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.

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LITSA DREMOUSIS' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Filter, Hobart, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, Monkeybicycle, MSN Music, Nerve, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Magazine, Nylon, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paper, Slate, the Seattle Weekly, on NPR, KUOW, and in sundry other venues. Her essay, "The Great Cookie Offering", appears in Seal Press' anthology, "Single State of the Union", she has a piece in Smith Magazine's HarperCollins anthology, "It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs" and she's completing her first novel. She frolics at on Twitter @LitsaDremousis and you can read her archived published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

15 responses to “Adam Kellner is Somewhere”

  1. admin says:

    Here’s the video. -MGMT

  2. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Welcome to TNB, Litsa.

    Several years ago, my partner had a friend and co-worker who was schizophrenic. J. was an incredibly intelligent, funny man. He’d stop taking his medication now and then because he didn’t like the way he felt on them–but an episode was always looming. Once, his mother called our house panicked because they’d had an argument with J. and he’d left the house furious. (He was later found.) Eventually, he could no longer work and spent his time among friends at a coffee shop. At the age of 38, he died from a pulmonary embolism. I didn’t attend his services, but my partner did. He said it was amazing to see how many people J. had touched with his life—how many friends he had. A photo of him hangs in the coffee shop today.

    Many hopeful thoughts to the Britton family.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness, Ronlyn. And I’m really sorry to hear about your partner’s friend, J. Very glad he’s remembered, but still: everyone undoubtedly wishes he were still here.

  3. Very solid journalistic piece, Litsa. I’ll send a link to my friends in LA.

  4. It’s great to read this kind of piece here and greater still to come across something with your name on it. Thanks for posting, Litsa.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Welcome, Litsa!

    This is a sad, sad story, all the more for not having a proper ending.
    Good work, writing it, Litsa.

    • I appreciate the feedback, Irene, and I agree: it is a sad, sad story. I think all of us hope the more people who hear of Adam’s disappearance and see his face and learn his story, the greater the chance he’ll return home safe and soon.

  6. JM Blaine says:

    Ah Lista,
    Been around long enough not to welcome you
    but say
    Good to see you again.
    I work with this sort of stuff
    day in and out
    & you really captured the heartbreak
    & confusion.
    I had a story like this the other day
    & thought about how to write it
    but I think I am too close sometimes.
    You did it justice.

    Plus, your new pic
    is really cute.

  7. JM, you have my boundless admiration for working in this field. You obviously know this, but you’re fighting the good (and maddening) fight. I volunteered at King County Crisis Clinic years ago and these stories stay embedded. Thank you for thinking I captured the heartbreak of families who live w/ this surreality and horror b/c in addition to helping find Adam, that’s what I wanted to do. We’ve all lost a loved one to death and there are others who’ve lived through it who help us and we subsequently aid those who are newly grieving. But there are so few places for families of the missing to turn.

    My loved one was missing four and a half days before his body was found (hence my being away for TNB for awhile and this being my first piece for 3.0) and I know if he’d been found alive, those four and a half days undoubtedly would have been the worst of my life. Which is why I keep thinking of Adam’s family and have asked everyone I know to forward his story: his family lives in suspended animation.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    What a powerful, evocative piece- well told, informative, and intensely sad. Let’s hope a new round of publicity might lead to something positive.

    And welcome aboard/back!

  9. I agree, Joe: let’s hope this has a concrete, positive impact.

    And thanks so much for welcoming me back!

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    The point about a general public misunderstanding of schizophrenia is, I think, a crucial one. So much of our perceptions are skewed by sensationalistic media representations.

    This is terribly sad and I hope Adam comes home safe and sound.

    (Also, from reading the comments, I gather that you recently suffered a loss. Litsa- I’m so so sorry)

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