A lot of people ask me why I do this missing persons work, and why I research the Holocaust and true crime so much, and why I do my Executed Today entries, and in general why do I surround myself with such “depressing” stuff.
The short answer, of course, is “I like it.” Or, to quote the British serial killer Dennis Nilsen, when asked why he murdered people: “Well, enjoying it is as good a reason as any.”
The long answer, of course, is what people really want, and for the longest time I couldn’t provide it. I knew I had been attracted to this kind of “depressing” stuff since childhood (I’m saying depressing in quotes because I don’t find these topics depressing at all) but I didn’t really know why.
I tried to come up with various explanations, sometimes talking about it with the legion of therapists I’ve had. One of them thought the missing persons thing was because I felt so disconnected from my family and community and general environment and was therefore psychologically “missing” myself. I didn’t agree with that, but he kept pressing the point, and at one point I said, “Why do I like reading about missing people? Well, why do I like cheese pizza?” And then he said that was the most idiotic thing he’d ever heard me say. And round and round and round we went. Anyway, none of the reasons I daddled with in my head ever made much sense to me.
As part of the I-Match Program (all is well btw, headache-wise), we had to have two therapy sessions with the psychologist there. And it was in the first session that I finally figured it out. Or, rather, the therapist did. I was telling him about how I want to do something heroic, something big and blazing that will burst like fireworks and make a difference in the world. I told him about how, when the revolution started in Libya, my first instinctive urge had been to go over there and throw myself into the fracas. And he said, “So. You’re interested in fighting evil.”
And it hit me all at once: that was it. I’m interested, not in evil itself, but in the battle against it. More specifically, I’m looking for heroes. When I find one I feel it’s my duty to let other people know the story, know that person existed. Of course, heroism requires adversity, even tragedy, which is where the “depressing” stuff comes in. But my focus was never on that.
Take Johann Georg Elser for example, my latest big hero. This perfectly ordinary, working-class German guy, a deadbeat dad, with no great intelligence or talent in anything, tried to kill Adolf Hitler in 1938 and almost succeeded. He was ultimately executed for this. But what is the most important thing, to me, is that he tried. He spent a year plotting and preparing this meticulous assassination attempt and that he failed was through no fault of his own. And, unlike most assassins, Elser was neither hired nor crazy, nor did he intend to martyr himself. He was just a very ordinary man who saw a darkness spreading over his country and did what he could to stop it, while the whole rest of the world turned away. I first heard about him in February and I am still marveling over how incredible it all was, and wondering what made him so different from the millions of other ordinary German people who, after the war, tried to say “we didn’t like what was going on but there was nothing we could do about it.”
In my mind, the “depressing” fact that Elser’s attempt failed (through simple rotten luck) and that he was executed is nothing to the inspiration I feel as a result of his aspirations to change history and prevent a global war.
And for MPs, it’s largely the same, though there’s also the curiosity and speculation about the mysteries. With MPs the heroes are police officers and prosecutors who doggedly pursue decades-old disappearances that are ice cold, the coroners and medical examiners who scour the internet trying to identify dead bodies in their spare time, the family members that turn into activists for others as well as themselves, the private citizens who invest their time in solving cold cases when they could be playing Farmville instead. Maybe these actions aren’t “big and blazing” but there’s so much quiet altruism there. And it adds up.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why “I like it.”