Voluntary missing adult

A lot of people on missing persons databases such as the California Department of Justice one are listed as “voluntary missing adult.” I’m not sure how accurate this is in a lot of cases, as it seems to be the default classification for any adult that goes missing and doesn’t have any serious medical conditions or any obvious signs of foul play. But I know many adults do go missing voluntarily. Or some of them just leave and aren’t aware that anyone is looking for them. Today I’d like to write about the “classic” cases—like the ones where someone goes out for a jug of milk, takes a taxi to the airport instead, hops on a plane to Phoenix and starts a new life with nary a word to anyone. It’s much harder to do that than it used to be, but it still happens.

I would consider this kind of disappearance to be a symbolic form of suicide. The two actions have a lot in common. Both the MP and the suicide are basically trying to obliterate themselves and their identity. They both seek to escape a life that, for whatever reason, has become unbearable to them. In both cases (I believe) mental illness and/or drug abuse is often a factor. And both dropping out of sight permanently and killing yourself are abominably selfish things to do, and leave your family and friends torn at the seams and feeling confused and guilty for the rest of their lives. Nevertheless, I do feel some sympathy for most adults who choose to go missing, as I do for suicides.

I figure your life has to be REALLY bad before you are willing to simply drop off the face of the planet. Even if it appears good on the surface, there’s a lot of things that aren’t obvious to anyone other than yourself. Who knows what lurks inside a person’s head?

To give an example: a young man named Matthew Wilson, a native of Oklahoma, vanished without a trace from Houston, Texas in December 2007. He was a full-ride student at Rice University, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation. He was brilliant and hardworking. He got straight A’s at Rice, something that’s very difficult to do—a C really is a typical grade there, unlike most other colleges that practice grade inflation. He seemed destined for a glittering future in his chosen career, computer science. He also had a very loving, stable family. His father had died when he was very young, but he had two older sisters and a mother who adored him.

And then he was suddenly gone. He vanished during final exams week and never completed his coursework for two classes. His car disappeared with him, but almost nothing else did. He left quite a bit of money behind in his bank account, over a thousand dollars I think. For a missing adult man, there was quite a lot of press about him, because his life seemed so stable. He looked like the last person you would believe would run away.

But run away is what he’d done. Matthew was located eight months later in Berkeley, California, at the University of California campus. He was first arrested on a minor charge (I think he had a laptop with the serial number filed off) that was later dropped. Then he was committed to a mental hospital, as the police suspected he might be a danger to himself.

His mother was reunited with her son and later gave an interview with the press. She said she found out that Matthew had been deeply unhappy at Rice for a very long time. She didn’t say why, but I can guess—the pressure. Being a prodigy, an overachiever, is very hard to be, something I know firsthand. Everyone expects you to be brilliant all the time, perfect at everything, and you’re terrified that if you actually screw up at something (like every human being does once in awhile), everybody will be terribly disappointed and disillusioned with you. My guess, also, is that Matthew suffered from depression. He was apparently suicidal when the cops found him, after all. Having to keep up a rate of 100% success while being bogged down with depression…no wonder he burned out. No one had had any idea how he felt, and he was afraid to tell anyone.

It came out that Matthew had been living homeless in the Berkeley area since he went missing. For awhile he lived out of his car, then at homeless shelters and on the streets. He said he hardly had contact with anyone the entire time and certainly didn’t form any relationships. What a dismal and miserable time he had: sleeping in the bushes, scrounging for food. But he didn’t come back, he didn’t contact anyone. I think I remember that he even initially gave the police a false name when they found him. Whatever he was running from was apparently worse than living impoverished, anonymous, roofless, alone and far from home. He’d heard about himself in the news and knew people were worried about him and looking for him, but even that didn’t make him reveal himself. I hope he’s feeling better now. Last word is, he went home to Mom and they were going to try to work things out. Hopefully this included lots of therapy. Mom said he probably wouldn’t be coming back to Rice.

Obviously, I feel a lot of compassion for Matthew. But that isn’t to say I agree with what he did. He wasted thousands of dollars in resources from the police and other people trying to find him. He caused horrific pain to those who knew and loved him. If I were one of Matthew’s friends or a member of his family, I would be pretty angry with him.

I firmly believe that walking away from your life without a trace, permanently, is one of the most selfish things a person can do. On some level, it’s even more selfish than suicide. With suicide, at least your family and friends have a body to bury, and they can go and visit your gravesite, and they know what happened to you and can, maybe, come to peace with it. But when a loved one is just missing, that’s a wound that never heals. For the rest of their lives they will have to wonder what happened to you. Many times I’ve heard from the parents of missing children that it would have been easier if their child had died.

But I think when an adult runs away, you shouldn’t necessarily just assume the person is simply irresponsible and doesn’t care about those who love them. There’s probably a lot else going on that no one else will ever know.

26 thoughts on “Voluntary missing adult

  1. Anthony March 9, 2009 / 3:39 pm

    Existentially speaking, of course, it remains one’s inviolable right to start “a new life with nary a word to anyone.” (Love the use of the word “nary,” btw. I use that too.) Selfish, yes, but on par with suicide? No; and the latter being seen as preferable because it comes with a burial plot, a gravesite, a focal point for others’ mourning? Certainly not. That seems to be confusing existence with eternity, and granting pride of place to the latter. I think the focus belongs on the individual, and on existence; the rest is essence, and secondary.

    • Meaghan March 9, 2009 / 6:51 pm

      I wasn’t actually trying to say disappearing is the same as suicide, or that one is necessarily worse than the other. I just was trying to point out the similarities between the two. Nor do I think disappearing is definitely worse than suicide — it’s just worse in some ways, but not necessarily worse over all, far from it. At least if someone is missing you can imagine they’re having fun on a beach somewhere. I don’t have either a missing person or a suicide in my family (though I do have a brother who died young, and it devastated my parents), so I’m not qualified to judge on which is worse. I’m sorry for giving that impression.

  2. Emily March 9, 2009 / 5:12 pm

    In my family, more than one person has up and disappeared without telling anyone where they’ve gone. A notable example is my great-uncle Henry, who supposedly went to California in the 1940s and never came back. His surname is very common, and I don’t know his birthdate (I don’t think any living relative knows it), so I can’t even find him in the SSDI. I do genealogy as a hobby, and these loose ends bother me, but only in an academic way. The pain, though, is much more visceral for my grandmother, who’s lost a brother to the winds of time and hasn’t known for sixty years where he might be. It makes me wonder if he’s one of the John Does on doenetwork.org – and how many of those anonymous bodies are loved ones gone off to build new lives, never to be heard from again. How can a loved one ever know for sure? In some ways it’s worse than death for the people who are left behind, because there’s no closure.

  3. Anthony March 9, 2009 / 7:07 pm

    I understand, Meaghan. Many years ago now, my grandfather faded from sight, long before I was born; he’d made enough of a mess of the family’s life that no one since that time has been inspired to see what became of the man–and since that side of the family’s name was the common one of Jones, it would have been difficult anyway to find him. My post was also, perhaps, just striving to be a bit contrarian, thus to inspire a bit of back-and-forth on the blog. As Emily points out, closure is important to those who remain behind–the sleepless nights may well seem like open wounds to those who are left in darkness–but I would still remind that those who voluntarily disappear to begin new lives apart from they lives they once led do in fact have that right, and exercising that right is not on the same level as suicide. Shakespeare, oddly enough, included his “To thine own self be true” line in the same play in which he also wrote the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. (Though “Shakespeare” was actually Edward de Vere, Earl Oxford, but I’m getting off-topic here.)

  4. Meaghan March 9, 2009 / 7:10 pm

    I suffer from severe depression, as I noted before, and have often been suicidal. In my very black moments I find myself either thinking of ways I could kill myself, or fantasizing about wildly unrealistic plans of running away and starting a new life somewhere else. That’s probably why I think disappearing parallels with suicide. When I’m in a depressive episode I see each of them as an escape, a solution to all of my problems.

  5. Anthony March 9, 2009 / 8:14 pm

    You and me both, M. Sylvia Plath summed up much in her not-frequently-anthologized, but terrific, nevertheless, poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” about episodes like those. (She might not be the best example to summon forth, of course, as the black dog of depression did eventually meet her head-on.) I quoted, on another post from you on the blog, from a Frost poem–“Birches”–which also captures what at least I feel when horizons seem only illusory and cruel and mocking, and one desires to start over. Thank God for literature, great literature, is all I can conclude, really. Brave people have left us blueprints for survival.

  6. Meaghan March 9, 2009 / 9:07 pm

    My own favorite depression poem is a verse from Anne Sexton that begins:

    God went out of me
    As if the sea dried up like sandpaper
    As if the sun became a latrine
    God went out of my fingers
    They became stone

    Because when I am sick, everything that is good becomes bad.

  7. Anthony March 9, 2009 / 9:30 pm

    That’s a powerful poem. My favorite Sexton is “Her Kind.” At least that’s the one I’ve taught often enough to know thoroughly. Another splendid poem in this particular genre is Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”: “I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail. (…) the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” Thank God for poetry—that’s all I can add.

  8. Anne March 9, 2009 / 10:35 pm

    I suspect many families have at least one relative who was “lost in the mists of time,” to borrow a somewhat hackneyed phrase. My own family has at least two long-lost relatives, not to mention relatives who got caught up WWII and its aftermath and were never head from or of again.

    When I lived overseas I would occasionally meet expat Americans, Brits, Canadians, and Aussies who left their home countries in search of new lives. Some even went so far as to burn their passports – and as implausible as that sounds, I assure you I’m not making that up – go completely native and never look back. Some of these folks hadn’t been back to their home countries or had contact with their families there for 15, 20, sometimes even 30 years or more.

    I suspect that some of these folks were fighting invisible demons (I’m just full of cliché today, aren’t I?): mental illness of one sort or another and alcoholism were the two biggest. Then there were folks who, for a lot of reasons I suppose, wanted to reinvent themselves. I met more than one person who’d always wanted to run a restaurant or bar, for example, but because of monetary constraints couldn’t do that where he was from. There also were men (there weren’t many expat women in the places I was in) who were gay and couldn’t/wouldn’t live openly in their home countries. In the countries and cultures they “disappeared into,” however, they could be openly gay without fear of condemnation.

    Looking back on it, I wonder how many of those people were listed as missing persons in their home countries.

  9. Emma l March 10, 2009 / 12:52 pm

    Ahh a fellow depressive. Strangely comforting that other people have the same feelings. In my blacker moments I am still convinced that no ones elses depression is as bad as mine. Not true of course, but it belongs to the same dark thread as “this situation can’t be bettered. No one can help me”, the same thought process that would make you commit suicide or disappear I suspect. So yes, I understand the comparison.

  10. Anthony March 10, 2009 / 1:50 pm

    Good God but it’s grown lively and literate on this thread. One thing about depressives (stereotype a-comin’), we do know how to write. That we’re either producing, or hanging around, a missing persons site is neither here nor there, of course (cough-cough). Thanks for the great posts, M., A., and E.

  11. Anthony March 23, 2009 / 2:09 pm

    And speaking of depressives (a jolly introduction, that, eh?), I was gobsmacked—even though well-knowing the family history and having studied to a great extent the verse—to find, first thing this morning, the news of the death of Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’s son, Nick: ( http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5956380.ece ). It’s a bit hard to start the day after reading of it. Ah me. Prayers for Frieda (and for us all).

  12. Meaghan March 23, 2009 / 6:04 pm

    Wow. Nick’s death took me by surprise also. I had sometimes wondered what became of Plath’s children. I’m glad Frieda, at least, seems to be doing well.

    I would consider Plath’s death to be only a semi-suicide, though. Yes, she stuck her head in the oven. But she left a note asking the housekeeper to call a doctor, so I think it was a “cry for help” sort of thing. Unfortunately, through a string of unlucky incidents, Plath died anyway. If I remember right, I think the housekeeper was late that day, and when she finally showed up the fumes were so strong that she passed out, and one thing lead to another, and they didn’t get the doctor in time.

  13. Anthony March 23, 2009 / 10:41 pm

    Yeah, the au pair was late, and the fumes actually knocked out an apartment neighbor who tended to look after Plath and the kids, so there went those two chances. What alarms, though, is the chance taken with the babies in a back bedroom, which many (especially those who side with Ted Hughes) see as indicative of Plath’s utter, self-advertising selfishness.

    Good God, what a relationship—easily the two greatest talents, poetry-wise, to marry since Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and, upon first meeting, he kissed her “bang smash on the mouth” and she bit his cheek and drew blood. A handsome man and a gorgeous woman and all the talent God can give, and the utter—and continuing, with today’s grim news—horror that it became, complete with a feminist backlash against Hughes’s sterling work, and an under-appreciation of Plath’s superior talent.

    The London Times piece references Frieda’s “struggles with depression, ME, and anorexia.”

  14. Meaghan March 23, 2009 / 10:48 pm

    Yeah, I read about Frieda’s struggles. But just because she struggles doesn’t mean she’s not doing well. She’s alive, which is more than can be said for her mom and brother. I struggle with depression but I’m doing reasonably well. Working a crappy dead-end job, but working on Charley as well, and writing a book.

    Some people who seem to have absolutely everything also seem to willfully throw it away.

  15. Anthony March 23, 2009 / 11:03 pm

    The whole thing threw me into a sort of retrospective tizzy all this grey day long, shocked me into an active melancholy, and made me dwell, particularly, on Plath’s best work: “Out of the ash I rise / With my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Had she have only known—though did she know? What is the expense of brilliance? Her work made her immortal, and thus as permanent and unfeeling as a marble god.

  16. Meaghan March 23, 2009 / 11:17 pm

    I’ve never actually read any of Plath’s poetry. Only her novel, The Bell Jar.

  17. Anthony March 23, 2009 / 11:35 pm

    Above, I referenced “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” which, while it’s not among her best-known ones, always has struck me as superbly crafted (with a rhyme scheme continuing by stanza, thusly: ABCDE / ABCDE x 8 stanzas, frequently in a beautiful, broken off-rhyme), and with the veritably haunting last lines which Nick had to have known, felt: “The wait’s begun again, / The long wait for the angel, // For the rare, random descent.” It’s here: http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sylvia-plath/black-rook-in-rainy-weather/

    Her oeuvre can be accessed here: http://www.stanford.edu/class/engl187/docs/plathpoem.html

    Probably the five best-known ones:
    Death & Co.
    Fever 103
    Lady Lazarus

  18. Dan January 26, 2010 / 2:47 pm

    I am a voluntarily missing person, and the story of the student that disappeared from Rice U. echoes my own in a many ways. To this day its hard to put into words the reasons I left, or the terrible weight I felt at the time, or even how I feel about it now. Its not an easy choice to make, its actually probably harder than suicide, because I must live with my choice, knowing there are others that are probably wondering about me.

    I dont know if I will ever go back. It has been nearly 6 years already. I dont think I could go back, or that I would want to. My life has been full of challenges, but I feel I have lived in these few years like very few people can. Its amazing to break free from everything and survive as a truly independent entity. I dont feel my life is meant for the same things others desire. I’d much rather find truth and suffer for it, than surround myself with comfort and familiarity and feel I did not spend my time wisely.

    If we only get one chance to seek truth in some form, then I will not let fear or regret or guilt or any other societal impositions keep me from finding it. I know my philosophy wont make sense to most people, but neither would my choice to leave everything and everyone behind.

    • Jesper July 4, 2013 / 9:58 am

      Dan, I am doing research for a book or a documentary about “choosing to disappear”. I am looking for first hand accounts from people who have chosen to disappear, to hear their stories. If you are interested in charing your experiences, anonymously, please write to me at jesper.wachtmeister@telia.com. Thank You, Best regards, Jesper

  19. SGy May 2, 2010 / 6:21 am

    This is an “older” Charley blog posting, so I doubt this will even be read, but I completely agree.
    I have severe anxiety. I don’t have a trendy excuse; this is always how my body and mind have reacted to things. In school and work, this can often be looked at as a positive, I can be meticulous about not making mistakes. As a result of these behaviors, I often have suicidal ideations. Equally, I have fantasies of running away and starting over. I can’t be the only one who has pictured what their own Charley Project profile would look like.
    I come down from these mood swings. But I see how the comparision is logical. In some ways, I envy “Dan”. My feelings of obligation often outweigh any happiness derived for myself. I could never leave my loved ones suffering like that, much as I “fantisize”.

    • blackkwidow January 31, 2016 / 7:24 am

      hi! I read your post, it’s been 6 years, but maybe you will check back, or anyone else that feels this way…
      I just wanted to reply because I feel very similar to what you describe, I read the charley project stories and many missing person cases wondering what mine would look like as well…i imagine starting over, making new family/friends, living my life in indescribable freedom…and also about what my husband would do, what my parents would think…probably my strongest tie is to my sister as we grew up very similar and have the same anxiety problems stemmed from our upbringing…so I stick it out mostly for her. but the pull is strong to up and disappear…travel the world with such abandon!
      anyway, I wanted to post because a book has actually helped me with my problem a bit, and hopefully it will help you feel more “home” with where you are, and who you are.. It’s called “Fear of the Abyss: Healing the Wounds of Shame & Perfectionism” by Aleta Edwards, and also this book about shaming and the affects of “conditional love” called “Good Children – At What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame” by Robin Grille and Beth McGregor …and also this post called “Run Away, Run Away, Run Away Home” by Andrea Matthews
      sorry to bombard you, but it helped me figure out the types of anxiety I feel, and learning to forgive what caused them, and it helped me to sort of view the building blocks of why I feel this way, so hopefully they will help you…if not then maybe I’ll meet you in Fiji someday under an assumed name! lol
      cheers 😀

  20. SGy May 2, 2010 / 6:23 am


  21. Marie September 20, 2010 / 5:21 pm

    Hi I just wanted to write and say what happened with Matthew sounds like what happened with my boyfriend except I still don’t know what happened with him and he went missing In April of this year. So thanks for your post I know how his family and friends felt when he was gone. And I agree that running away is more selfish than suicide because we have not had the closure that would have come with a suicide. As heartless as it sounds it would be nice to have some sort of closure.

  22. Stuart September 23, 2010 / 1:58 pm

    I have a picture of some that I know is voluntarily missing from the state of New York. Is the any website to post those pics when I do not know his John Doe.

  23. elizabeth November 5, 2014 / 2:32 pm

    Sometimes adults disapper cut ties with family because of a lifetime of abuse. I never thought I was selfsh I was surviving. At some point I just stood up for myself and got away from painful people.

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