Chapter 1

 

After the argument with my mom, everything started spinning. Tilt-a-Whirl vertigo. Hoping a prescription for glasses would make the world appear the way it should again, I made an appointment with the optometrist for the morning of Friday, March 17, 2006.

The receptionist led me to a small examining room down the hall. The doctor had me read the eye chart, then asked me to identify a series of letters through various lenses. He dilated my pupils and checked the back of my eye. My vision, he declared, was twenty-twenty.

“Then why does everything keep spinning?” I asked.

“It’s probably neurological. You’d have to get more tests to know.”

I walked back to campus wondering what kind of disorders he had in mind. Turning off Waterman Street, I passed through the brick archway leading into Brown’s campus. Students were stream­ing to and from class, pouring out of buildings, playing Frisbee on the muddy quad. My cell phone started ringing and I hoped it was my mom calling me back. Normally I talked to her a few times a day, and I thought of her as my best friend as much as my mother.

But everything had changed three months earlier: New Year’s Eve, my twentieth birthday. I’d chosen to spend the night with friends instead of with my mom, and it had cost me. She’d thrown me out of her apartment the next day, and our argument had ended in my father’s driveway, where she stopped only long enough to toss my clothes onto his lawn and tell me that this was what I’d wanted. Since then she hadn’t answered my phone calls and I’d seen her only twice.

My sophomore spring was passing in a daze of vertigo attacks. I kept hoping my mom would stop being so stubborn and just call me back. I reached for my phone as I cut across the quad toward my art history class, which started in five minutes.

My brother’s name appeared on the caller ID.

“Have you talked to Mom today?” Brad asked.

“No, why?”

“Her boss called and said she didn’t show up for work.”

“Maybe she went to New Hampshire. I don’t know, but I have class now.”

“You have to get home.”

“Seriously?”

But he didn’t have to tell me twice. Immediately I knew some­thing was wrong. My two older brothers and I always knew where our mom was. We talked to her morning, noon, and night; she never turned her cell phone off, not even while she was at work.

Growing up, she’d attended every sporting event and school func­tion, juggling a full-time teaching job as a divorcée with primary custody of my brothers and me. Until our overblown argument on New Year’s Eve, she’d been completely dependable and I could always reach her.

She was never late for anything and called her boss by six in the morning if she needed to take a sick day. This was the first time in fifteen years that her boss had to dig up her emergency contact info, which listed Barbara Ann—our mother’s closest friend from the Massachusetts suburb where we’d grown up—as the person to call if something was wrong. Barbara Ann had called Brad, who immediately called our older brother Chris and me.

“Go now, Lindsay.”

My family refers to me by my full name only when there’s a problem.

“I have to take an exam at one. I’m leaving as soon as I finish,” he said.

A junior at Cornell, Brad was sequestered in upstate New York and the drive home was at least eight hours. I could make it from Rhode Island to Mom’s apartment in Massachusetts in two hours by train. Considering I didn’t have a three-hour economics mid­term to suffer through first, I knew I better get going.

Students strode by me as I stumbled to a nearby bench. I could feel another bout of vertigo coming on, the ground swooping up to meet the sky. The four barrels lining the path started to spin: Trash, Paper, Bottles, and Mixed Containers. I shut my eyes to still the chaos. I gripped the edge of the bench and waited for my best friend Cassidy to meet me before class, like always.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You look sick.” The bells rang out, signaling twelve o’clock classes.

“Something happened. I can’t go to class.”

“What is it?”

The last of the stragglers disappeared into buildings around the main green as I told her about my mom not showing up for work. We hurried off toward our dorm. Cassidy and I had met a year and a half earlier in an art class. She’d arrived from Vermont with a unicycle and an old guitar, which was enough to impress me. Sophomore year we were sharing a dorm room and trading thrift store T-shirts and beaded necklaces.

I threw my toothbrush and a change of clothes into my back­pack. Cassidy looked up the train schedule online.

“The next one leaves at one thirty. C’mon, you should eat first,” she said.

We went to the dining hall and I got my usual meal of salad and Diet Coke. The students around us were maddeningly carefree with their soft-serve cones and their campus newspapers. Instead of waiting around for the train, I felt like I should be hitting the road immediately, borrowing a friend’s car or hitchhiking. I stabbed a fork at my lettuce as the dread in my stomach turned to nausea. Cassidy kept saying it would all be fine. I pushed my plate away and looked up at the giant clock on the wall. I wanted to believe her, but the minutes were moving toward one o’clock impossibly slowly.

Cassidy reached for my hand as we walked downtown to the train station, her fingers glinting with the silver rings she always wore. My backpack thumped against my spine. I wanted to be overreacting, wanted this to be a false alarm, but something in Brad’s voice had faltered from his usual tough-guy stoicism.

I hugged Cassidy and bought a ticket for the northbound train.

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” she called across the terminal.

 

The train was packed with people leaving Providence for the week­end. I took the window seat beside a blue-suited businessman and began scrolling through the contacts saved in my cell phone. Starting with the A’s and working my way through the alphabet, I called friends and relatives—many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in months, if not years—to ask them if they’d heard from my mother lately or happened to know where she was. I tried to sound casual. I phoned old friends we’d sailed with every summer in Rhode Island, soccer moms from our hometown of North Andover, and the neighbor across the hall in Mom’s apartment building in New­buryport. I called information for more numbers. Everyone was quick to assure me that she probably just needed a long weekend away. I thanked them and moved down the list, feeling dizzy and trapped on the slow-moving train. My phone started to beep. I called my older brother Chris and told him to meet me at the Newburyport station. He’d left his office job in Boston and rushed to Mom’s apartment as soon as Brad had called a few hours earlier.

I sat pinned against the window, restless at every stop. My phone battery died halfway down the list of people who might have said, “Your mom’s right here.” The train crossed into Mas­sachusetts, groaned through Boston, and slid up along the coast, finally pulling into Newburyport. I was the first one off the plat­form.

Chris honked from the parking lot and I ran over and got into his Ford Explorer. He’d been pacing our mom’s apartment for the past few hours, trying to figure out where she’d gone. The drive­way was empty; her car wasn’t there. Chris said he’d even called the police, but they told him that people skip work all the time, and a person wasn’t officially considered missing until seventy-two hours had passed, unless we had reason to suspect a crime had been com­mitted. Even after Chris explained that this was extremely unusual behavior for our mother, the police officer said there was nothing he could do until Monday. We should try to relax; she probably just went away for the weekend.

But even as Chris told me that he’d called the police, I resisted the idea of involving them. As scary as it was to not know our mother’s whereabouts, I had no doubt that my brothers and I would find her. We knew her patterns and all the likely places she might have gone. Beyond her unswerving reliability, Mom had raised us in an air of intense privacy; as kids we weren’t supposed to tell anyone that our parents were divorced. Calling old friends to ask if they’d seen her lately made me feel like I was breaking her rules, but already I could sense that something more important had snapped.

As soon as I got in the car, Chris handed me our mom’s red suede purse, saying he’d found it in her apartment. Mom had given me this bag for Christmas two years earlier, and I’d returned it to her when I grew tired of it.

“Start looking through there,” Chris said.

“She always takes her purse.”

“I know.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look, Lindsay!”

At twenty-four, Chris was four years older than me, old enough to boss me around. He resembled our mom more than Brad and I did, with his narrow nose and chestnut hair. I started digging. Mom’s Wet n Wild lipstick was down to a dark red stub. I sifted through her drugstore reading glasses, a scattering of receipts and blank sticky notes, a handful of spare change, a hairbrush tangled with strands of dyed brown hair, a bottle of beige foundation, and her black wallet, bulging with credit cards, small bills, and creased photographs of my brothers and me. I couldn’t imagine where she would be going without all her essentials. I threw the bag on the floor and told Chris to drive faster.

A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of the white clapboard house on High Street. Mom had been living in an apart­ment on the third floor for the past year and a half. I’d been prepar­ing to leave for my first semester of college when she announced that she was done with North Andover.

“The boys are gone and you’re leaving too. Why would I want this big old house anymore?” she’d said at the time.

So Mom sold the house we’d grown up in amid talk of start­ing over. She rented an apartment in Newburyport, a picturesque coastal town forty minutes from North Andover, where she planned to make new friends, find romance, lose weight, and do all those things that amount to a second chance. We didn’t know anyone in Newburyport and weren’t sure why she was moving to a town that would double her commute to Woburn, where she worked as a special education teacher. My brothers and I didn’t question her motives, though. With the ocean just down the road, it seemed like a good place to start over. If Mom had any fears about a new beginning, she kept them to herself.

I took the stairs two at a time, up three flights, and reached for the spare key above the door frame. I threw open the door wanting to believe that Mom would be waiting on the other side, ready to put this whole misunderstanding behind us. The apart­ment was cluttered, same as always—books stacked beside the couch, an empty coffee mug on the table, and Mom’s brown cor­duroy blazer draped over the back of a chair. It looked like she had just run out to the store. Needed eggs, maybe milk. Like she’d be right back.

But her key chain was hanging on the hook in the kitchen, crammed with at least twenty keys, including the one for the Subaru Outback she’d bought a few months earlier. I never under­stood why she toted so many keys—I couldn’t imagine what they all opened—but along with her purse, Mom took this hefty ring wherever she went.

“Chris, did you see this?” I said.

“She must’ve taken her spare car key.”

“Then she won’t be gone long.”

After plugging my cell phone in to charge it, I emptied the purse and made a paper trail of receipts and sticky notes, trying to retrace our mom’s footsteps. A crumpled receipt for gas pur­chased at an Irving station near her office in Woburn, her Ameri­can Express card swiped at seven fifteen a.m. on Thursday, March 16. Meaning she’d gotten to work the day before about a half-hour earlier than the other teachers, who came in at eight. My mother was always punctual and often early, but never late—which was why her boss was alarmed enough to dig up her emergency contact info when she didn’t show up by midmorning.

A receipt for groceries purchased at Market Basket four days earlier: milk, cheese, hummus, and French bread. Photos devel­oped at CVS, a whole roll shot on the sand dunes of Plum Island, a barrier island between Newburyport Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean: sunsets, driftwood, and fishermen casting offshore. It all fit into her routine. I was about to give up and hurl the empty purse across the room when I noticed one more receipt, folded and tucked in an inner pocket.

“Chris—”

“What’d you find?”

“A receipt for a Budget rental truck.”

The yellow copy, dated Wednesday, March 15, made more sense to my brother than it did to me. Apparently the moving truck was all part of the plan. Mom had recently bought a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, fifteen minutes south of the ski condo where we’d vacationed for years. After almost two decades of working as a special education teaching associate, Mom was looking forward to an early retirement within a few years. The apartment in Newburyport was never supposed to be permanent; she was just taking some time to figure out where she wanted to settle down. Brad had planned to drive home on his upcoming spring break to help Mom transport a storage unit full of furniture to her new house. The truck was scheduled to be picked up the following week.

I had always envisioned my mother by the sea—she had dreamed of owning a bed-and-breakfast on a Rhode Island bluff we sailed past every summer—but she took a turn for the moun­tains instead. Normally she included me in every decision, right down to making the grocery list. But things had changed since our New Year’s Eve fight. We’d barely spoken since, and I knew next to nothing about the house she’d bought. Still, I hoped that’s where she had gone.

Chris called Budget rental and learned that Mom hadn’t picked up the truck early. My next thought was that she’d gotten in her car and driven north, wanting to map out the furniture arrangement in her new house or shop at the nearby outlet stores. Maybe her cell phone had run out of battery power en route. She would plug it in and call one of my brothers or me when she got there, but the worry was in the waiting. She phoned at least one of us every morning by the time she got to work. She was my morning alarm, and instead of saying prayers at night, I talked to her.

Chris had already called 411 and requested the phone number of our mother’s future neighbors in New Hampshire. Once con­nected, he introduced himself and asked if they’d seen any cars in the dirt driveway beyond their barn. Any lights on in the windows? They said the property looked deserted but promised to keep a lookout. The Budget receipt implied that Mom was following a plan, one she’d eagerly shared with my brothers and the details of which she’d stubbornly kept from me in the wake of our argu­ment. Even if I didn’t know where the house was located or what it looked like, a house in the mountains sounded simple enough. For years Mom had been saying she needed to simplify; things were finally falling into place. I held on to the yellow scrap of paper as if it were irrefutable proof that things were still as they should be.

There was also the possibility that she hadn’t gone north yet. Maybe she was just playing hooky and would come walking into the apartment any second. She would apologize for making us worry and relay an amusing story about her day off. Since this seemed just as likely, we decided to wait it out. Instead of chasing after her, it made more sense to remain at home base and wait for her to come back.

Brad got on the road at four, right after finishing his midterm. He had transferred from Boston College—Mom’s alma mater—to Cornell for his junior year. He called Chris and me at least ten times during his ride. We leaped for our cell phones, thinking Brad was about to say that he’d gotten hold of Mom, while he was hoping to hear that she’d just walked into the apartment. As the hours wore on, the calls became our way to keep Brad awake on his drive. After feeling exhausted for weeks, he had finally gone to the doctor a few days before. Tests revealed that he had mono, which explained his fatigue, fever, and sore throat. We were worried that he would fall asleep at the wheel and flip his truck into a field full of cows.

On his sixth or seventh call, Brad told us to go to every gas station that Mom might stop at on her way out of town. He was hoping they’d have security cameras recording the pumps. A video clip of a white station wagon pulling into the frame and a fifty-three-year-old woman pumping gas. How it would tell us what direction Mom took or where she was heading, we didn’t know. She’d bought a half tank the day before at the Irving station near her office, but we figured she’d top it off if she were planning a getaway.

We left a note on the kitchen table before leaving:

Mom,

We came home to see you. Please call us.

Love,

C, B, and L

Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Getty—we checked all the Newburyport stations without any luck. The pumps were old and the signs dis­playing the prices had not yet gone digital. The thought of security cameras in such a quaint suburb was absurd. We got on I-95 north and looked for gas station symbols on the blue service signs that lined the road every few miles. Six p.m. and the sun had set with­out our noticing. The interstate pulsed with yellow headlights. We followed an exit toward a Getty station and entered the adjacent convenience store, where the clerk on duty was a few years younger than me. He flipped through the day’s receipts to see if he could find one that matched our mother’s credit card number, but we grew impatient watching him dig through the thick wad of paper slips.

“She drives a white Subaru Outback. Midfifties, five-four, chin-length brown hair, probably wearing jeans, looks like a mom. Anyone like that come through?” Chris asked.

“Lots of people come and go,” he said.

“Do you videotape the pumps?”

“The tape’s locked in the office, but the manager comes in at eleven.”

“Think he’ll be able to show us the tape?”

“Don’t see why not.”

“Okay, we’ll come back then.”

“Actually I might’ve seen someone who fit that description this afternoon.”

Music to our ears. But even if our mother had passed through, it told us nothing about where she’d gone next. Still, it was some­thing.

Chris and I got back in the car. We knew it was time to call our father. In the seventeen years since their divorce, they’d never learned how to get along. Mom had done her best over the years to convince my brothers and me that he was not a good man, and even less of a father.

“We have to tell him,” Chris said.

“Fine. You call.”

He was probably in the middle of dinner, but like our mother, Dad always answered the phone.

“Dad, it’s Chris. Something’s wrong.”

“What?”

“It’s our mom.”

“What about her?”

“We can’t find her.”

“Can’t find her?”

“She didn’t show up for work. We’ve been looking for her all day.”

“She’s probably up at your ski condo.”

“She’s not there,” Chris said. “Brad’s driving home from Cor­nell and Lindsay’s with me.”

“Call me tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll hear from her by then,” Dad said before hanging up.

Chris slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Dad thinks we’re overreacting.”

“What did you expect?”

Chris swallowed whatever he was about to say and looked out the window. I knew Dad wouldn’t share our immediate alarm. Our mother was hardly his favorite person. It baffled me that my parents had been married for almost two decades. Mom acted out of emotion, Dad out of logic. He was a Princeton man, an engi­neer, and then president and CEO of a high-tech company until selling it at the age of fifty. He had also married another woman whose name was the same as my mother’s: Michele. An unfortu­nate coincidence as well as a constant reminder to my mom that she had been replaced.

Dad and his new wife lived in a beachfront mansion along with their beautiful towheaded child, Maggie. At fourteen years old, I suddenly had a new sibling. In my mother’s eyes, this was against the rules. A man was supposed to have only one wife, one set of kids. Even as my mom was so keen on starting over, it seemed she had never forgiven her ex-husband for seizing his own second chance.

Dad’s version of starting over included undertaking the resto­ration of an enormous old house as well as an early retirement so that he could be a stay-at-home parent. When he wasn’t occupied with Maggie, Dad was building cabinets, gutting old bedrooms, landscaping, and otherwise trying to restore his property to a Gats­byesque splendor it hadn’t seen in decades. He was a Renaissance man, still as fit and handsome as he was when my mother met him in college. His eyes were the same deep blue as the waves that broke on West Beach, right outside his bedroom window. By all outward appearances, his second chance had panned out quite nicely.

Chris and I drove around Newburyport for a while, checking parking lots for a white Subaru while speculating about where our mom could have gone. We went back and checked her apartment for any clues we might have overlooked. We called her cell phone several more times, but it continued to go straight to voice mail. Even though we still had at least an hour before we could view the gas station video, we got back in the car. Being on the move was easier on our nerves than sitting in the apartment; we were hoping to spot Mom’s station wagon or even pass her on the road.

But it was hard to tell what kinds of cars we were passing. March in New England meant the sun went down by six p.m. and the only light thereafter came from headlights, an indifferent moon, and a smattering of stars. Chris pulled into a liquor store parking lot off the highway. The adrenaline-pumped afternoon had collapsed into utter fatigue. Worrying was tiring. We reclined our seats, hoping to rest until eleven o’clock or until Brad called again, whichever came first. He’d been driving straight for the past six hours and had about two more to go. I shut my eyes, but I was no closer to sleep when a policeman rapped on the driver’s side window and beamed a flashlight in our eyes. Chris rolled down the window and we both sat up a little straighter.

We knew the officer would be of no use until several more hours passed, so there seemed little point in explaining our pre­dicament. Easier to just let him assume we were causing trouble outside a liquor store on a Friday night. We rolled up the windows and got back on the road, and for a few minutes I hated the cop, even though he’d done nothing wrong. It never crossed my mind to turn my frustrations on my mother, who had put us in this pre­dicament in the first place.

Ten thirty. We cruised through Newburyport, past the board­walk and the waterfront restaurants, looping through the brick-faced center of town for the fifth or sixth time. Everything was closed. Coming up on eleven, we drove back to the Getty station. The same kid was sitting behind the counter, no manager in sight. Apparently the manager was taking the night off and had forgotten to press the Record button on the camera that morning. The kid told us this without looking up from his magazine. We got back to Mom’s apartment just before midnight.

We did our best to not wake the neighbors, but the wooden stairs creaked and groaned and our footsteps echoed up through the halls. We opened the front door, willing Mom to be dozing in her easy chair, feet up on the ottoman, wineglass on the end table. But the lights were just the lamps we had turned on before leaving.

We called Brad to tell him about the dead ends we’d run into at the gas stations. He was still a half hour away, and I pictured him cruising in the fast lane, palming the steering wheel while going over the possibilities for the hundredth time: her new house, a weekend getaway, a dead cell phone battery, an explanation that would make perfect sense when she returned. Even as he told himself to stay calm, I knew he was as scared as he’d ever been, a fire-alarm fear difficult to explain to anyone but Chris and me—because we felt it too. It was completely out of character for our mom to take off without telling us. Her mood swings could be brutal, but her temper always cooled quickly, and she was nothing if not consistent in phone calls, care packages, and visits. She was the glue that held us all together.

I crawled into my mother’s bed, searching for her body’s inden­tation. Chris lay on the couch, a trail of receipts stretching across the floor in front of him. We called out to each other in the dark.

“She probably just went away for the weekend,” I said.

“It’ll make sense in the morning,” he replied.

Neither of us sounded convinced. I pulled the blankets up under my chin. Minutes or hours passed, marked by the faint whoosh of cars on High Street and the dim beam of headlights across the ceiling, like signals from an erratic lighthouse. I finally fell asleep, tangled in the roses of my mother’s sheets.

 

Excerpted from MISSING, by Lindsay Harrison. Copyright © 2011 by Lindsay Harrison.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

What is Missing about? The time your remote control got lost in the couch for two weeks?

It is pretty sad when the remote goes MIA. My book happens to be about my mother going missing for forty days. I was a sophomore in college when I got a call saying my mom had failed to show up for work. I rushed home, met my two older brothers, and began looking for her. We scoured her apartment, traced her credit cards and cell phone, drove around in circles, filed a missing person report, hung missing person fliers, appeared on New England news channels, and spun crazy theories of murder and kidnap.  In short, it was a lot worse than a missing remote.  I just wanted to change the channel and go back to my mundane college life!

The weeks crawled by without any leads. Things were not looking promising, but I refused to give up the belief that we would find our mother and everything would make sense again. She was my best friend; I talked to her multiple times a day. Not knowing her whereabouts was truly terrifying. Finally, after forty days, we found her, in circumstances far worse than anything my insomniac fears had prepared me for. A diver discovered my mother in her car, submerged in the ocean off the end of a fishing pier.

 

Damn.

I know. The second half of the book attempts to reconstruct a life that could have ended so tragically. At the same time, I wanted to chronicle how my brothers and I grieved and attempted to move forward with our lives. The book is a search on so many levels. I guess you could simplify all this by saying it’s a search for who, what, when, where, and why.

 

So what made you want to write about the most horrible thing that ever happened to you?

Writing this book was more an act of necessity than desire. I needed a way to sort through my grief and get it out of my body. I also started writing with the naïve hope that by reconstructing those forty days in a chronological narrative fashion, I would have that big Aha! moment and understand how I’d really lost my mother. A rookie mistake.

 

So what actually happened as you reconstructed those forty days?

The more I wrote, the more questions I had. Trauma shoots holes in your memory. There were details I chose to disremember. I had to keep emailing my brothers and my father to ask about specifics. This was risky, as they weren’t happy with my need to dredge up the past and put it on paper for strangers to read.

 

Can you say more about your family’s reactions?

Well, they came around eventually, but imagine someone asking you out of the blue, “Can you reconstruct the day that mom’s body was discovered?” Not pleasant. All memoirists will likely agree that writing a book about your family is an exercise in pissing off the people you care about the most. I just had to hold onto the belief that they would come to understand why I felt it was so important to write this book.

 

And why is that?

Well, my more selfish reason was to try to make sense of my own grief through writing. But in a larger sense, I hoped that this story would resonate with readers who had lived through loss. I knew the particulars of my story—the search, the grisly outcome, the complex family dynamics—are unique, but on a more basic level, the book is also a coming of age story that everyone can relate to. And unfortunately, most of us have experienced a loss or trauma of some kind. Different details, same emotions.

 

Do you think you’ve accomplished that goal?

I hope so. Receiving letters from people who have read my book and related to it is an amazing feeling. One woman said she’d considered ending her own life until she read my book and understood how much that would screw up her daughter. That one was heavy. Most are just thankful that I put this story out there, as a chronicle of grief and also a sort of tribute to my mother.

 

What was the writing process like?

Like doing surgery on my heart for three years. With rusty tools. Miraculously, the thing is still ticking.

 

It’s ironic that after searching for your mother, you became a “detective” for much longer in the book writing process.

Being a writer is a little like being a detective in that you have all these clues you have to align in the right order and hope you stumble upon a narrative with a suitable tone, style, voice, pacing, etc. You also have to do a lot of research, even in a memoir. Fact-checking your own life is a pretty strange trip.

 

Anything you were worried about while writing?

Mostly I worried about putting my family through the process of reliving our tragedy. I hoped they’d still talk to me and invite me to Christmas dinner.

 

How does it feel to have this book out there in the world?

My book release party was one of the best nights of my life. Seeing everyone I care about gathered at BookCourt in Brooklyn to hear me read was truly touching. Walking into a Barnes & Noble and seeing my book on the shelf is a thrill that I hope never wears off.

 

So you think it was worth it to surgically remove your heart like this, poke and prod it from every angle, and then stick it back in your chest?

I don’t recommend the process, but sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you find that the thing that was missing all along was right there inside you.

 

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

Sherrill Britton, an associate vice president at Loyola Marymount University, laughs only once during our 45 minute phone conversation. “Adam used to wear a black ski cap and I hated it and made him wear a baseball cap when he left the house,” she says, referring to her 35 year-old son’s sartorial choices with loving disapproval. Her brief chuckle sounds fraught with exhaustion, though, as if even mirth requires effort now. It is late afternoon on a recent Monday and I assume she is in her office, but I don’t ask because for the past two and a half years she has had to reveal so much so often, I want to accord her whatever scrap of privacy is possible. Also, as Britton would be the first to agree, where she might be located is beside the point. 

Britton last saw her youngest son, Adam Kellner, early November 2007 in the comfortable Stevenson Ranch, California house they shared with Britton’s second husband, Leonard, who died last year. The loss of one’s partner is, of course, searing, but Britton lives with a still deeper pain: Adam occupies the netherworld of the missing. Britton was away on an overnight business trip the evening of Wednesday the 7th when Adam offered his ailing stepfather assistance climbing the stairs before bed. Despite the schizophrenia with which Adam had lived since young adulthood, when it became clear his newly askew behavior was more than collegiate posturing, he remained warm toward his mother and stepfather, if remote from nearly everyone else. Which augments the mystery of what occurred next.

“It’s been a long, frustrating ride,” Britton says plaintively. “But we keep hope alive.” As a result of Adam’s illness and medications, he frequently slept past noon, so his stepfather had no reason to worry when he didn’t see him at breakfast Thursday morning, particularly as Adam hadn’t left the house for months. The call Britton received hours later remains indelibly etched: her husband couldn’t find Adam. For years, Britton had laid out Adam’s meds in a day-of-the-week dispenser. Thursday’s pills were gone and, unlikely as it seemed, so was her son.

“I still feel like I’m going to see him on the corner of our block,” Britton continues bewilderedly, as if the facts she’s relaying can’t be real, despite imbuing each facet of her life. “You think you’re going to find him. At first you think it will last a day, maybe two or three. You can’t believe it will go on this long.”

It was reasonable to conclude Adam would appear soon: an avid smoker who was self-conscious about his bald spot, his cigarettes and hats remained, as his did his keys and wallet. He was out of shape, receiving no exercise except climbing the home’s stairs, so it was hard to fathom he could get far. And, crucially, he was stable under the circumstances.

“At some point, you settle for stable,” Britton says. “He had a job years ago, but the stress of losing it caused a psychotic break. But he had been stable for quite some time. If you live with someone with schizophrenia for fifteen years, you can tell if he is having a psychotic episode. Adam wasn’t psychotic.”

Nor was he paranoid or violent. When he heard voices, Adam believed they were his girlfriends and, poignantly, found them comforting. “There’s so much misunderstanding about schizophrenia, but Adam is a sweet young man. He would take out the trash when my husband was ill. He always brought me a Mothers Day gift.”

Britton and her eldest son, Douglas, think the common fallacy that all schizophrenics are dangerous or out of control hindered the search for Adam from the start. Britton filed a missing person’s report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and for awhile, police conscientiously searched. Unable to find evidence of a crime or foul play, however, they concluded Adam had run away or wandered off, though they discovered no proof of this, either. 

Which begat an obstacle-strewn maze for Britton and her family. A local television station ran a segment on Adam’s disappearance and the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News each ran short pieces, all of which led to scattered and nebulous reports that he had been spotted roughly 30 miles south on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

“I’m sure it was a ‘slow news day’ and that’s how we got coverage, but I was so grateful, so appreciative someone cared,” Britton says.  “Douglas and I went to the L.A. missions and handed out fliers with Adam’s photo and information. A security guard said he’d seen him. A homeless couple who essentially adopted us called to say Adam had been picked up by cops. Someone else said he was spotted getting on a bus and asking directions to Santa Clarita, the valley in which our home in Stevenson Ranch is located. But Santa Clarita is a bedroom community. A new face might stand out on Skid Row, but Adam would have been disheveled by then and definitely would have stood out in Santa Clarita.” Each report turned out to be false and Britton doesn’t believe Adam was ever sighted.

“People wanted to help us and felt for us and I think that colored their perceptions. We had people tell us they wished their families would look for them. One woman, who was probably a prostitute was quite kind and said she knew everyone’s faces but she hadn’t seen him. There’s a humanity on Skid Row,” she says and pauses. “It’s scary when you’re driving through but it’s different when you’re walking around.”

Since those early weeks, Britton has hired a private investigator, faxed fliers to hospitals and morgues within a 90 mile radius, given Adam’s dental records and DNA samples to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and filed reports with the National Center for Missing Adults and the California Department of Justice Missing and Unidentified Missing Person’s Unit. Her home’s proximity to I-5 spurred her to place an ad in a trucker magazine and to contact the 18 Wheel Project, a coalition of truckers who help search for missing individuals. “I’m a very private person, or I was before this. I had to allow people in and I’ve been grateful for their help,” she says.

But Britton’s anguish is palpable, particularly as she describes begging the Sheriff’s Office to search the dense wilderness near her house and trying to procure a helicopter company to do the same, each to no avail.

She recently donated her deceased husband’s clothes to one of the L.A. shelters that helped in her family’s search, explaining, “When you’re doing nothing, you’re giving up. And we don’t give up. But Adam’s clothes and shoes remain in his closet. I haven’t even been able to move his half-pack of cigarettes and lighter from his spot in the garage.”

Then her voice cracks. “When I was at Loyola’s baccalaureate mass recently, the priest asked everyone to reach out to put their hand on a family member. Some people had seven hands on them. I started crying because I had no one.”

The accompanying video contains the television report and additional information regarding Adam Kellner. Please join Sherrill Britton and Douglas Kellner’s Facebook group, Help Us Find Adam Kellner.