merits of meaningless smiling. Perhaps Cat is in the process of becoming a very different person, and I am witnessing a transformation, or maybe, more alarmingly, an unraveling in which her almond-shaped eyes are becoming increasingly locked in a sad downturn, possess a readiness to flinch and a kind of earnestness almost exclusively found on those in pain. I imagine that her eyes are the physical manifestation of the fact that though she might have grown up with the idea that you can be perfectly safe, now, at thirty-seven, she has been forever robbed of that notion. This, I think to myself, is a sad woman.
When I knocked on the door, I was under the impression that I was only meeting with Cat, but I quickly learn that the MacArthurs don’t meet with people alone. Numbers are their greatest strength. Amy, the oldest, answers the door and lets me in. Grace, the next-oldest, is pulling baby carrots out of the fridge and handing them to a wobbly-legged toddler. She is seven months pregnant. Two other small blonde children wander around the house. The others are at school, I am told.
I am led to the family room. I am offered coffee. I am offered hummus. I accept all of their healthful organic offerings graciously. I stand by Cat’s side while she rummages through photo albums, occasionally handing me one. The room has a cozy, family feel. There is a bin stuffed with toys, but other than that, it is impeccibly neat. To my left is a built-in shelf that has various books intermixed with vases and family photos. Some are of Wade’s family, but most are of the sisters, their children, or the MacArthur parents. Grace tells me that Cat’s house is nearly an exact replica of the elder MacArthur home, which is .3 miles away, to which Cat slaps her sister’s knee playfully, rolls her eyes and says, “It is not,” and then turns to me saying, “Grace is exaggerating.” There are some home design magazines on the coffee table. A lot of thought has gone into this room, and perhaps into everything Cat Walling does. Even the messy parts seem calculated.
“This album is from when we were all in high school. Well, not Carly, I guess she was in 7th grade for most of this.” She flips open to a page near the back. “Here’s Beth getting ready for prom.” The picture is of Beth, in a long, fluffy blue dress, and she is covering her face with one hand, and shooing the camera away with another.
“Beth hates pictures,” one of the sisters muses.
“How would she feel about you having in a journalist in your house?”
“Not great.” We laugh, but there is a silence after that.
“How did you come to posses all the family photos?” I ask Cat.
“Well, this really isn’t all of them,” she says looking around. “I don’t really know.”
“She’s the family librarian,” interjects Amy. “I think she even has my grades from middle school and all of our science fair projects in her basement.”
“I do not!” Cat says. “Just the pictures, I only have the pictures.”
“Every family has one of those right? The family cataloger? The historian?” Amy seems to be asking me.
“Sure,” I say.
Cat is blushing. “I just had some time one day and decided to organize them. I like organizing.” Grace and Amy exchange a look, but when they notice me looking they immediately stop and dissolve into pleasant smiles.
“What was Beth like in college?”
“Well, she had a typical college experience where she went one fall and it seemed like she came back for Christmas a completely different person.”
“Different, but the same,” says Amy taking a seat on the couch with one of the photo albums.
“Well, Beth was always very… individualistic and opinionated. But when she came back, she was more philosophical, and she dressed differently.”
Grace adds, “I remember one morning mom grabbed me all wild eyed in the kitchen that winter break when Beth got back and said “Gracie, do you think Bethy is doing pot?” and I said, ‘You mean right now? Right now I think she’s asleep.’ She actually said the words ‘doing pot,’ as in ‘doing heroin.’ But of course, to mom, smoking pot was like doing heroin.”
“Oh look at this one!” says Amy suddenly, thrusting an album toward me.
The five girls are standing in their front yard with their arms hung around each other’s necks. Two of the girls are sitting in front with their backs touching, smiling wide, goofy smiles that seem to convey an awareness of the staged nature of the photograph.
“I think this was our Christmas card one year.”
Grace comes over to look. “Yup.”
“Which one’s Beth?” I ask. They all look remarkably the same, blonde, lightly freckled, thin.
Cat points to one of the two sitting in the front.
“And who is that,” I point to the other one in the front row.
“Where is Carly today?”
“Carly doesn’t do interviews.”
“Why do you do interviews?”
There is a pause in which the sisters look at each other, as if to come to some agreed upon response. Amy speaks up, “To keep her cause alive. That’s our greatest fear, that people will lose interest, lose the will to keep looking for her. Because that’s what this situation requires. Endurance. An iron will.”
“Why does Carly not do interviews?”
Amy sighs and goes back over to the cabinet with all the pictures. Cat picks up a toddler that is tottering across the floor with an alarming lack of balance and holds her in her lap. She smoothes her hand over the toddler’s blonde curls and pushes her hair neatly into a barrette. Grace is rubbing her hand over her stomach again and staring at it with a mournful intensity.
“Well, for starters, she’s not here today because doesn’t live here; she lives in New York. But as to interviews in general, we’re not sure. Cat thinks it’s because it’s too painful for her. But I take her at her word. She thinks it won’t help us find her. She thinks it’s gross, that it’s just making a commodity of Beth. Fetishizing or something. Letting everyone have a good look at her, you know what I mean.”
“It was pretty disillusioning,” Cat says. “After the first stories came out, Beth seemed so—simple. It was like before this all happened, she was this real person with a personality, a way of thinking, a way of talking; she was imperfect, flawed, but she was ours. After the stories, it was like we couldn’t recognize her. They always seemed to leave out that one little nuance, the part that would make her recognizable as our Beth, rather than someone’s idea of Beth. And we could never quite put our fingers on what was missing, but it just wasn’t there, and the whole exercise felt inauthentic. I know that was particularly hard for Carly.”
“It’s bad enough when you physically lose your sister. But to lose her in your mind too—that’s scary,” Grace says, still looking at her belly.
“So why bother with me?”
“Because people stopped writing. The only thing that is worse than a story that misses the point is no story at all.”
5. Excerpts from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech , June 16, 2012, twenty-one years after she was first awarded it:
Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe. What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. This did not happen instantly, of course, but as the days and months went by and news of reactions to the award came over the airwaves, I began to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize. It had made me real once again; it had drawn me back into the wider human community. And what was more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten.
To be forgotten. The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: “Don’t forget us!” They meant: “don’t forget our plight, don’t forget to do what you can to help us, don’t forget we also belong to your world.” When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. So for me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.
News of atrocities in other reaches of the earth abound. Reports of hunger, disease, displacement, joblessness, poverty, injustice, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry; these are our daily fare. Everywhere there are negative forces eating away at the foundations of peace. Everywhere can be found thoughtless dissipation of material and human resources that are necessary for the conservation of harmony and happiness in our world.
Are we not still guilty, if to a less violent degree, of recklessness, of improvidence with regard to our future and our humanity? War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.
6. E! Interview with Barbara Daniels, PhD, author of Queen of the Sky: How We Lost Amelia Earhart; Losing Barbara: The Disappearance of Barbara Newhall Follet; and Losing the Lindbergh Baby; University of St. Louis Professor of Sociology. The interview was conducted for the two-part segment Lost in the Jungle, which aired on December 14th and December 21st, 2009.
[Barbara Daniels sits on a chair in front of a staged library scene in the E! studio. She adjusts her mic and smoothes back her hair. A makeup artist brushes Daniels’ forehead and backs away to examine her handiwork.]
Yes, that’s good. We wouldn’t want to be shiny. Shininess is tolerated only in the young. [Daniels laughs, looks at a person with a notepad behind the camera]. Okay, so we’re ready? Great. [Adjusts her mic again]
[Interviewer speaks from behind camera]
[Laughs] Thanks for that. [Laughs again] Yes, sometimes I feel like I have a PhD in disappearance. That’s not a bad idea actually. I’ll talk to my department and see if we can get funding for that. [Laughs]. But yes, like you said, we have long been fascinated with the missing. There are so many examples, and I’ve only had the opportunity to write about a few of them: Amelia Earhart, of course, is a story that captured the heart of the nation. Here we have this beautiful, brave woman. She’s a real celebrity. Achieving things that no woman before her has. A national hero. And just like that, she’s gone without a trace. It was unimaginable. Her face appeared on the front page of every paper in the country. An unprecedented amount of taxpayer money went to the search and rescue mission around the Phoenix Islands. It was on the radio constantly, endless chatter about Amelia. And the most amazing thing of all is the way that she is still very much a part of our collective consciousness; we are still talking about Amelia. In a way, we are still looking for Amelia. Is it that, though it is completely impossible, in some respect, we still believe that she’s alive?
Why do I think the lost adventurer in particular grabs us? Fronteirsmanship is in our DNA; it’s bound up in the fabric of the American consciousness—if anything unites us, it’s that, the story of how we made ourselves. We went out bravely into the unknown, tamed the wild, and built this country. MacArthur means something to us, she means something to us right now in this particular time and place. She means something to women. Uncharted territory, in our world—it’s so hard to find. The whole world is charted! For god’s sake, North Korea is on Google Maps now. Revolutions are beginning via Facebook. These are the times we live in.
Amelia again fits into this category. Percy Fawcett and his son were extraordinarily famous examples—in their day—of the Lost Adventurer. Beth MacArthur is our day’s Amelia, our day’s Fawcett.
If the plane had been found, I don’t think we’d still be talking about Amelia. There is something about total obliteration from our record books that speaks to a primal fear. Plus, a total disappearance allows us to project our desires onto the missing person. Amelia, Fawcett, they can be whoever we want them to be, whoever we as a culture need them to be. Right now, I think America could use a little adventure, a little opening of that great American Tupperware seal. We lead sanitized, safe lives, and in the end, it hasn’t led to all that much satisfaction, and really, considering the economic crisis, it hasn’t paid off either. [Chortles and rolls her eyes]. Now women, what MacArthur means to women, what all lost women mean to women—that’s a different story. And the idea of a lost woman—a woman alone, isolated. Perhaps in need of rescuing? Yes, that could be a part of the fantasy, but the greater fascination, I think, comes from the idea that she left—that her disappearance is deliberate. Regardless of whether it was or not, it says a lot about a society when we are so infatuated with this hypothesis. Women traditionally play the role of the connector. What happens when perversion takes over, when one leaves, abandons everything that she is supposed to represent—goes against nature. Perhaps that is what this story is really about. Perhaps, this is really a story about us. I think women in particular feel that they’ve gone astray, that they need something and they need it desperately. That perhaps the very things that are supposed to be in our nature are not operating the way we think. I’m struggling to say what exactly I mean [pauses, looks disoriented, struggles to find her train of thought]. Oh dear, I’ve lost my thread.
Right, women. I think MacArthur represents something to women [pauses again and clears her throat].
Well, that’s true, I suppose. [Her voice trails off and her eyes are glassy and wandering, as if, momentarily, Barbara’s mind has left the room, and is wandering in some other atmosphere that is heavy and consuming, leaving behind only a shell of a body that is late into middle age].
[Interviewer comes around in front of the camera. She has a long blond ponytail and hands Barbara a glass of water. We can take a break if you need to, she says.]
No, no need.
[Interviewer: Alright, well can you remember to say it one more time but include the question in your reply?]
Right, right. I forgot, silly me. [She hands the glass of water back to the interviewer who walks back behind the camera. Her spine straightens and her eyes refocus] MacArthur represents something, particularly to women. She represents a desire for adventure and discovery. She represents escape from the humdrum of our lives. That’s what we need as a society, a means of egress. She has become a part of our fantasy life. But the key to her being the vehicle for our fantasies is disappearing without a trace. If dying were all it took, every dead person would be famous, fawned over. These lost people, precisely because we never find them, can live in our minds forever. They become immortal. I think for this reason the Laci Petersons, the Chandra Levys won’t bear the test of time. Yes, we were preoccupied with them for a while, but our grandchildren won’t be talking about them. And if Elizabeth MacArthur is found, dead or alive, she won’t either. It’s ironic really: by leaving no trace you leave the biggest trace of all.
7. Amy Johnson, Johnson Residence, Arlington County, Virginia, December 16, 2009
I don’t like him. I don’t like him one bit. The reporter, I mean. Thomas J. Garth. Perhaps it’s that air of superiority— the way he emphasizes the J in his name, something about his glasses and the way he peers at you through them. It’s an unrelenting stare. One with no sense of propriety, a look that does not know that to gaze into someone else’s eyes for too long is rude—no—it’s invasive. He could have been undressing me with his eyes, for all I know. Or maybe it’s the opposite: maybe he wasn’t listening. I can’t decide which is worse. And there is no telling what he was thinking. It was silence when we showed him the pictures. Silence when I told him that Cat’s house is a replica of Mom and Dad’s, which of course it isn’t. I was just testing him. And you know how he reacted? Nothing. Blank face. Unreflective eyes. No emotion. I wanted to get a sense for his motives. I don’t want to be a casualty on his quest for a story. I don’t want this family to get smeared in print. It’s tacky. We shouldn’t have let him in. Of course, I tried to talk to Cat about it—we used to be on the same page, but all of a sudden, she won’t listen, all of a sudden she says dark things unexpectedly. She mumbles them strangely under her breath—she said something like ‘but don’t we all disappear one day?’ Who says that in conversation with strangers? It’s like she woke up after thirty-seven years of docility and was suddenly changed. And I know what he’s trying to do—the reporter. He thinks we are a bunch of rich suburban housewives. And I take offense! There is nothing nastier in this world than the reduction of people—to make them into types and dismiss them. I think it’s the cause for all of society’s ills—the Nazis, slavery, the Vietnam war. It’s all about not seeing people as people, turning them into types and numbers. That’s the problem. We are just props in his story of a brave woman who tore off into the wilderness, and oh, look at all that dull stuff she came from. That’s what he’s doing. That’s what we are to him.
Blankness, a lack of reaction, a lack of flash in the eyes; seems like a form of autism to me. An inability to connect with your surroundings—very worrisome, troublesome, perhaps a sign of psychopathy. Or perhaps it means something more calculated—the deliberate concealing of his true thoughts, in order to have the higher ground. We don’t know where he’ll go next. We don’t know what he’ll write next. We don’t know if he’s on our side. Of course, he immediately singled out Cat—yes, if I were in his position, I would go after her too. The sweet one. The pliable one. Yes, in a way, you could say he’s seducing her. Cat always prefers a strong type—to be told what to do and where to be. It’s easier, she says. Remember when Wade wanted to go on vacation in South Carolina so he could play golf the whole time with his meathead brother, she said fine, though really it was Cat who needed a break, not Wade? But that’s fine. That’s their problem. And sometimes she really doesn’t seem to have any preferences. Like she genuinely doesn’t care. And if she doesn’t care, then why not do what the people who do care want? Sometimes, though it’s terrible to say, she just seems like a vessel for other people’s desires. I love her, she’s my sister, but some days, she seems like such a cloud to me, such a blank canvas. A pretty canvas, but then blankness has its appeal too, doesn’t it? You can paint anything you want onto a blank canvas. She’s light, fluffy, should I say it? Insubstantial. And she seems to get thinner and thinner by the day—I’m not sure she even eats. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw her eating, saw her putting food into her mouth. I almost can’t picture it and she’s my own sister! I don’t know how she sustains herself. She must be made of air, dust, and the hopes of others. So there you have it. Thomas J. Garth has identified her as the family weakness, a soft spot through which he can enter. Of course, it doesn’t help our case that he looks very much like one of Cat’s ex-boyfriends. You didn’t meet him—he was a college boyfriend—the relationship didn’t last long, he broke up with her shortly after he met us. But they are identical, both in aura and appearance. That type of guy that goes to a coffee house and reads poetry and sneers at you when you order a caramel latte. Nobody reads poetry in a café unless they’re trying to be the person who reads poetry in a café, and then who are you really anyway?
Of course, we knew we were in deep when Cat started defending him—the reporter, I mean. We knew we were in trouble when she said, Who made you an expert on coffee houses and poetry? I believe it was the first sarcastic comment she has ever made. Beth’s disappearance is embittering her, giving her form. Though there’s something tragic in her resistance. It feels like a swan song, her gentle insistence that she is still here, though a bit too late. And of course, she denied it when we said the reporter looked like whatshisface. Todd, I think the boyfriend’s name was. And he does. And that reminded us of the time he came to dinner and dad asked him what he was majoring in and he said library sciences to which dad replied, What’s the science behind a library? Isn’t everything just alphabetical? So Todd wasn’t long for this world. He was a weenie anyway. But yeah. So that’s the trouble. Cat wants to keep going with Thomas J. Garth, but I won’t give him anything. Not an inch. I’ll show him childhood pictures until his eyes fall out. Smile and offer him coffee until he’s numb. Of course, if it would help find Beth, I’d give him anything, my arms, my legs, anything. But it won’t. He’s after a story. And what is a story at the end of the day? A story may just do nothing but get some people talking. But Cat. Cat says she just feels something. She almost sounds religious about it, like he’s some light at the end of the tunnel and she wants to walk off into it. Sometimes she just feels something and then everybody has to go along. [Pauses]. Who knows maybe she’s right. I don’t know what to do anymore, so now I just feel like I should do everything. Gary, are you listening?
9. Thomas J. Garth, Claire Jones’ Apartment, Upper East Side, New York City, December 18, 2009
I am seeing Claire again. I lie awake after she falls asleep. She snores as her face is pressed against the pillow, lost in a deep, unselfconscious, alcohol-induced sleep. The sex is mediocre, and I recall a former self that might have worried that this is somehow my fault. The room is barely lit by a streetlamp outside and the glow of other apartments and office buildings that I can see through the sheer curtain. I am lying on my back in the dark silence listening to the occasional passing of a car when I hear my phone buzz. It is a text message from Cat Walling.
Is it sad that this excites me more than a text message from a potential lover? Is it sad that a woman in a cardigan who is too pristine to be attractive almost gives me a boner? Is it her grieving patrician face? That prim little nose that seems to grace only the faces of the wealthy? Those pursed, thin lips that are incapable of inspiring pornographic images when I close my eyes, but have their own prim appeal, only in the sense that they are symmetrically matched to the rest of her face? I sit up in bed. Could it be that I prefer this broken shell of a woman, that I like her better because she is hurting, is damaged and wouldn’t have liked her at all if she were who she was four months ago? Walker is back from Burma and wants to meet u, her text says. It is three in the morning. I dress, put on my shoes, and give Claire a dutiful kiss goodbye, wishing briefly she had been someone else, but mostly just wanting to be the kind of guy who kisses goodbye. I tell myself that I am not a brute and that grieving is the great unifier, that it obliterates all that is tangled between us leaving us instead with pure portals to each other, uncluttered by the distractions of our meaningless day-to-day worries. I tell myself that someone who has abandoned herself to larger things is attractive, and that is why her suffering is appealing. But really, I worry that it’s something else. I walk out into brisk air flecked with the occasional snowflake. I wait until I am in the middle of Key Bridge to text back: OK. Call you tomorrow. My hair ripples in the wind and I am awake for the first time in weeks.
10. The American Voice, “The Searcher,” by Thomas J. Garth, December 23, 2009
When botanist Elizabeth MacArthur disappears in the Burmese jungle, Thomas J. Garth turns the spotlight on the man left behind.
Walker Nolan has many qualities, but his most defining quality—the thing that everyone says about him—is that he is relentlessly optimistic. Walker Nolan’s brain is a positive spin factory, manufacturing his quotidian experiences into cheery—sometimes unbelievably so—versions of what happened. Walker has led a charmed life in most ways (“übercharmed,” in his words), but like the rest of the human race, he’s had moments of disappointment. In college, he didn’t speak to his father for six months after a disagreement regarding his decision to major in English. Though they began speaking again when he returned home that summer, his father died of a heart attack shortly thereafter: “He wanted the best for me, but didn’t understand the best way to communicate that.” Walker qualified for the 2000 Olympic trials for the marathon, only to tear his ACL six weeks before: “It’s okay,” he says, “I was able to focus my energy on other things after that.” Walker was waitlisted at Yale Law, his dream school, despite his 4.0 undergraduate GPA and 99th-percentile score on the Law School Admission Test: “Columbia ended up being a better fit for me.” Much of our conversations involve him reassuring me that the frustrating details of his life are not really frustrations at all but are “okay” because they led to X.
Walker Nolan is also the husband of the now-famous botanist Elizabeth MacArthur who vanished in the Burmese wilderness over five months ago, apparently without a trace. “It is as though, she evaporated,” says a source involved in the investigations. “There is not a single credible piece of evidence that indicates where she is. Of course, everyone has theories and some are more plausible than others, but there is not a shred of evidence.” However, nearly as astonishing as the completeness with which Ms. MacArthur disappeared is that by all accounts, her husband remains steadfastly upbeat.
Prior to meeting Walker, I thought that someone this upbeat must be dumb, sheltered, or both. Dumb didn’t seem a strong match. Senator Gurlin, for whom Walker is chief counsel, considers him “the keenest legal mind in my office. Hell—I’d go as far as any Senate office.” A sheltered life, then, seemed a more plausible explanation. Raised in a wealthy suburb of Washington, Walker grew up in a house that is now worth 1.4 million dollars. Though he went to public school, Langley High School in McLean, Virginia has the demographic makeup of a wealthy private school. BMWs, Mercedes, and Land Rovers fill the school parking lot. As one of the founding partners of Nolan & Cromwell (today Nolan, Cromwell, Hudson & Hogarth), which made its name brokering overseas oil deals in the 1970s, Walker’s father was a titan in the Washington legal scene. That kind of upbringing might leave anyone feeling pretty upbeat. But it appears that as sheltered as his upbringing was, Walker went to great lengths after college to try to understand the suffering and painful daily reality that the vast majority of the world experiences. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1998, he spent a year working in a hospital in Botswana that caters to children infected with AIDS. Much of his work for Senator Gurlin involves negotiating on behalf of refugees in some of the world’s most desperate regions (Bangladesh, Burma, and Somalia), and he regularly visits the refugee camps. He has visited Insein prison twelve times, one of the Burmese government’s most infamous torture prisons, and has been involved in negotiations for six political prisoners under Senator Gurlin’s guidance. And now, as his wife has vanished, he faces a new, grim reality, as he has been left to raise their two-year-old daughter alone in a state of uncertainty and fear that very few people can imagine. His most recent trip to Insein was a guided tour in which he was looking for evidence that his wife was not there. Walker’s buoyancy is not necessarily then a blissful ignorance caused by the numbing waters of privilege. Instead, it seems that it is something in his nature—that perhaps there is some basic element that can endure the blows of fear and uncertainty.
I once dated a girl who claimed that everyone has a breed of dog analogous to their personality. For example, she claimed that my analog is a Jack Russell Terrier, that hers was a whippet, that my mother’s was a Doberman pinscher, and that our friend Frank’s was a cat (major caveat: there is a class of people for whom this metric does not work; these people are cats). I hadn’t thought of this ex-girlfriend or her canine-human personality matching for years, but within five minutes of meeting Walker, it was all I could think about: Walker Nolan is unquestionably a golden retriever.
It goes beyond the fact that Walker has hair that is shiny, buoyant, and, it just so happens, golden. He embodies the friendliness and openness of a golden retriever. Our first meeting was at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove bar in Capitol Hill. It was three days before Christmas and the bar was nearly empty since all the Senate staffers had gone home for the holiday. He had arrived to our meeting thirty-five minutes early. He took a seat at a table near the back and threw himself so thoroughly into the work that it wasn’t until I was hovering over his table and clearing my throat loudly that he noticed me. He leapt to his feet, shook my hand vigorously and seemed genuinely excited to meet me.
It is impossible not to like Walker, in large part because he seems to instantly like everyone he meets, allowing everyone to bathe in the comfort of mutual affection. He gives the impression that he wants to be liked—needs to be liked—but this is somehow untroubling. Walker’s embrace is a warm place to be, and questioning why you are there seems of little importance once you begin to bask in his glow.
At our meeting, he orders a tea and I order a beer. He looks the waitress in the eye when he speaks to her and she seems to appreciate this. Walker does not really drink. He’s not opposed to it, but he’s a health nut. When I eye his tea, though I make no commentary, he tells me that the first time he met Beth was at a bar in Charlottesville when they were both at the UVA. Beth was drinking a beer and he an iced tea (he had a race the next morning) and Beth made fun of him. In that moment, I can see the image clearly: an attractive, athletic golden-retriever-hearted-guy who would be considered a nerd if he weren’t so traditionally handsome, being made fun of by a smart and attractive drunk woman. “I fell in love with her immediately,” he says, then he smiles and drinks his tea without talking. Suddenly I am Scrooge, watching the scene unfold with the ghost of Christmas past, unable to reach Walker, who is alone now, savoring his private memories, which, at the moment, are all he really has.
Though Walker’s world is extremely unbalanced, as he must cope with “a constant looming feeling of helplessness” and fear for his wife’s safety, he compensates in the rest of his behaviors. He runs five miles four times a week. (“I gave up longer runs a couple of years ago—too much strain. Now, I just get a lot of joy out of maintaining.”) He puts Cecil to bed at the same time every night. (“She needs things she can depend on, since so many things in this world she cannot. That’s my job right now, to make Cecil’s world small and safe.”) On the weekends, he and Cecil do some kind of outdoor activity. Sometimes they ride bikes in Rock Creek Park. Sometimes they go on walks. When Beth disappeared, they moved in with his mother, so that when Walker went back and forth to Burma (and he goes often—whenever there is word, or if there has been too long of a stretch without any word), it wouldn’t disrupt Cecil’s routine. He feels guilty when he’s gone. Of course, he feels guilty when he’s here. This is a man with a divided heart, but he refuses to let it break him, instead moving dutifully, almost mechanically, between the tasks of looking for his wife and caring for his daughter.
He keeps careful records of everything that has happened since Beth’s disappearance, “so that she feels like she hasn’t missed anything when she gets back.” This catalogue consists of letters about the daily things that happen to Cecil and him, videos, audio recordings of Cecil’s voice, letters, and pictures. He also has two cabinets full of his own research on the case. In many ways, Walker’s world exists on paper, and it is only on paper, in the careful cataloging of events, that his life makes any sense. After a while, it becomes apparent that the file he has brought with him to the bar does not contain work from Senator Gurlin’s office, but information on Beth. He references his paperwork and his eyes light up suddenly. “Do you want to see my map?” I tell him I do. He rifles through his suitcase and pulls out a large piece of paper, unfolds it excitedly, nearly knocking over my beer. It is an enlarged map of Burma that he has drawn all over and for a moment, I am troubled by it. The page is aswirl in pen markings of different colors, highlighting marks, numbers, question marks, exclamation points, and names. Entire regions were highlighted. At first, it appears an incomprehensible mash, like the scrawls of a madman that can be found on subway tiles and bus stops—and I am filled with a fear that this paper is proof that trauma leaves no mind untouched. But then he begins explaining the markings to me. This is where she was last seen. This is the second checkpoint in the jungle. There is a whole schema for unconfirmed sightings, which are written in green ink—the confirmed are red. Every place Walker and Beth had been together in Burma was marked with a blue dot, with purple arrows directing the order in which they traveled. There are names of people he has spoken to, needs to speak to, or needs to speak to again next to the towns where they live or can be found. Intha village, Isaac is guide. Hotel Pommeroy. Last Thai train stop before DDR. One spot, marked with a golden star sticker, marks the spot that Cecil pointed to when Walker held up the map for her and said, “Where’s mommy?” Slowly, the map comes into focus, becomes less the wild machinations of a mind on the brink and more a meticulously detailed, color-coded calculation—and somewhere, in all the highlighting, ink, and stickers, is the answer to the unrelenting question: where is Beth?
He speaks quickly as he explains the key to me. His eyes are flashing, his finger roving over the map, pointing to locations in no particular order, with no sign of stopping and no need to wait for confirmation that I understand. In that moment, he seems more alive than any man I know.
I have trouble relating to Walker’s optimism. In fact, at times, his excessive positivity and wholesomeness really irks me. It can have a holier-than-thou feel to it. At one point, he actually says, “What I am experiencing is only one one-millionth of the terror they experienced at Tuol Sleng,” and I have to use all my poorly managed self-discipline not to roll my eyes. Walker’s world seems to require those who suffer more than he does—they make it impossible for him to not cave into spirals of despair and self-pity.
The next time we meet, it’s at a coffee house in Clarendon, Virginia, a bustling suburban town center just outside the city that is filled with high-end chain stores, restaurants, and bars built in the early 2000s. He is wearing running shorts (he will run after our meeting, Cecil is at Baby Dolphins swim class with Beth’s mother), and he avoids effortlessly all of the pastries that I am unable to stop myself from buying and devouring. I ask him if he ever has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and he looks at me blankly, as though not only has he never felt that way, but he hasn’t ever heard of anyone who has. “You know,” I say, “that feeling where the demands of the world just seem like too much. Like it’s all going to come crashing in on you, so like, why bother getting out of bed?” He has a brief glimmer of recognition that seems to say, “Ah yes, I once had a friend who had a cousin who knew someone who was experiencing that,” and nods reflectively, considering my question. “No,” he says finally. “I can’t afford to feel that way. Who would take care of Cecil or look for Beth if I let myself feel that way.” Let myself feel that way. That little turn of phrase is more illuminating than anything else he has said. When I get home, I listen to the tape of our talk and rewind that line over and over again. Let myself feel that way. Let myself feel that way. Let myself feel that way. Walker believes that people choose how they feel, that despair, joy, fear—all of these states of being that control so many of us—are choices. This either makes him a man of unparalleled self-discipline or a man who hasn’t yet truly come to terms with the terrors that could unfold in his life in a flash—a man who, though he has been immersed in the terrors of other people’s lives, has so far been able to hold their suffering at a safe distance and doesn’t yet realize that you can only do that for so long before something gives. But then, Walker is the kind of guy who can make even a skeptic like me second-guess the idea that something’s always got to give.
When I picture Walker, I picture him looking out from a window in the Russell Senate Office Building at Christmas time. On the streets below his gaze, it is a sad, gray evening. Moonlight bounces off of marble. Cars make their way home down the bleak two-laned streets, their passing headlights filling everyone with a sense of loneliness and doom—everyone except for Walker. Walker stares out onto the sterile, columned buildings of D Street, but instead he sees the bustling streets of Rangoon. He sees the men with skeptical eyes squatting at tiny tables outside of tea houses and the dust that is kicked up in the road. He hears the whirring of ancient car engines and the women singing out their wares, which are balanced on their heads, and the jingle jangle of the bus operators’ voices as they call for riders in Myanmar language. I see Walker as a man pulled by a force that no one else in Washington can understand. How will things go for him? They could go any number of ways, I suppose. I am rooting for Walker, but perhaps more importantly, Walker is rooting for Walker.
11. The moment that the clock strikes twelve a.m. (Eastern Standard Time), December 25th, 2009
It is midnight on Christmas Eve, or early Christmas morning, depending on one’s definition. At that moment, in Arlington County, Virginia, Carly MacArthur is lifting her father’s bourbon glass out of his hand as he sits by the light of the oversized MacArthur family Christmas tree, unconscious either from drink or that heavy, mothy sleep that creeps over the elderly, or, most likely, both. Mrs. MacArthur has long since retired to her bedroom, but she lies awake, on her back, with her eyes determinedly closed, occasionally shaking her head in grim frustration, believing, as she has for the last hour, that if she just closes her eyes, the falling sensation will go away. Amy MacArthur Johnson has just put the children’s final Santa present under the tree but is unsatisfied with the arrangement, thinking the pile unruly and not representative of the true joy of Christmas, and is now crawling on all fours to arrange them more pleasingly. Her husband sits nearby with his laptop, furtively downloading Christmas-themed pornography and occasionally admiring her rear, which grows a little lumpier each year but is still pleasing to him, at least from this angle. Grace and her husband are feverishly trying to build a dollhouse in their garage, but the instructions are in Swedish and are proving to be far more complicated than the packaging led them to believe, and at this very moment they are coming to terms with the fact that they will be up all night, though Grace knows that she would likely be up all night anyway. Cat Walling lies in her bed with her eyes open, dreading being woken at four in the morning by her charming albeit numbingly overeager children while her husband snores steadily beside her. In the next room, Maddie Walling performs a snow dance of her own invention in the middle of her darkened bedroom, while her nearly mute younger sister, Tilly, lies comatose in the twin bed across from her. As she dances, Maddie tries to forget that she just spied her parents placing Santa’s presents under the tree. Walker Nolan has just checked on Cecil, who is sleeping peacefully. He walks over to the Christmas tree and promptly plucks a glass ornament from the branches and crushes it in his hand because he has always wanted to crush that particular type of ornament (the round, metallic, fragile kind), to discover how it felt and what sound it would make when it broke. Now he is in his bathroom, with his hand bleeding profusely, but instead of pulling the shards of ornament out of his hand and dealing with the blood that is forming rivulets into the perfect white of the porcelain sink, he is staring at himself blankly in the mirror, as he recalls that the ornament made a pop noise, similar to that of a light bulb blowing out, which is exactly what he had expected, and this fact troubles him greatly. Caroline MacArthur Day is sitting bolt upright in bed in her retirement home where she has just been awakened by the sound of two orderlies wishing each other a Merry Christmas, and in her confusion, she calls out her daughter’s name, mistakenly thinking that her daughter is a teenager again and has come home after curfew. Realizing where she is, she lets out a weary, papery groan, rings her tiny fists, and thinks with frightened frustration that it is only in moments of lucidity that she realizes how few and far between the moments of lucidity are. Ben Charging is in the bathroom in his parent’s basement in Northern Virginia and has recently masturbated into his mother’s fancy hand towels (the ones with the shells embroidered on them) that she puts out exclusively for guests, though he knows he didn’t do it because he was aroused by hand towels or anything having to do with guests or Christmas or, God forbid, his mother, but that he did it because he couldn’t think of anything better to do, was feeling empty, and wanted to summon the old reserves of teenage dread that in that moment could only be brought out by the question: what would the guests use to dry their hands tomorrow if he jerked off into them tonight? Bradley Penfaulk and his wife Ann are curled up on their couch in their vacation home in Vermont with half-finished glasses of wine on the coffee table, and although he knows Ann is asleep, he continues to stroke her hand, knowing that she likes to be touched this way, and because he has just had a brief ecstatic vision, as he has on occasion, similar in nature to the visions that occurred during the two times he took LSD as a grad student, and the one time a few years ago when he took LSD with a student of his own because he was feeling old and in need of an ecstatic vision, but with the one just now, he thinks he has just felt the vibrations of all time coursing through his unremarkable and steadily aging body, and it turns out that that body is wondrously small and joyously insignificant, and he is filled with simultaneous senses of loss and gratitude as he imagines his grandchildren sleeping in the rooms nearby, and he has the urge to run out the front door and into the snow and bellow exclamations of joy into the black, bejeweled night sky, but rubs Ann’s hand instead, which feels to him like virtually the same thing, and an action more befitting a man of his age. A woman who bears a striking resemblance to Emily Dickinson stands in front of her window, as she has for the last several minutes, imagining life in another time, wishing that perhaps she had been born then instead of now, though she knows it would mean she would now be dead. Aung Win Myint is sitting on a tiny chair in front of his cousin’s teahouse in Shan State, Burma, just having finished a meager lunch of lentils, and is now chewing betel, and as he spits out the red-brown juice onto the dry street and watches it dissolve a patch of street dust, he rubs his tongue over one of the rotten teeth at the back of his mouth and promises himself that he will start chewing less betel—maybe stop entirely—as an image flashes into his mind of his own white skeleton lying in the dirt, perfectly white except for a row of brown teeth. Brighton Calhoun sits on the single chair he has in his musty apartment in Rangoon, wearing only an undershirt, which he has not changed in days, and a pair of fraying boxers, smoking a cigarette, sinking deeper into drunkenness, with a pile of government documents surrounding his chair and one document in his hand. He puts his cigarette out by throwing it on the ground, dangerously close to the documents, and extinguishing it with the leg of his chair, while outside his window, a child yanks a dog’s tail mercilessly, and the dog’s yelps, echoing in Brighton’s ears, unsettle him in such a way that he runs to the window, slams it open, cracking the glass, and shouts at the top of his lungs STOP IT, FUCKING STOP IT!, while the people on the street below pay him no attention. Lee Ann Herbert is driving home from the evening shift at Culpeper County Hospital as the sultry voice of 98.7’s radio host wishes the listeners a Merry Christmas with such earnestness that she feels a swelling sense of gratitude. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, the Dolly Parton version, comes on, and she is singing along with the music when, inexplicably, her voice gives out, but she continues mouthing the words anyway.
12. New York Review of Books, Review of Elizabeth MacArthur’s The Lives of Plants, by C.K. Higgins, September 12, 2009
Elizabeth Hogarth MacArthur’s debut book, The Lives of Plants, is like that gawky high school student who walks into a crowded cafeteria, looks around, and has no idea where she belongs. While the book was recently panned in Botany Today, the bad reviews are likely due to the publication’s failure to properly classify the work. Perhaps the work is “sentimental,” as critic Brandon Boss asserts, especially if you find yourself “wanting more rigorous science.” And one might expect more rigorous science, considering that MacArthur is herself a scientist, and the book was written under the auspices of the famed botanist (if such a thing exists) and Columbia professor, Bradley Penfaulk. Part botany, part self-help book, part philosophy, and part memoir, The Lives of Plants is a strange beast. However the book’s multidimensionality is the force behind its magnetism. Unconstrained by labels, MacArthur moves freely between disciplines, offering something for everyone, using whatever tools best fit her objective. By resisting the urge to label the work and surrendering to its magical force, the rest of us can find MacArthur’s ruminations on motherhood, career choices, and the prying eyes of the Internet illuminating—and you can rest assured that all these things are related to the lives of plants.
MacArthur takes her doctoral focus, the obscure plants of Burma, a subject that most Western readers would find arcane, and weaves in human rights, parenthood, isolation in the face of modern technology, and marriage without leaving readers clamoring for their money back. Boss may wish he “could unwrite the book and arrange for more capable hands to approach the task,” but the American public (especially females over the age of thirty) certainly does not: in its first week after publication, The Lives of Plants found itself on the New York Times bestseller list, and has continued to skyrocket through the charts since MacArthur disappeared into the Jungles of Burma in August. Recently, Warner Brothers purchased the movie rights, though no date has been set for production. How did she get housewives in Newark to read a book about one of the ten poorest countries in the world? Pantheism is the simplest answer; The Lives of Plants is a sublime meditation on the interconnectedness of the natural world.
“MacArthur injects a much needed sense of adventure into our world,” theorizes Barbara Daniels, University of Washington sociology professor and burgeoning expert on all things MacArthur. “We are drawn to her because she offers something we find rarely in our daily lives: mystery, the wild, adventure.” Indeed, MacArthur invokes the steady but insatiably curious voice of the old-world explorer with lines like, “I began my journey on a swelteringly hot day in the verdant northern reaches of Kachin State.” She calls this area of Burma “the last frontier of the natural world,” with its vast array of undiscovered species. At times, MacArthur’s tale reads like an adventure brochure: “It is a vicious environment, with its tangle of foliage, parasites, flesh-eating fish, and jungle diseases. But it is also an environment teeming with mysterious life, tucked away in the farthest reaches of a forbidden country that has captured the imaginations of some of our greatest minds.”
As MacArthur finds herself “standing on the brim of this brutal but vibrant forest with the sense that [she has] finally arrived at something,” how can you not walk in with her?
13. Elizabeth MacArthur’s feature in “The XX Factor” column in Outside Magazine, August 2009 Issue
Elizabeth MacArthur, 34
Jungle Explorer and Botanist
Arlington County, Virginia
WHY SHE RULES: Elizabeth MacArthur may be one of the last explorers of the great unknown. At the end of the month, she will embark on a one to eight-month journey into the jungles of Burma to gather research on as-yet-unclassified plant species. Why the huge time range? “We simply have no information on what we will encounter,” says MacArthur. “So much of the Burmese wilderness is uncharted.”
SAYS WHO: Fellow Columbia University scientist, Anita Gambini, calls MacArthur’s mission “the most ambitious jungle expedition of the century. If anyone can take on an expedition of this scope, with this much risk, and this many unknown variables, it’s Beth.”
NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED: Think this jungle expedition will be a walk in the park? Wrong. Not only will it be rigorous from a physical fitness standpoint (MacArthur estimates that she will be hacking her way through 15 miles of thick foliage every day), the risk of disease in the Burmese jungle in enormous with numerous reports of amoebic dysentery, dengue fever, and malaria. But MacArthur is no stranger to jungle disease. By her count, over the past 10 years she has contracted eleven illnesses while on research expeditions, including the potentially fatal dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis. While contracting illnesses can be a roll of the dice, she has prepared for the physical rigor of her upcoming expedition by competing in an ironman.
FORWARD SPIN: When she returns, she’ll likely need some down time. “After an expedition, I usually sleep for about a week straight. Then it’s back to the lab.” She also plans on running the New York City Marathon this coming November.
14. Walker Nolan, Nolan Residence, Arlington County, Virginia, Letter #29, January 7, 2009
The truth is, there are good days. We miss you all the time, of course, it goes without saying. Sometimes, when we are at the grocery store, it seems like you are with us. I feel your upturned nose when I reach for the JIF (What moms prefer monoglycerides? Peanuts! That is what I want in my peanut butter!), I can see you trying to slip the Nutella into the shopping cart unnoticed, which you will later hide in your bedside table (?!). Nutella undoubtedly also has monoglycerides, but this is just one of those minor inconsistencies that end up defining us and making us endearingly human. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned notion: to find humans endearing. But I still, in spite of everything, find ways to be enamored with this species that graces the planet, for a while anyway.
I’ve gone off on a tangent because really, these letters are some of my few moments of adult conversation. At work, aside from hearings and the occasional meeting, I usually sit barricaded in my office, surrounded my mound after mound of papers. At dinner, mom seems to have devolved into speaking entirely in baby talk to Cecil, and this has begun to rattle my nerves a bit. Did you have fun in the pool today? Yes you did! You did, Cecil. You looked like a little fishy. A big girl fishy swimming in the big girl pool. Yes, yes. Of course, it is so sweet of her, and I am so grateful, I don’t know what I would do without mom. But anyway, back to the point. Where was I? Oh yes, the good days: do you remember those days, maybe a couple of years after we were married, when we would have nothing to do on a Sunday and we would feel a little bored and sad? Or in college? Maybe we had drunk too much the night before and all we had to do with our Sunday was find a way to entertain ourselves? Do you remember how sometimes we felt a little purposeless, like what is the point of me? I’m going to work tomorrow, and what I do is not that important, and I eat food and drink water and beer, and I go places, but what is the point of me?
I never feel that way anymore.
Now I see that none of it was ever about me. By looking for you and caring for Cecil, I have a purpose and peace that I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams! Of course, I can’t tell anyone else that because they wouldn’t understand, they would think I was dark or that I was enjoying the fact that you are gone. But I know you will understand because you are a person who understands the benefits of struggle and that appreciating the benefits of struggle does not mean that you want the struggle. I have been freed from the want that has so plagued me all my life (that I believe plagues most of our lives), and I didn’t even know at the time that I was wanting! How could I have known when I was fifteen, sitting on my mother’s flannel couch in our basement, my brain fried from playing too many video games, that that sick, bored sadness in the pit on my stomach was not caused by the stale pita chips I was eating or the impending doom of Monday but, instead, by a terrible longing to be free from the burden of worrying about myself. Now I see that the point of me is—well—you. What a weight off my shoulders to know that if I do nothing else, if I just take care of Cecil and look for you, I will be satisfied. How easy and simple is that?
OK, enough of this abstraction. I’m sure this is not what you want to hear about—you want to hear about what we are doing, how we are ‘getting on.’ The funny things Cecil is saying. So I have a story for you!
On Sundays, Cecil and I often walk in Rock Creek Park. Dr. Levin says that it is important to have rituals, things that Cecil and I do together, things that she can depend on so that she has a sense of stability, a sense that there are things in this crazy world that you can rely on. Knowing that you would want us to be outdoors (I am in utter agreement), we usually do something outside on Sunday. Last week it was a little warmer, so instead of walking we biked on the path near the memorials, and as I looked back at her, she was smiling and the light was golden, and everything just seemed right. And I thought to myself, There, you’ve done it. Something terrible may have ripped into Cecil’s world, but over all, Cecil’s world is a good place—a manageable place.
On our walks sometimes we encounter homeless people in the park, hanging out under bridges, trying to get warm, which Cecil finds troubling (she has such a good heart!). Sometimes she’ll ask why they have bags, shopping carts, etc. and I’ll explain to her that they don’t have homes. (This starts to feel like dark territory; I’m struck by a pang of fear that she will ask in her sweet little voice, But don’t they have mommies and daddies? And then I will either have to explain to her that yes, they do, but we live in a world where people with mommies and daddies sometimes get down on their luck, or, worse, that they don’t have mommies and daddies and that this is what happens when you don’t have mommies or daddies, and Cecil, you’re like 25% of the way there, and at this point I’m sweating bullets, thinking about talking to her about crack and what it can do to you or the deplorable mental health system in this country. I consider just telling her that homeless people like living outside, but perhaps I dread saying that most of all because I would just hate myself for saying something like that. But, luckily, her mind doesn’t go there.) Instead, she says, Well, maybe he can come and live with us at Nana’s. And I sort of enjoy the image this conjures: we return home from lovely bike ride in Rock Creek Park. Nana is in the yard planting her bulbs and is almost knocked off her feet when she sees the three of us, Cecil, the homeless man, and me. I can see the wheels spinning in her head as she tries to make sense of the scene. Then I would say, Nana! Look what we found in the park! A schizophrenic crack addict! Cecil thought he might like to live in your study, but I think the living room couch would probably work better. Nana promptly faints into her begonias and must be revived with smelling salts and lemonade.
Christ, I lost track of the time! Got to wake Cecil from her nap (best feeling in the world = lifting her warm little droopy body from a midday nap!) We’re off to your sister’s, it’s Maddie’s eighth birthday. Eight years since you split your knee racing out our front door to go see your sister’s firstborn. Unbelievable. We love you!!
15. The Lives of Plants by Elizabeth Hogarth MacArthur, Dedication Page
Though this is not a “political” book, all things, ultimately, are political. I dedicate this book to all those seen and unseen in Burma. A thousand stories remain untold.
16. Transcript of Tom’s third meeting with Walker, Café Deluxe in Glover Park, DC, January 8, 2010
Walker and Tom sit on the terrace outside of Café Deluxe enjoying an unseasonably warm day in January. They are emerging momentarily from the cold, lifeless days that follow the warmth of Christmas (though, for different reasons, neither enjoyed the familial glow of their respective Christmases) before submerging again into the plane of the long, empty winter that lies before them. A few buttercups have sprouted near the sidewalk, tragically misreading the weather cues. Everyone revels in this premature spring as they empty into the streets, pushing strollers, carrying shopping bags, walking arm in arm with the sad knowledge that this day, like all days, cannot last.
The restaurant terrace is crowded when Walker and Tom begin their meal, but the meal is long, and now they have the space almost entirely to themselves, except for two Persian men in the far back corner speaking animatedly while smoking over long-finished cups of coffee. Walker eats a salmon salad, leaving half of it on the plate, while Tom cleans his plate entirely of his lamb sandwich and French fries. They move on to coffee, both feeling relaxed, letting the sun warm their faces, and looking at them, one might think they are old friends.
W: So can I ask you a question?
T: That only seems fair. I’ve asked you a lot of questions.
W: Why did you run the story on me before the one on Beth’s sisters? You met them first, so I think they were expecting—well, I think we all were expecting…
T: [Sighs and pauses] I wrote a draft of their story…
T: And something wasn’t right. [Sighs again]. Your story has—it came out more naturally. I wrote it in one sitting. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still interested in their story, but there’s just something that isn’t quite clicking with it.
W: Do you know why?
T: Um… [Pause] It was flat. It was a flat interview. Something was missing—. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think they were being honest with me.
W: Do you know why?
T: All the usual reasons. I don’t think they were trying to mislead me, if that’s what you’re getting at.
W: Well, what was it then?
T: [Leans in] I don’t think they can be honest with me. It’s like it’s not in their nature—or something.
W: Ah, I see. [Smiles]. Can I give you a piece of advice?
T: Yeah, sure—please—I’m all ears.
W: In total confidence?
T: Yes, of course.
W: [Walker leans in and looks Tom directly in the eyes]. That story is always going to be flat. And that’s your story; if you’re going to write about the MacArthurs, you’re going to write about how they won’t let you write about them. It was only once I stopped trying to see through them that I was able to see them at all. The MacArthurs and the mirage—they are one in the same. [Pauses] This is just advice. From me to you. I don’t mean any disrespect to the MacArthurs, they’re my family, but if you are waiting for them to fill out your story, to breathe life into it, to become more three-dimensional, then you’ll be waiting forever, and last time I checked, magazines have deadlines. And, let’s be clear, this is not because the MacArthurs are two-dimensional people—they have hopes, dreams, desires, darknesses like the rest of us. But they will never let their guard down. They are tightly locked people; so much so that they’re locked even from themselves. In fact, they’ve locked themselves away for so long that they don’t even know they’re locked anymore. It’s something in their DNA, something coded in the fiber of their being that just won’t let you inside—something that intuitively knows the danger of prying eyes. [Raises his eyebrows expressively and looks at Tom to try to read his reaction. When there isn’t a clear reaction, he goes on.] For example, you will never see raw MacArthur. You’ll never see Mary Ellen cry on national television. You’ll never get something that wasn’t rehearsed beforehand because that’s not how they live. It doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling all those things, it doesn’t mean they’re not authentic people, that when they get behind closed doors, they don’t make themselves vulnerable by admitting that their family isn’t perfect. Perhaps they have their moments when they allow themselves to be lost in the chaos that their lives have become. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are cold—they too get that drowning sensation in their chests. They just won’t ever say that to someone else—because they always feel watched. Maybe it’s a vestige of small town living, though a MacArthur hasn’t lived in a small community probably for a hundred years. But somehow, they just seem to know: to let others in is to let contagion in. They’ve worked hard to create a sturdy family. So anytime you think you can lure them out of their shells and crack that façade, remind yourself that if their daughter disappearing into a jungle in a third world country didn’t do it, you sure as hell can’t.
T: You know Walker, you are more jaded than you look.
W: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know about that. You don’t have to be jaded to have an insight on family dynamics. I’m a family man who knows that every family is ultimately working very hard to keep others out.
T: Why do you think that is?
W: The obvious reasons: xenophobia, desire to conserve resources, desire to keep the original unit—the original nuclear family (which is really just an extension of someone else’s nuclear family) at the center of things.
T: Okay, fine, here’s a question—actually, I have two. [Pauses]. No actually, never mind. I’ll go for the more philosophical question: how is my relationship with the MacArthurs different from my relationship with you? How is it any different than any reporter and his subject? The second there’s a reporter in the room, everyone’s authentic selves become inaccessible.
W: True! How true! You’re damned right! This isn’t real me. Your article on me wasn’t real me. It bore a resemblance to me—yes, I wore those running shorts, yes Cecil is on a strict schedule, yes, I am upbeat, but it’s not the entire picture. Thank you for rooting for me, by the way. [Tom nods.] But you can never see real me—or real anyone for that matter. Unless you could somehow get inside my brain, know the catalogue of my past experiences, see what I was doing and thinking now—all of this without my knowing that you were doing it because anytime there’s someone watching, we start behaving differently. There is no elegant and clean portal to the truth. But that doesn’t mean that some aren’t cleaner than others. I would argue that my single-mindedness has made me slightly [cringes]—how can I say this—more honest than the MacArthurs. I care about exactly two things: Cecil and Beth. All else—my job, my clothes, the way you see me, what my neighbors think of me—though they matter on some level, they are largely irrelevant. That’s what makes me a little bit easier to write about: desperation—and don’t kid yourself, I am desperate—has made me a slightly better subject. But only slightly. The MacArthurs on the other hand, they haven’t sunk quite as low as me. [Laughs]. Of course, they’re desperate too, but they can still bother with putting a cheery face on things. And now that Beth is gone, the stakes are higher. Their family is vulnerable. If something negative were to come out about Beth vis-à-vis them, they would have a harder time bouncing back from that.
T: At the risk of sounding like a story-hungry reporter, is there something that might come out about Beth vis-à-vis them?
W: [Laughs]. Nothing more than what goes on in every family. My point is that if you and I are going to work together, we should abandon the search for the portal to truth before we start! It’s a fool’s errand. A waste of our time, when neither of us have it. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that; you already know this. You know how I know you know this? You didn’t try to write about me in that article. You wrote about your impressions of me. You wrote about you. Your experience with me. That’s what that article is really about. And I appreciate that. It was kind of wrong, but I appreciated the exercise you were going through, which is worthwhile—a worthwhile errand—because it’s all we can do! Attempt to share something from your perspective and nod dutifully to the idea that it is only your perspective.
T: [Fidgets uncomfortably and looks away from Walker]
W: What? What is it?
T: I have to be candid with you. You want something from me, and I’m not sure what it is. And I’m not even sure it’s ethical to be asking this because whatever it is, I probably can’t give it to you, but I need to know.
W: Know what?
T: Know what it is that you want from me. [Pauses, looks at Walker with a grave expression]. I can feel your neediness, it’s closing in around my neck like a wooly turtleneck. [Makes a strangulation gesture and both men laugh].
W: I want your help finding Beth. I want you to write about finding Beth.
T: [Looks away sadly]. Why do you think that would help?
W: [Sighs]. You know I wasn’t sure at first. I got an urge to talk to you, I had read some of your other stuff, and suddenly, I just had a hunch, I had to call Cat, I had to get in touch with you. That’s how I make decisions now. I used to make flow charts, draw up pro and con lists. Now if I get a feeling, I just go with it. I fling myself at it. Perhaps that is the mark of a desperate man. Now, that I’ve met you, I’ve decided that the reason why I want you involved is twofold. One: you immerse yourself. It’s like you start to live the story—I read that series you did on the girls from Rwanda—really sad, sad story, and I could tell: you were inside it. You were in those girls’ heads [taps index finger against his own head]. You were in the heads of the parents. You were even in the head of that despicable guy from the Peace Corps—the guy with the desk job. I need someone who will get that invested.
T: What was two? You said you had a twofold reason for involving me.
W: And two is—two is that I think you’re desperate.
T: [Laughs a laugh that sounds like a snort]. Wow, that’s encouraging. Am I projecting desperation?
W: Well—yes. You project a kind of existential desperation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not insulting you. In a way, I see that as the only way to be. If you’re really looking at the world, how can you not project existential desperation? I’m not sure what causes your particular desperation, I know very little about you other than your writing, but I see it as your strongest asset.
T: Should I call my mom and tell her that the best thing I have going for me is desperation?
W: No—listen to me. I see desperation as a kind of hunger. Maybe yours is simply the story hunger typical of all reporters, but I think it’s something more. I think you need something from your stories. Are you living through them? Are you hoping one will give you purpose? Rid you of those feelings of wandering uselessness? I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know you, I don’t know what’s pulling you, but right now, I need to surround myself with desperate people, people who can’t bother with making things look like they’re alright, can’t bother with protocol and the order of operations. I need people who are willing to get down into the weeds with me, who feel like they have nothing to lose, people who have nothing, not even their dignity left. Because that’s how things get done. [Tom begins to open his mouth to speak, but Walker puts his hands up.] Now before you say it, I know that we technically work for different teams. You can’t say you’re on my side because that would compromise your journalistic integrity. The only potential that I see with you is that you could add a little of your desperation to this pile.
T: Well, that sounds nice and everything, but what I’m gathering is that you think I can help you find Beth with the sheer force of my desperation. And I don’t know if I agree with you that desperation is all we need. And my desperation, which I can assure you has very little to do with your desperation and is more likely just the result of bad genes and faulty wiring, doesn’t really have any productive or redeeming qualities—though it’s charming that you think it does. Basically, I’m saying you should expect very little from me. In fact—you can’t expect anything from me. I’m warning you now. Understand?
W: That’s fine, do your puff pieces for now, your profiles—you’ll change your mind. This road always leads people to the jungle. People can’t help themselves. They start with the family, and then before long, they want more.
T: You sound sure.
W: I feel sure.
T: Okay then, I guess we’ll see.
[They both stare off at the cathedral now, and the silence is uneasy. The grey cathedral towers in the distance. Its bells begin to chime, and they can feel the chimes in their chests, the sound waves pulsating through them, making them feel like paper. The buttresses, gargoyles, points and arches insist on a gray sturdiness that something hard and heavy will prevail. Tom takes a sip of water and looks at Walker who is staring at the cathedral.]
T: Well for now, since I’m only assigned to puff pieces, will you tell me about the MacArthurs?
W: What do you want to know?
T: You talked earlier about how Beth is different from them. What did you mean?
W: In some ways, she formed her personality in reaction to them.
T: What does that mean?
W: It means she didn’t want to be like them. She loved them, but she thought they were—Oh I don’t know. I can’t explain it—that’s off the record though. You can’t say ‘she didn’t want to be like them.’ I don’t have the heart to hurt their feelings right now, even if it involves some white lying.
T: What can I say then?
W: You can say—you can say that she was a rebellious teenager and that the MacArthurs were very traditional and that Beth has led a less than traditional adulthood and has eschewed some of the traditional nature of her upbringing.
T: Sounds like every woman in her thirties…
W: Yes and no. I’m not doing a good job of explaining it. Here: she has a fundamental philosophical disagreement on how one should interact with the world. Beth wants to get in it; she’s always been ready to be a part of its sadness and strangeness, even if that means embracing pain and ugliness. I think her parents, all of our parents, were raised in a time when, instead, you built fortresses of happiness and incubated yourself. To people in that generation and to a lot of people now, unpleasantness is always bad and happiness is goal number one. Beth, on the other hand, knew that sometimes unpleasantness serves a purpose and should not always be avoided because to do so is to lead a life of weakness built on lies, which leaves you unprepared for the visceral experiences of life. I’m sorry, I know this sounds vague. Here, it’s like this—this is the fundamental disagreement between them: what is more important: the truth or happiness? If you read The Lives of Plants, you’ll get a sense of that.
T: I’ve got a copy at home.
W: Good. The book is key to understanding her—her motivations, her decisions. It is a very honest account. Let me give you an example of this truth versus happiness thing. I remember the first time I met the MacArthurs, I went over for dinner and was shocked—completely shocked. I couldn’t believe Beth had come from this. I guess I had imagined that she had sprung up from a field and was raised by wolves, trees, and dandelions. [Laughs]. Now, of course, like I said earlier, I understand that she more than came from this, she came in reaction to this. The MacArthurs were so prim and proper! They were like my parents. Beth is so different, so much freer than they are. She has moods. Sometimes she is happy, sometimes she is sad, and you know it. She isn’t some crazy emotional person, but she didn’t see the point in hiding her emotions. No—she couldn’t. To do so felt like lying. [Pauses] As a side note—it is an incredibly daunting task to try to explain this to you—to try to capture one’s own wife and hope that the other person understands? God. [Tom nods. Walker shakes his head then goes on] The MacArthurs, on the other hand, were always cheery and so damn polite, and her mother had this way of suggesting things with her eyes without really saying it. She just sort of smiled and squinted at you and you knew she meant more than she was saying, though she would never actually say it. When I went over that first time, she brought out all this silver and china, and her face was locked in this smile and she seemed to be searing me with her laser vision. I felt naked. And she had this perfectly coiffed hair, where not a single strand was out of place, and the whole time I just felt like such a bumbling fool. It was terrifying, I couldn’t get a read on how I was doing. Was I being a good boyfriend, was I impressing them? Were they going to cut off Beth’s inheritance for dating me? I had no idea. I remember Beth’s mom actually went around the room—this is something you don’t see anymore—and she served each of us one at a time according to some rule about how you serve the eldest woman first. I guess in this case it would have been Amy, then all the women, then the eldest man, Beth’s dad, then last me. By the time we got to the salad course, I thought I was going to pass out from sheer terror. But they were being so nice! That’s what’s so hysterical about the whole thing.
T: [Nods]. Okay I think I get it. I see what you’re saying about the table manners—but that seems like a generational thing to me. The happiness at all costs thing, though—do you think that the MacArthur’s started that way, believing in happiness and comfort? Or they just saw over time that that was easier—that all our parents started feeling differently when they were young and just aged into choosing comfort and fortresses? Do you think that it’s possible that given a little time, Beth would make similar choices?
W: No, I think Beth is different.
[Now, Walker is silent. He runs his finger around the rim of his coffee cup and for a moment Tom wonders if he has offended him, but when he looks at Walker’s face, he knows he doesn’t have the power to do that. There is no anxiety in his eyes, no insecurity clouding them. His mouth does not twitch, and he isn’t measuring Tom’s reactions. It is then that Tom understands that he is largely irrelevant to Walker. Walker would be polite to Tom, even gracious because that was his style, but he doesn’t care about Tom because he only has room to care about his two things. Tom knows then that Walker could wait another ten years if he had to, and he envies him.]
T: So what would it take? What would it take to crack the MacArthurs?
W: Oh I don’t know. Utter and total despair. Complete and hopeless loss of all identity as a family, not to mention loss of identity as human beings. Annihilation. They would have to feel like they have truly nothing left to lose. But in our world, there’s always something more to lose.
17. Prologue, The Lives of Plants, Elizabeth H. MacArthur
How can Burma not capture the scientific mind? The country is a treasure trove of biodiversity, much of it still undiscovered since for years its doors were barred to scientists, not to mention the rest of the world. In the jungles of Burma, there are seven thousand known species of plant life. As a botanist, I am drawn to Burma, not just because of these seven thousand, but because of those plants that remain unknown to scientific eyes. New species of plants and animals are being discovered in Burma all the time. Some of the more recent discoveries include the banana leaf deer (so called because it is so small, it can be wrapped in a banana leaf). I am tickled by the idea of people wrapping these tiny deer in banana leaves, but perhaps even more charmed by a country where this is a generally understood metric. There are also early reports of a new species of snub-nosed monkey that sneezes uncontrollably when it rains (though further data is needed to classify the monkey as a distinct species from it’s snub-nosed cousins in Vietnam). Most astoundingly, the northern jungles of Burma are home to the world’s only known living human pygmy population. (If that doesn’t stir your heart, I don’t know what will.) In short, Burma is a stark reminder that there are still wonders in our world. How marvelous! I often hear people describe Burma as a country lost in time, and while I think that characterization is problematic for the country’s villages, towns, and cities, it does aptly describe the jungles. While the rest of the world mostly tore down their jungles, the Burmese jungles teemed on, untouched and unseen by foreign eyes.
Still, while it would be nice to wander around in forests proclaiming their majesty, celebrating each life form under my feet (which is perhaps what many think botanists do all day), my days here are often dark. I, like many others in the scientific community, am in a race against time. I’ve had a head start: I was allowed into the country before most scientists thanks to my dear friend and associate, Alan Rabinowitz, in order to do research for my doctoral thesis on plant biodiversity in Northern Burma’s jungles. But as Burma finally opens its ancient, creaking doors to outsiders, its plant species are in danger. As China and other countries begin to invest in Burma, it is possible that we may lose some or nearly all of these natural wonders before we even knew we had them. This destruction is not limited to Burma. Some scientists predict that in the next two to three hundred years, our planet will see a mass extinction (defined as losing half to three quarters of species). What kind of homogenized world will this be? As a person, I have always found beauty in variation. As a scientist, I know that variation is essential to survival. In neighboring China, farmers have to pollinate their crops by hand—a process that, before the destruction of local pollinators, was done by nature. I can’t help but feel that we have erred tremendously, destroyed a natural order that we hardly understood, with consequences we won’t grasp until, perhaps, it’s too late.
As I sit typing this prologue in my camp in a lush valley of the Northern hills of the Myitkyina District of Kachin State, I am surrounded by mountains. These mountains are lush behemoths, bursting with vibrant life. The greenery is so rich here that it makes you feel as though every other shade of green you have ever seen is pale and sickly in comparison. This is life untouched. It is early morning, the air is damp and cool enough for me to need my ranger jacket that I acquired in Rangoon on my first trip to Burma almost ten years ago. It should be a peaceful scene, but over to my left I am troubled by the sight of smoke on the neighboring mountain. Someone is there, and they are burning the forest.
I am haunted by the notion that even as I write these words, a species of plant is being extinguished forever. How tragic that our time on earth overlaps, but we remain unknown to each other.
I am writing this book, which is part memoir, part botanist’s log, in order to share my appreciation for this land. I am convinced that seeing and understanding these jungles now is the only way we can be motivated to protect them in the future. The most grievous crimes are often the ones we don’t know we commit. So while I can, I’d like to show you this place, so that you too may be motivated to work on its behalf. I welcome you on this journey. Come slip into the jungles of Burma with me.
18. Lee Ann Herbert, Culpeper, Virginia, January 12, 2009
I try to keep up to date on the MacArthur girl. Such a sad, sad story. Of course she reminds me of Jess. The details are different, but I’ll never forget that morning, when I was sitting at the breakfast table—that morning when I first heard of the MacArthur girl.
Last Saturday it was sunny out, one of those unseasonably warm days that feels like spring, that makes you want to take care of yourself, where all around you everything is growing, flowers blooming though it’s too early for them to live very long, and there’s that golden light that can be so nice in the early morning hours, and you just can’t help but think, Every day is new, the earth is being reborn, and I will be reborn too! I had worked the late shift the night before and had an evening shift that day so I was trying to enjoy myself over some eggs and coffee and the paper. I am trying to take care of myself. How can I look for Jess if I can’t take care of myself? Every morning, I wake up and say to myself, Get up LeeAnn. Get up. All you have to do is look for Jess, go to work, and hold yourself together. It’s not much. Get up. I pull my legs out of bed, put my feet on the floor, and in that way, everything begins. That particular morning, I flipped through to the Metro section of the paper and I saw the MacArthur girl’s face. My eyes were drawn to her. A very beautiful girl, nice features, long blondish hair, good complexion. Thin. She was a thin girl. I suppose she still is thin, if they do ever find her.
I read she was missing, and got that familiar catch in my throat. That feeling you get right before you are about to cry. Jess has been missing for eleven months and I have been on a rollercoaster of emotion, moving somewhere between hysteria and a steady commitment to finding her. I will find her. She is somewhere—that’s what I say to myself as I tell my legs to walk down the corridors of the hospital, from room to room, as I put my legs back in my car and drive home. Everyone is somewhere.
Naturally, reading about the MacArthur girl, seeing her face in color print, stirred up a lot of emotions. This is a person who is somewhere, I said to myself, looking at her printed face. And for a moment, she was just another girl, lost in the somewhere, just another sad story, but only sad to me really because I was thinking of Jess, of my sadness, of my feet on the bedroom floor that can’t seem to go anywhere unless I tell them. But then, somewhere in the article, the MacArthur girl’s birthday was mentioned. May 4th. Same day as my sweet Jess’s! I almost dropped my coffee, spilling some of it right on the MacArthur girl’s picture. Oh no! I gasped out loud as if I had spilled coffee on her real face. And suddenly, she was a real girl because she had been born. I got on the computer and started looking up her name online and reading everything I could about her. I read a story in some magazine about her and I read about her husband. She has a husband! And a sweet little girl. She has a family. She was born! She is real.
I felt something in that moment. I felt that I had strayed, that I had slowly been drifting from my faith. It’s so easy in a world like this, a world that loses beautiful girls, to forget that there is a method, that there is a maker, that there is a plan. That MacArthur girl was my wake-up call, a voice calling to me through ink and paper, a face, a date, and suddenly, I wasn’t plummeting into nothingness anymore, suddenly my feet could move and I didn’t have to tell them. I knew right then that that MacArthur girl and my Jess were bound up in each other.
I was in such a state that I grabbed my purse from the hall, didn’t even put on any makeup, grabbed my keys and jumped into the car. Have you ever been propelled like that? Have you ever been so electrified by something that you are racing, physically racing out the door? No, you probably haven’t. Most people aren’t except for a very few moments in their lives. But this was mine. I raced down to the Culpeper police station, spoke with Cheryl, and she gave me more copies of Jess’s missing person flyer. (Can you believe it? I had put up my last flyer weeks ago and at one point, I must have had thousands!) I don’t like the way Cheryl looks at me, but that day, I didn’t let it bother me. Cheryl is a bit older than me and she has a prim little face and poodle gray hair that she piles all up on top of her head. She means well, but she has this slow way of moving in the police office that seems to imply that she thinks my Jess is gone forever. And she looked at me like that that day, through those rimless glasses, and I saw her eyes of doubt, but like I said, I didn’t let it bother me.
I went to the Quik Copy in the shopping center off 29 and made 100 color copies. It cost forty dollars, but I didn’t give a hoot. The church would probably reimburse me anyway from the fund they set up for Jess. Then I drove around for the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon stapling the flyers to every telephone pole in Culpeper with a tingling moving up and down my spine. And it was hot! I nearly sweat through my blouse—so strange this time of year! At one point, that nice boy, Lance, who went to high school with Jess helped me put some of the flyers up.
He spotted me standing by the post office, struggling to get my staple gun unstuck from the telephone pole. “Here, Mrs. Herbet,” he said. “Can I give you a hand with that?” How good it felt to stop trying, to let him take the staple gun, to watch him pull it easily out of the wood, just to stand there and watch and do nothing. We put up the missing posters together all afternoon. And he didn’t have to do that. He’s a hard working boy. His mother told me he’s been working 60 to 80 hour weeks trying to get phone lines up in that new subdivision near Haymarket. This was probably one of his few days off. And he was spending it with me, sweating through his shirt on the warmest winter day I think I’ve ever seen, stapling on one side of the street while I stapled on another. It made me glad to live in a smaller place. I have an effect on people here. They look at me with sad, warm eyes. They know my troubles. They give me an extra hand. The boy at the Kroeger takes my groceries out to the car and refuses the tip I try to give him. And I feel sad because in that way, I’ve become a ghost. I am the ghost of Jess, testifying to the fact that despite our best efforts, she is still missing. And in that way I am very lonely. Walking around, going about my business, I am shrouded in sadness, and I infect others. I bring a chill into the room, when I walk into the coffee room after church, all their eyes raise in unison, and they pull a little closer to each other, and I feel myself fading into the corners of the room, them looking at me, me trying not to look at them as I pour myself a coffee, my hands shaking a little—and I let them come to me, tell me about their prayers before they quickly recede from me, trying not to let my hands shake as I drink, so as not to bother them, and really, they are grateful to me for it. I tell them the same thing: “I’m carrying on,” I say as genuinely as I can, but really, some days I’d rather hurl the donut tray against the wall or melt into the floor and let the janitor come mop me up.
It wears you out, all this seeing, talking, telling, and walking. Eleven months in, I am a little relieved that this effect that I have on people is growing less strong. Sometimes when people look at me, I can see that for a second they are seeing me as I am, just a woman on a lonely journey much like the lonely journey that we are all on, not just the sad mother of the missing girl. I just hope they don’t forget Jess—that would be unbearable. And if I have to remain a ghost in this town to keep Jess alive for them, then so be it.
I’m sure nobody in the MacArthurs’ neighborhood is helping them put up signs. And in that way I feel sorry for them! They live in one of those fancy neighborhoods outside the city. How alone they must be. How easily those in the city can be forgotten. I remember hearing that story about that old man who died in his house and nobody noticed for 8 months. By the time they found him, he had partially mummified. Whatever that means. Can you imagine? We need things to bind us to each other! Or else we’ll find ourselves mummified in our own houses while the world grinds on. One day we will all be forgotten here on earth. Which is why I was so sad recently! I had forgotten the Kingdom of Heaven. What it would be like to be enfolded into the golden love of God’s warm embrace. How is one to live, knowing of their eventual forgottenness, without waiting for that last loving embrace? But Jess is too young to be forgotten on this earth. My time will come for that soon enough, but hers is not here yet.
I hope the MacArthurs belong to a good church. They don’t need the church fund it sounds like, but I hope they just have the support, those things you can’t pay for, which in the end are all we really have. I hope they have people praying for them. I remind myself to say some prayers for them. Of course prayers that they will find her, but in the mean time, prayers that they are surrounded by people. Nobody can know the loneliness of the mother who has lost a child. Except another mother who is experiencing the same. I briefly entertained the idea of calling Mrs. MacArthur up on the phone and saying, Mrs. MacArthur, you don’t know me, but I just wanted to reach out to you and let you know you are not alone. I know your pain! But then I shook myself out of it. She would think, Why is this crazy old hick from Culpeper calling me on the telephone, telling me she knows my pain? Maybe we never know each other’s pain. Plus, she’s got a husband. They can go on a vacation and just cry in each other’s arms if they want. They know each other’s specific pain, they know what it feels like to lose their specific daughter, their sweet girl who was unlike any other girl, their girl who had a particular way of walking, a particular laugh that was less of a laugh and more of a heaving joy. Plus, they probably have thousands of friends. They don’t need some strange old girl calling them on the phone. I looked over at Lance while he was helping me, and he had sweat in a big round circle on his lower back, and I thought, No, this is all I need.
Later I got to thinking that maybe Lance loved Jess in high school or something. Who wouldn’t, she’s darling! Her complexion isn’t as great as the MacArthur girl’s, but whose is? I’ve noticed sometimes that rich people have really nice complexions. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t out in the heat much. Perhaps they buy special Lancome creams at the beauty counter. One time I asked how much one was, just because I noticed a few lines on my own face and was curious, and the woman at the counter told me sixty dollars! Can you imagine? Sixty dollars! I have never heard of anything so absurd.
My spirits remained high for the rest of that day—that day I found the MacArthur girl in the paper. Not quite as high as they were that morning, but still very high. I went to the hospital around four and did my shift with unusual peppiness—a peppiness that was more like the way I used to be and for a moment, I believe I am the woman I used to be. I made a man who had blown off part of his hand in a hunting accident laugh with some little jokes. Or maybe it was the painkillers, but I certainly had something to do with it. I was peppy with the receptionist. Even Dr. Clark who seems to notice nothing and always has his face buried in a chart when he is speaking to a patient commented on my good mood. Every day is new, Dr. Clark, I told him. He nodded. Every day is new!
It was all thanks to that MacArthur girl. God bless her for being born on May 4th. For reminding me of all the things I had forgotten. How dark the path can be until we see the light! Don’t you see? We are bound up in each other!
And just now I am struck by an idea. I will contact the reporter who wrote the magazine article about the MacArthur girl and her husband and see if he will write one about Jess. Every day is new!
19. Tom’s First Attempted Interview with Carly MacArthur, January 14, 2010
Tom: Hello, Carly?
C: [Pause] Yes? [Skeptical] Who is this?
T: My name is Tom Garth, I work for the American Voice—
C: Jesus Christ! [Tom sees a ‘Call Ended’ message on his cell phone screen].
20. Interview with Ben Charging, Ben Charging’s Apartment, Astoria, Queens, New York City, January 15, 2010
Ben’s apartment is on the 2nd story of a row house. There is a large pile of dishes in the sink and a grimy looking coffee maker on the counter, but other than that, there is no evidence that Ben cooks anything. There are several bikes mounted on the walls and the rest of the wall space is taken up with bookcases crammed with books. There is a record player and a voluminous record collection. Ben is wearing a Beta Band t-shirt, and looks like he recently woke up, though it is 3pm.
Tom: Shall we begin?
Ben: Sure, yeah, let’s begin.
[Tom turns on tape recorder, both men settle into their seats.]
Tom: Could you say and spell your first and last name and then say how you know Beth.
Ben: Sure. Ben Charging. First name B-E-N. Last name C-H-A-R-G-I-N-G. Um, I’m a friend of Beth’s. We grew up together. I was a couple houses down from the MacArthurs in Arlington where we both grew up. I moved into that house in the third grade. So yeah, lots of years together.
Tom: Were you and Beth in touch at the time of her disappearance?
Ben: Yeah, yeah. When she lived in New York, we saw each other every week or so. Then when she and Walker moved back to the DC area, I still saw her pretty often. My parents are still over there. Maybe every couple of months? We talked on the phone some too. Emailed a lot. Facebooked a lot. A modern friendship.
Tom: What’s your most recent memory of her?
Ben: Oh god, I don’t know. [Pauses.] Actually, my most recent memory—it’s weird, she was already gone, but I had this weird thing happen to me. There is a guy named William Basinski who makes music by taking old tapes of music and letting it disintegrate off the strips—the Disintegration Loops, I think he calls them. The sound that comes out is a kind of mournful falling away. It feels simultaneously melancholic and profound. An unraveling of sound. But beautiful, really beautiful. It has a really harmonious sound too. And that’s what is surprising about it—the destruction of this music, you think it would be chaotic, but it kind of—gels.
Anyway, one Sunday morning, I was wandering around my kitchen, trying to tidy up after a dinner party the night before. There were dishes everywhere with all this congealed food stuck to them, balled up paper towels, wine glasses and wine bottles just everywhere on the counter, and I remember thinking this is too enormous a task to handle. [Laughs.] I think I was hung over too, so that didn’t help. I felt like I could spend a hundred years and never be able to clean up that kitchen. [Turns to Tom.] Have you ever felt that way? Like some apparently simple task is too much to handle? Simply can’t be done? William Basinski was playing in the background, which didn’t help as his music can sometimes sound like doom or the void, and suddenly, I felt like the music was Beth calling out to me. It just struck me, WHAM. I felt like his music had to do with Beth. It’s hard to explain, I didn’t literally feel like Beth was calling out to me, or trying to tell me anything, I don’t believe in that kind of stuff—don’t worry. It was more that I thought, this is the sound of Beth. This is the sound of what Beth has become to me.
Tom: What has Beth become to you?
Ben: [Pause] I would say…she’s become a void. Yeah, a void. Or no, she’s not a void herself. Beth, as I think of her, is very real. She doesn’t like chocolate ice cream. She makes a certain kind expression when she listens attentively; it’s a sort of worried expression. But to me at least, she has come to represent a void. And in that way, William Basinski’s music came to represent her. This blunt force that, one day or another, is coming to get all of us. This total and complete erasure. Annihilation.
Tom: That’s pretty dark. [Both men laugh.]
Ben: Yeah, yeah, I guess it is.
Tom: What does a void sound like?
Ben: You want to hear it? I can put it on. [Gestures over to iPod dock and loudspeaker system across from them.]
Tom: Yeah, could you?
[Ben goes over to iPod, selects the song, sits down. Both men listen thoughtfully across from each other for a few minutes, staring at the floor.]
Tom: Yeah, wow, that’s pretty void-y.
Ben: Isn’t it? Isn’t there something about it? It’s like a sonic vision of existential dread. If vision can be sonic.
Tom: Dread, yeah. I know what you mean. But do you think there is something hopeful too? It’s not rebelling against the dread, it sounds kind of like it is accepting it. There’s something peaceful about it.
Ben: Exactly, man.
[Long pause, more listening. Ben leaves music on.]
Tom: So is that what you think? You think Beth has been annihilated? You think Beth is dead?
Ben: I’m not sure what I think. Yeah, some days I think she’s dead. Some days I think some Tatmadaw soldier saw her, confronted her about something, something went wrong, things got heated, he shot her. In a panic, they buried her somewhere in the Burmese jungle—they don’t want to get in trouble for shooting some Westerner, especially not right as everyone is making a concerted effort to ramp up the tourism! Come to Burma! We’ve got temples, beaches, long necked indigenous ladies, malaria, war, and ethnic cleansing! [Laughs, then quickly stops.] So they bury her deep in the jungle and just kind of hope she goes away. To us, she was this whole person! Our person! To someone else, she’s just another body. Just another body that got in the way. [Pause] Yeah. Maybe—yeah, on some days, that feels like the most plausible explanation.
Tom: And on others?
Ben: [Long pause, much staring at middle distance behind Tom’s head.] On others? On other days, I think she just disappeared. Like intentionally. I think she’d had enough, slipped into the folds of the jungle, and that was that. In some ways, that’s the vision that I can see the most clearly. It’s amazing really, that there are places on earth where one can disappear entirely. Walk in and you’re gone. I haven’t been to Burma, but based on what I hear, this is one of the few remaining places where you can do that.
Tom: Do you have anything to support this theory?
Ben: Oh god, I don’t know. I guess some things she said. But of course, all of those things have been living in my head for so long, they probably don’t really resemble what she actually said anymore. They’re lost to us. [Throws up his hands.]
Tom: Okay, well, what was the general idea behind what she said? Maybe not exact words, but can you remember the circumstances in which she said them?
Ben: [Fidgeting] I mean, there isn’t any one time. It’s not like that, it’s not like I have this one line that stands out where late at night over a glass of wine, she turned to me suddenly, eyes flashing and said, “So. My husband and kid are really nice and all, but I’m thinking about running away into the Burmese jungle.” Nothing like that. More just a series of long conversations that made it not totally impossible that she might do something like that. Not totally inconceivable. Inconceivable in some ways, yes, because she really was wild about her family—her husband and Cecil, that is. And yes, inconceivable in that pretty much anyone doing this would be inconceivable, but if anyone were capable of doing this, it would be Beth? Well, maybe that’s a little too bold. What I really mean is, it’s not one hundred percent inconceivable.
Tom: But even if it’s highly unlikely that she ran away, I’m still not hearing a motive that makes it at all likely—even worth considering. What would motivate someone in Beth’s situation to run away?
Ben: Look, I’m not saying there’s a motive, and I’m certainly not saying she ran away. I am merely suggesting that I am open to the possibility that she could have—conceivably. And it’s like if you’re not willing to even consider that? Well then, you’ve got problems. Maybe we’re just lying to ourselves. All the cards have to be on the table. It’s not the most probable scenario, I’m merely saying it’s a potential scenario. I don’t want to be crucified for saying that, like those scientists who won’t say they know for certain that God doesn’t exist. They don’t believe in God—and for the record, neither do I—but the scientific principle that requires them to base their conclusions on empirical data stops them from affirmatively declaring that God does not exist.
Tom: Right—like why would you take that option off the table unless you had incontrovertible evidence that it didn’t happen?
Ben: Yeah, exactly. So all I’m saying is that while I doubt it, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing that’s ever happened.
Tom: Right. So in this narrow possibility, what could’ve possibly caused Beth to runaway?
Ben: God, I don’t know. [Rubs hands through hair in agitated distress and sighs loudly.] I think she was a person who was struggling and perhaps failing to reconcile the cruelty she saw in the world with the comfort of the particular world in which we live. She said it made everything she did in her other life—her non-Burma life, in some ways her real life, her life in America—seem absurd or unreal. I think her life here in America, started to feel like a veil or something, or some kind of joke that we were all agreeing to play—or worse, didn’t agree to play, but were playing anyway. I mean, everyone has felt that way at some point, haven’t they? There are like a million movies about this. The Matrix, Revolutionary Road, The Truman Show, every bad movie that’s based off The Matrix, which, let’s be honest, was bad too. And books. Don’t even get me started on books. Graphic novels? I mean, pretty much every one. [Sighs with exasperation and throws himself back in his seat.] Fuck The Matrix.
Tom: [Smirks.] What specifically did she find troubling that made her feel like life here was unreal?
Ben: [Sighs loudly again and slumps back into his chair.] It’s hard to say. I feel uncomfortable speaking on her behalf. I’m trying to think of specific things. Hmm—well. The things she saw her peers and family spending time and money on troubled her. [Pause] Do you have kids?
Ben: Okay, well, here’s an example then. Her sisters and some of her friends each had like eight different kinds of strollers. [Gestures to his left.] Oh here, that’s the running stroller, over here, that’s the small stroller for places that can’t fit big strollers. See that over there? [Gestures to his right.] That’s the hiking stroller. Over there, that’s the crappy one we let the babysitter use. I mean, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, when people start having kids they reach this whole other level of American crap consumption. I think it totally freaked her out.
T: [Looks at notepad.] You said earlier she was failing to reconcile these things—how so?
B: She was failing because it was a doomed exercise from the start. Why reconcile? There is no reconciling. A terminal quest that most people don’t take on because whether they know it or not, there is no satisfactory conclusion. You either just give in to the senselessness and carry on with your life or you retreat into the wilderness somewhere and say [pointing index finger], “World, I’m not going to have anything to do with you!”
T: Do you see Beth as one of the latter? The retreater?
B: No. Emphatically no—which is why I can’t say she ran away. But the fact that I don’t see her as someone who just carries on means I can’t say she didn’t retreat. There is no good answer. [Pause] That was what was sad about it—I think she knew there was no good option for her. That she was forever just going to have to exist outside what everyone else calls life.
T: How do you know she was struggling with this?
B: Lots of conversations—years of conversations. But her position would change on it all the time, sometimes even by the day. One day she says, “How can I bring a child into this?”—meaning the world. The next day she’s so excited because she’s pregnant, and Cecil is the answer. [Pauses.] It was a childish exercise. Sometimes she would talk and I would feel like she was seventeen and I’d want to say, “Beth, are you just now figuring out that you’re privileged? Really? It took you thirty years to get that?”
T: Did you ever say that to her?
B: Not in so many words. Because also, it’s not so surprising. Many adults in America live their whole lives not realizing this—I don’t even realize it, or the extent of it. She had some really good points. But of course, there were moments when she came off as a petty bourgeois whiner. There were times when I was thinking, “Alright, enough, if you really feel that way, put your money where your mouth is and do something about it—it’s self indulgent when you’re just talking about it.” But I didn’t have to say that to her because she felt that. She knew that. [Pause] And when I think about that—that’s when I think the runaway theory doesn’t add up. She was so disciplined—I don’t think she would have seen turning her back as an option. She would have seen through that as laziness and cowardice. [Sighs, puts head in hands.] I don’t know what I’m talking about. Can I review my quotes before you publish anything?
T: Sure. I sense a lot of caution from you—maybe guilt too?
B: Yes, well, you may have noticed that the MacArthur’s are not exactly speaking to me. They’re not exactly not speaking to me, but they’re also not really speaking to me. That’s kind of the way with them. They don’t outright say it, but you kind of get shut out. You do something wrong, and they’re not going to be like, “Ben! You fucked up, and now we’re done with you.” They more just politely close the door. And in some ways, that’s worse, because you begin to wonder if it’s in your head. They may be speaking to me for all I know.
T: Why do you think the MacArthur’s might think you fucked up?
B: I think they’re mad about the L.A. Times piece. I think they think I went too far, suggesting what I just suggested to you, that it was not totally outside the realm of possibility that Beth could have run away.
T: Do you think they’re wrong to react that way?
B: Hell no. We believe what we need to believe. It doesn’t fit with the fabric of what they’re doing to even consider that. I understand.
T: You aren’t worried about damaging the relationship further?
B: No not really. Only in that Beth wouldn’t like it. But they never really liked me.
B: I think they thought I was weird. I don’t know. I was a fat kid who wore too-tight t-shirts and had weird glasses and read weird books. I think for a while they thought I was gay, and then they thought I was in love with Beth.
T: Are you?
B: Gay? Or in love with Beth?
T: In love with Beth.
B: [Shrugging] Not currently. I definitely had a huge crush on her at some points when we were growing up. She’s very attractive. But then I was also a teenager who spent way too much time jerking off and was attracted to most things. There was a point when I might have found that plant over there pretty sexy. [Gestures to large potted plant in corner. Both men turn and look at plant. Plant is spiky; tips of leaves look dangerously sharp. Both men laugh.]
T: Yeah, that’s pretty bad. Do you think she knew? That you liked her?
B: God, I don’t know. Maybe? But maybe not. She could be pretty oblivious. Also, it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t like “oh my god, I’m in love with Beth MacArthur;” it was never as clear as that. My feelings about her moved in waves. I felt confused sometimes about whether or not I liked her more than just as a friend. Other times it felt loud and clear, WHAM. But most of the time, I was confused. Yeah, that pretty much sums up my adolescence: I was confused. [Eyes widen.] Oh no–
T: What is it?
B: [Puts hands over eyes.] Do you ever have a flashback to something that happened in high school and the memory literally pains you it embarrasses you so much?
T: Sure. Yeah, with astonishing regularity.
B: I just had one of those. Oh god. It’s awful, but it’s blurry. I think I may have tried to make out with Beth once when I was drunk. It was either her or this girl Amelia Lexington, who I also had a crush on at points. Or maybe it happened with both of them. No, I’m pretty sure it was Beth, on the porch at—oh god, what was his name—oh! Doug Freidman! Doug Freidman’s house, and I was so drunk, I missed her cheek and kissed her right in the eye. Oh god. [Puts hands in face.]
T: That’s pretty awful. What did she do?
B: God, I don’t remember. I think we both laughed and then I tried to pretend like it hadn’t happened.
T: Did you ever talk about it?
B: Hell no.
T: Yeah, I think similar things have happened to me before.
T: Do you want to try to remember one of those conversations, one of those conversations you had with Beth that might have led to you think it wasn’t totally inconceivable that she may have disappeared on purpose?
B: Oh god. Do I have to? [Laughs.] Honestly, I don’t know if I have the brainpower for it right now. Can we do it another time? [Laughs nervously.]
T: Okay sure, that’s fine. One last thing, though. I’m trying to get in touch with Carly—
B: Oh god. Good luck with that, man.
T: Why do you say that?
B: One she’s very private. Two she’s like a viper. You never know when she’ll strike. She’d kill me if I gave you anything.
T: Doesn’t she already want to kill you? Because of the L.A. Times thing?
B: [pauses] You have a point. You have a point, my friend.
21. Tom’s Second attempt at an interview with Carly MacArthur, Brooklyn, New York City, January 16, 2010
Tom stands in front of a row house. He is smoking a cigarette. He has been standing there for roughly an hour and he is alternating between smoking and checking his email on his phone. It is getting dark. As he contemplates sitting on the stoop, a young woman with wavy just above the shoulder length blonde hair is fumbling for her keys in her purse and approaches the building.
“Carly? Carly, I’m Tom. You hung up on me yesterday?”
Carly looks up, startled. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she says. She nudges past him.
“I just want to talk to you. Just for a second, Carly. We can set it up for another time–”
She is surprisingly fast and already has her keys in the door and says, “You know what this is? Fucking Pornopgraphy!” She slams the door.
He yells after her the only thing he can think of “Everyone else in your family is talking to me! Give it a thought? Okay?” He doubts she hears. “I’m trying to help you, you bitch,” he says to himself as he walks away.
22. “Media Facts re: E. MacArthur,” compiled by Tom and the Intern, The American Voice, Midtown Manhattan
-MacArthur’s mission was sponsored by no one, but it was not for lack of offers. Patagonia, Clif Bar, Vita Coco, Nike, The North Face, Merrell, Saucony, Rockport, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo all approached MacArthur offering to sponsor her expedition.
–Shape, Elle, Self, and Esquire magazines all proposed features on MacArthur, which they all rescinded when she refused to do a photo shoot.
–Outdoor magazine photographer, Jack Welsch, said of working with MacArthur, “She was uncompromising. Well, that’s putting it lightly. She was a total pain in the ass. I have never encountered someone so discriminating about what images we put in the magazine.”
23. Walker’s Letter to Beth, January 17, 2010
You should be aware that there are two new additions to the family: Coconut and Soy Sauce (Cecil named them, I’ve been cooking a lot of Thai lately (cooking, I know!! Shockingly, Cecil has been eating Thai food(!!!). “Is this what mommy eats?” she asked the other night)). Anyway, Coconut and Soy Sauce are hamsters. I know we normally discuss big decisions like the purchasing of pets, but in this case I figured you’d understand if I took the plunge into pet ownership without you.
But as I write this, a memory is coming back to me! I am suddenly remembering your face when Cat and Wade got those gerbils all those years ago (or were they mice? Guinea pigs? Whatever happened to those things, by the way?). I remember we were sitting at brunch at Clyde’s with your parents and you scrunched your nose in disapproval and pronounced the ownership of cage pets as a.) cruel to the animal in question b.) supporting a bad business (guineau pig mills or something like that) c.) creating the false notion for the child that living beings exist to amuse. How could I have forgotten this! I can even remember in perfect detail your mother’s response. She rolled her eyes, took a sip of her tea and said “Oh Beth, that’s a bit much. It’s a guinea pig for crying out loud.” I am smacking my forehead.
The hamsters (Cecil calls them “hammies”) were Dr. Levin’s idea. Well, she suggested a dog or cat, but those were out of the question (Mom would end up having to take care of them whenever I went to Bangkok or Burma, and she’s been looking a little stressed lately. Cecil threw a temper tantrum at dinner last night, and Mom put her head in her hands and said, “I forgot about this part.” One day, we too will forget about this part.)
Anyway, I am doing the best that I can. Isn’t that the job of the primary caregiver? To venture a guess as to what the other parent would want/deem best? What would Beth do? I find myself desperately grasping to remember everything you’ve said on… everything. It was easy at first. I knew what you thought better than I knew what I thought. But recently, we’ve been in uncharted parenting territory. I can try to piece together what you would do based on things you’ve done or said on related topics, but it seems (à la hammies) I am drawing more blanks. We never talked about any of these scenarios. We never talked about the missing parent scenario. Or rather, we never talked about the way that the missing parent scenario might change the other scenarios—like the hamsters?
And sometimes, things you said and did seemed in conflict. For example, you are simultaneously generous and germophobic. So how, then, would you handle the following scenario: your sister and her three kids have strep throat. Brad is trapped in Chicago on business. Do you bring your sister chicken soup, leave it on the doorstep, ring the doorbell and bolt? Or do you wait and give it to her in person, thus risking exposing Cecil to strep?
I know what you would say. You would say, Walk, listen to yourself! Stop worrying about what I think. You’re doing a good job. And, Babe, god forbid these tables are ever turned, don’t worry for a second what I would do. Because I would do what you would do. I trust your parenting completely.
Crap. I’m sorry. I’ve word vomited for pages and pages about parent anxiety instead of composing a beautiful catalogue of our daily experiences.
Back to Coconut and Soy Sauce. I love watching her hold them. She gets very quiet and solemn as she sits on the stool I keep by their cage and waits for me to hand them to her. First I put one in her pudgy little cupped hands and she stares at it in loving wonder. Sometimes they nibble her hands and she laughs uncontrollably and almost drops them, then she gets scared and holds very still again. (This reminds me, I must tell Dr. Levin that hammies = big success!) Then, after a few more moments of loving staring, she asks me to switch because “both need to be loved.” So adorable. Cecil has such a good heart! We’ve done well. Whatever else happens, we can pat ourselves on the back, put up our feet because at the very least, we have a daughter with a gigantic heart. A burden is lifted!
24. Tom, Beat Notes, Tom’s apartment, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York, January 17, 2010
Part of me was vain enough to think that I could be the one, the one journalist, where after they read my piece, the MacArthur women, and Walker, and Ben, and all of them could gather around a couch together in their suburban enclave and sigh with satisfaction, Ah. There’s Beth. That’s the Beth we know, and maybe that night they would sleep a little lighter, able to grasp the second-best Beth, not the flesh and blood Beth, but ink and paper Beth, some sad, two-dimensional door prize rendered in all her dimensions in our minds by the power of words.
I feel like shaking their grim little faces.
I wasn’t writing for them anyway.
25. Statement of Reverend Adam Burrell, Knoxville, Tennessee, January 17, 2010
A man in an orange baseball cap and button-down shirt stands in front of his home and unfolds a piece of paper. The yard is neat, with holly bushes on either side of the front door, and there is a small bike with training wheels parked in the driveway next to a Suburban SUV. The man is in his early forties, fit, and appears calm despite the crowd of roughly a dozen reporters with cameras and microphones shoved in his direction. He smiles congenially and clears his throat. For a moment, behind him, a gap in the blinds of the house open and two small, blue eyes peer out. Just as quickly the slats are closed.
Rev. AB: [reads from a piece of paper] I’d like to make a few comments in regards to my sermon last Sunday in which I discussed the missing woman from Virginia. You all can’t imagine my surprise that my comments have garnered such media attention. Frankly, I’m surprised that more people aren’t discussing the matter in the way I discussed it. I would like to use this opportunity to clarify a few points. As many of you in the media have pointed out, the cause of this woman’s disappearance has yet to be determined. The point of my sermon was less to speak directly to Ms. MacArthur’s situation and instead use her situation to speak to a trend that I believe is spreading in America—one which I am deeply concerned about. If my words have been misconstrued to suggest that I do not think women should focus so heavily on their work, I want to be clear that that was not my suggestion, and for this ambiguity, I’d like to apologize to the humble congregation of the First Baptist Church of Knoxville. I apologize that our small congregation has been thrust into the media spotlight in such a way. Secondly, I would like to apologize to the MacArthur family. No doubt this is a trying time for you, and you are in my and this congregations’ prayers. Instead, my sermon was intended to express my disapproval with the fascination surrounding her case, particularly some people’s celebration of her disappearance as intentional. One of the facts that has been determined regarding her case was that she continued on a dangerous path rather than waiting for her rescuers, much to the dismay of her husband and her young, now-motherless daughter. My aim was to be a sane voice against a cacophony of praise declaring her a hero for this action. Why are we celebrating a potential runaway—or at the very least, a negligent parent? Now, I recognize that this is a complicated, multi-dimensional issue, but in our church, we don’t shy away from a subject just because it’s complicated, just because it could be misconstrued by reporters. No. We don’t shy away from anything. Life is complicated. God’s work is complicated. Now I’d be happy to take a few questions, but only a few, as I have work to do. You sir, you with the baseball cap.
Reporter #1: Could you please explain your remarks on the “growing perversity” you see in our families? A perversity that is being encouraged to grow in the hearts of our mothers?
Rev. AB: Of course. Naturally, that doesn’t sound quite right when taken out of context, but I’d be happy to put it back in context. The perversity is one that encourages and celebrates women who abandon their children. Ultimately, if MacArthur ran away, or even if she got lost after making a poor decision to press on, that was a selfish decision. What will come of the world when we are clapping mothers on the back for selfishness? I’m all for women’s lib, but I don’t celebrate selfishness in men or women. It’s a deplorable trait. Liberation is not selfishness. You liberate yourself through helping others. You in the back, blue shirt and goatee.
Reporter #2: This is a two-part question. First, is it true that you said Mrs. MacArthur’s case is “sewing the seeds of discontent in the foundations of our homes?” What did you mean by that? Secondly, how many people are in your congregation?
Rev. AB: Six thousand. As for the first question, I stand by that comment. I think people are trying to make this case about women everywhere, saying it speaks to a disgruntled nature in women everywhere. What does anyone know about women everywhere? The women I know are quite satisfied. They are leading good lives, working hard; they are faithful. Don’t tell me they are dissatisfied. And if they are not dissatisfied, telling them they should be can’t possibly help our homes. It’s as though people are saying something should be wrong, and if you don’t feel it, well then, ma’am, something is wrong with you.
Reporter #3: But then aren’t you also speaking for women? Saying what they are or aren’t? Why is your evaluation of women any more reliable than anyone else’s?
Rev. AB: You’re right. I don’t pretend to know what women are feeling, but I do believe that if you tell people they should feel unhappy, they will start to feel unhappy. If you say, “Your family, your labors are not enough,” people will begin to feel as though they are not enough.
Reporter #3: Isn’t that patronizing? Suggesting that women can’t think for themselves, that they are not capable of evaluating their own satisfaction?
Rev. AB: No. That’s true of men and women. And that speaks to my role as a pastor—my duty is to help people wade through the mess they hear on TV and the mixed-up feelings they may have about it. I’m getting into the water right with them, asking them questions as any good pastor would about what all this really means. And if you want to call that patronizing, then that’s fine. Perhaps we’ll discuss whether or not they feel patronized by me next week. Come on by the church and see for yourself. Alright, this has gotten off point and is just another fine example of how reality can be twisted by words. I’ll just reiterate my point, and so that was just the final question: For both men and women, family should come first after our faith. We don’t know enough about this case with the MacArthur woman, but I do know that it’s a sad, sad affair when a child isn’t with her mother—or her father for that matter. I pray for Elizabeth MacArthur, that the Lord might watch over her and carry her safely home. I pray for her family, that they might find comfort in the Lord in their time of need, especially her little daughter. And I pray for all children who are growing up without a mother or a father, that the Lord might walk with them and guide them. Thank you for your time.
26. Rock Creek Park, January 18, 2010
Tom’s most recent article came out the day before. This article attracted a fair amount of attention, with a surprising number of people commenting in the comments section. The comments were difficult for Walker to read. There were a lot of what seemed like middle-aged Midwestern moms, all of whom essentially said, “the poor dears.” But occasionally, some commenter (who Walker pictured as mean-eyed, bald, slightly overweight, and sitting in some dingy English basement apartment in some city) said something to the effect of “that’s what happens when rich people vacation in war-torn countries!” (Had the idiots even bothered to read the article before commenting? She was clearly there working, not vacationing.) Or worse, “Obviously, my heart goes out to the MacArthurs, but am I the only one who it’s not utterly obvious that she’s dead?”
Who did these people think they were? And what was it about the gooey film of the internet that made people think that they lived in a vacuum and the things they did there bore no effect on the outside world? What allowed them to say things (and worse, say them self-righteously!) that they would never dare say in person because the regular world operates by a code of ethics that apparently has no bearing on the internet. Worse, the commentors kept drumming a question into his mind: why had they let this reporter into their lives? What was in it for them again? As he ran down the asphalt path, the woods blurring by him, he could not recall. He had the sinking sensation that he had been a fool, that he had agreed to these interviews for ignoble reasons, and made a mistake that Beth never would have made. He envied her clear-eyed vision, the way she saw through all deceptions, all pretenses of honest motivations, even her own. He imagined her sitting across from him in their living room, her hair arranged in an immaculate bun—he would be fumbling with his words trying to explain why they had taken this reporter into their lives, she would be sitting upright, her face showing no emotion. That was how she looked at you when she was disappointed—total obliterating blankness. She would not punish you herself, she would say nothing, force you to sputter excuses until you were alone with the full freight of your weakness.
Walker spent the rest of his run concentrating on other things so as not to think about carving that one commenter’s eyes out with an exacto-knife. An exacto knife? Carving the guy’s eyes out with an exacto knife? Listen to yourself! This was the sickened mind of despair! Walker thought himself to be relatively smart, pretty good at most things, but really he knew the best thing he had going for him was his hardworking, relentlessly upbeat attitude. And was he going to let personal loss, some Internet weirdos, and a smidgen of depression rob him of his greatest attribute? He ran faster. If he could let this guy creep through the wormhole of the Internet and jab his pudgy fingers into his sores, he could just as easily close that wormhole. He decided that he had closed the wormhole.
No, really, he should feel bad for the asshole in the basement. The asshole was pathetic. He was lonely. He had nothing better to do than vent his own frustrations on a relentlessly upbeat guy who was looking for his missing wife. What an asshole! He ran even faster, eyes nearly bulging with rage and hurt.
No, how sad. Sad sad sad. He must stop thinking about the asshole because he felt that this type of thinking was the stuff of heart attacks. He privately held the notion that those men you sometimes heard about who dropped dead while running (who were much, much older than him, but still) might have died because for a second, while exercising, they let a little of the poison of despair into their hearts. He knew this could not be true, that despair was not a tangible thing, not an actual greenish venom that seeped into your veins. It was all in his mind. He slowed his pace to a more manageable one, one that required discipline but could be maintained.
As he ran, he tried to picture Beth’s face instead, tried to push the green venom away by recalling her warmer face, perhaps her slightly swollen face after she wakes up in the morning—not the stony one from the living room. But suddenly, all other faces eluded him, he wasn’t sure if her face was puffy in the morning, or if he just told himself it was.
27. Rod Murray, The American Voice, January 19, 2010
Tom’s article on the woman missing in Burma came out yesterday. It received the second most views in our paper’s history. I am redeemed. This is why I am the managing editor. I may not be good at managing, but I know a story when I see one. I have my fingers on the pulse of the American public. I may not feel like one of them, but I know them. I know what satisfies their hunger, what they call out for in the night. I know their fears, I know their loneliness.
They have decided to turn Tom’s article into a series. To my surprise, he doesn’t resist. Perhaps he is starting to see that there is a story here. Perhaps, he, like the rest of us is not immune to the allure of success.
28. William Ledbetter Historian of Recent Burmese History, Letter to the Editor in The New York Times, January 19, 2010
The recent disappearance of the botanist, Elizabeth MacArthur, though tragic, poses a particularly pernicious threat to Burma’s fragile movements towards democracy. Rather than exposing the country’s realities, the cult of Ms. MacArthur’s celebrity has obscured them. Ms. MacArthur’s story is an anomaly, a tragic tale from which nothing is to be gained and has little to do with making the country more “visible” as some have claimed in a quest to justify their voyeurism. Countries in the nascent stages of democracy require unfiltered and carefully tabulated reports on their political inner workings. Like Ms. MacArthur’s beloved plants, democracy movements thrive on sunlight and oxygen. They require the careful watching of a concerned world. Brutal regimes, on the other hand, operate best through refraction. Our own politicians in this country practice this technique, creating larger news stories to distract from their foibles. When the international community is focused (no, hypnotized) by one individual woman who has any bearing on really anything besides the happiness of her friends, family, and colleagues, the concern is that her story’s cloud cover will be enough to allow other essential facts to slip through undetected. Every reporter writing about Elizabeth MacArthur is one reporter who is not writing about the mine protests in Letpadaung. What is Letpadaung, you ask? Well then, my point is well made.
Because of Ms. MacArthur, Burma is not a real place in our American minds, but instead becomes a representation of our own fears and fantasies about “lostness” and the “wild.” In fact, all things related to Burma as a real place struggling for independence with real people, real heroes, real sights and sounds become obliterated by the crushing force of celebrity. Just this week, I heard a student claim that Ms. MacArthur is lost in Borneo. The misspeak says volumes about our American isolationism, that we vaguely consider all Southeast Asian countries to be foreign and unrecognizable—and therefore the same. I hope I won’t be required to point out to the reader that Borneo is not in fact a country, but a region in Indonesia (the country that many Americans recognize as the “Love” segment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love.)
Ms. MacArthur’s unintended damage is akin to Conrad’s damage to our vision of Africa in The Heart of Darkness. Conrad unwittingly relegated Africa to darkness and savagery, a depiction that still reins in many an American heart. The dark continent, it was called for years, and perhaps many of us still see it this way.
This is not to blame Ms. MacArthur. Her disappearance is, by most accounts, considered unintentional. Instead I am requesting that the media stop perpetuating this fantasy world that your public is so hungry for, to consider the implications of your actions, your moral responsibilities as reporters. I know that you need to keep your daily beast fed, but for goodness sake, its high time the media returned to its previous role of taste maker rather than taste appeaser.
To be clear, I am not anti-celebrity. In fact, I consider myself a proponent of celebrity. Celebrity can be useful, if it’s the right kind of celebrity. I have devoted much of my career to trying to understand why we don’t care about Burma unless celebrity is involved (Cue the Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts). I worry, what will happen when Suu Kyi is gone, as we all eventually are? What will happen to Burma when there is no individual person to attach our fantasies to? Sui Kyi herself recognizes this phenomenon and has tried to promote (rather unsuccessfully) other National League for Democracy leaders. She is no doubt plagued by the question: does anything survive without celebrity?
Perhaps I am a cranky old man, wasting my time, my plaintive cries falling on deaf ears because the force of culture is stronger than any one man (or woman). Celebrities are not made. We do not choose them. They must have some essential magnetism, drawing the masses to them. Eva Peròn didn’t need a promoter. Hitler was his own hype man. Lady Gaga, in her multitudinous forms, undoubtedly employs countless PR persons, but there is something captivating in her essence. In that way too, Elizabeth MacArhur wasn’t made. She was chosen.
But protest I must. It’s a requirement of my profession. I urge you to remember that Burma is real. Pontificating on someone’s disappearance is not. If enough of you come together and demand that we focus on something larger, the world may just become a more hospitable place.
30. George Orwell on the Burmese People
“A dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets.”
31. Lee Ann Herbert, Culpepper, Virginia, January 19, 2010
It took me a while to call Jess’s father. He’s an insurance salesman in Loudon County, and these days, a man I hardly know. One night, I was sick of wondering if I should call him, sick of worrying about him reading something about it in the paper. What was I scared of? That he wouldn’t care, and then I would truly be alone? Was I not ready to share my sadness with a stranger? Was I scared that he would think I wanted something? How could I want something now, when I had wanted so little for so many years?
It was late when I called and I could tell by the grogginess in his voice that I had woken him.
“Jess is missing,” I tell him.
There is a long pause, his voice is caught in his throat. He clears it, “What do you mean?” he says.
“She’s gone,” I say. She hadn’t come home one night, which was not out of the ordinary, but then she didn’t pick up her cell phone the whole next day. On the third day, the phone went straight to voicemail, and was later discovered in a ditch off Highway 15.
“Well, she must be somewhere,” he says, still sounding groggy, not understanding what I am saying. She’s not a teenager anymore. Does he think I am asking him to get his car and drive around looking for her? “She’s somewhere,” he says again.
You would think that. You would think that everyone must be somewhere. But really, I was haunted by the idea that Jess might be nowhere, that somehow, she had been evaporated. Vanished. To vanish. To be swallowed up. No trace. Is there anything more terrible? To be there one second and then gone, entirely and totally gone, leaving everyone to wonder if you were ever there in the first place? Have I imagined my whole life?
I could hear his wife murmuring something in the background. Maybe she says it’s getting late. Maybe she’s asking what’s wrong. Maybe she’s asking what I want from him. Regardless, women don’t like to think about the lives their husbands lead before we made them husbands. I am a reminder of that, so I try to stay out of their way. I’m not prone to theatrics. I’ve asked very little of Jess’ father over the years. He always sent a check and I never asked for anything more. What more can you ask from a stranger? A person tied to you by fluids exchanged almost thirty years ago?
But right then, I have an urge to tell Frank’s wife to go away. I have an urge to tell her that I was here first, that Frank and I are united by a bond that she can’t understand because she doesn’t have any children (which would be mean. Did she want them? I don’t know). I have an urge to tell her that though Frank and I might be strangers today, that if I ran into him in the supermarket, I might not recognize him at first, but that because Jess is like an umbilical chord uniting us, that I would know it was him, even if I could not recognize his face. That’s what children do, they root us to this world. So what does that make me? If Jess has vanished, am I just floating in the clouds. Am I in danger of floating off, vanishing too?
He agrees to meet me for coffee the next day.
We meet at four in the afternoon at the Green Berry’s off route 29. He is already there, sitting and looking around the Green Berry’s anxiously. What a strange sight! I have never realized it until this moment, but this is something you don’t see anymore these days. People don’t just wait anymore. They usually read something or touch their phones. How vulnerable waiting people look! It has been raining and he hasn’t taken off his rain slicker, he is just sitting there, staring. I have an urge to leave him sitting there, to know what it feels like to wait for someone and never have them come. He has gotten old. His hair, though still mostly blond, looks limper than I remember, and his eyes are glassier, bloodshot. Something about him looks made of paper. I can’t be mad at him, I think. He’s a stranger. Just another poor soul in this world where things carry on. Has his life been sad? Has there been joy? For a second, as I stand near the door, I wonder if I look as old as he does. Will he think I’ve gotten old, soft at my center, and time has been ungentle to me? Have our faces gotten old before we did?
“Lee Ann,” he says when he sees me. He awkwardly stands up and tries to kiss my cheek, but it is an awkward bulky touch. There is the faint smell of cologne and scalp about him. I don’t know this man at all.
“Hi, Frank,” I say, taking his hand in my hands.
We sit down and smile awkwardly at each other. He asks some gentle questions about Jess. He asks about the detectives. Do I think they are capable? Yes, they are capable, I tell him. He asks if anything strange happened before she went missing, what she did the day she went missing, what she was wearing, and then suddenly the questions stop. He looks out into the space in front of him for what feels like a long time.
“I just,” he starts. “I just always thought there would be more time.” I know what he means. I put a hand on his and we both stare out into each other’s middle distances. I look at his face, this man I hardly know, and yet the crows marks around his eyes feel familiar to me as if he had been my husband rather than some other woman’s husband. He looks at me with those sad glassy eyes, clutches my hand, and we smile at each other in defeat.
Why do we wait? As I stare into Frank’s glassy eyes, feel the weight of his hands, I see continents dividing and crashing, I see long necked dinosaurs rising and falling, I see us being born and dying all in the blink of an eye!