The Gabby Petito Case Highlights our Obsession with the Missing

Why our fascination with the missing Illustration 2 1

By Leah Eichler

When I was 12, my uncle spontaneously decided to whisk me and my brother away to Florida for our birthday. The plan was to surprise my grandparents and then continue to Disney World. It’s difficult to underscore how big of a deal this was. We weren’t the kind of people that could readily afford a trip to Disney World and the promise of three days alone with my young, hip and single uncle seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was.

I didn’t always fit in with my family, but my uncle, he got me. We could talk about books, about current events, even about religion. He was an Orthodox Jew but also the child of Holocaust survivors, and it was clear even to my young eyes that he struggled with how God allowed such evil in the world. In hindsight, he likely suffered from a major, undiagnosed mental health issue as well as addiction issues, but my younger self didn’t understand that. I only knew that when he was good, he loved me like the daughter he would never have. When he was bad, his anger and vulgarity never failed to surprise me.

But the worst times were when he just disappeared.  As long as I can remember, I worried about the day he would never come back. Did he sleep on the street, did he stay with friends, did he leave the country? No one ever knew. In my heart, I knew one day it would be my job to look for him, when no one else did. He didn’t live long enough for me to try.

My mind wanders back to him when a missing person lands on the news agenda, as it has with Gabby Petito. While the obvious similarities between a slain, celebrity Instagrammer and my uncle, who likely never owned a cell phone and died of disease and neglect, remain few and far between, it’s that feeling of missing that poke at a sore spot in my chest. I’ve realized that this emotion of missing, the longing for closure has permeated my professional life. My novel, The Never Ending, follows a journalists’ obsession with a missing girl and every story I’ve written since then captures, in some way, the longing for a missing person.

While we can collectively mourn the tragedy of Petito’s disappearance and ultimate death, the truth is missing people are surprisingly common, so common that the only surprise, really, is meeting someone who hasn’t been touched with this type of loss. Lots of ink has already been spilled on why Petito draws so much attention compared to the 600,000 people that go missing every year in the United States, or the 70,000-80,000 in Canada.  For now, rather than focus on why Petito gets all the attention, let’s take the time to mull that nagging emotion of missing someone.

The pandemic, if anything, has highlighted how physically damaging it can be to miss people. As social animals, we need people. We like to believe our relationships are solid, that love is somehow inextricably linked to permanence. My uncle often disappeared of his own volition – not uncommon with those engaging in maladaptive behaviors – and reappear as if neither of us skipped a beat. Perhaps I was too young to ask him directly, or too worried about his response, but the lesson learned was that we cannot hang on to anyone. We can pick apart all the details of missing people and falsely reassure ourselves that if we don’t follow the same script as others, it cannot happen to us, or to our loved ones. But there are no guarantees, not even for the privileged of this world. People go missing, so very many people, and we should search for all of them — but the burning question for those left behind is years later, how do we let them go?

Back to Florida: The morning we arrived, my throat began to hurt and by evening it evolved into a high fever. My grandmother, who barely spoke any English, took me in a taxi to the hospital. The doctor on call wanted to keep me overnight, but I refused and in the taxi back to their apartment, where my uncle and brother slept, I did my best to convince my grandmother that by morning, I’d be fine.

I woke up at the first crack of light to find my grandfather at the foot of the bed as he prepared for morning prayers. I called out my uncle’s name, hoping he was only getting ready in the next room, but my grandfather shot me a loving look of concern and maybe just a little bit of pity and I knew, once again, he was gone.

 

A version of this story was published in the Globe and Mail.

 

 

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