Review: After Etan

After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive by Lisa R. Cohen. Grand Central Publishing. 2009. Personal copy.

It’s About: The May 25, 1979, disappearance of Etan Patz, age six.

The Good: Of course I remember it: little boy walking to the bus stop disappears. I was almost thirteen: old enough to remember, young enough to not quite know the details. Old enough to be aware of how the world changed because of it, changes brought about both by fear and knowledge.

That type of “knowing” is not the same as really knowing: I didn’t know the particulars of the case. I had a general idea of what happened after. When the investigation dramatically made its way to the news this past week (In Basement, Hopes to Solve ’79 Case of Missing Boy from The New York Times), I had questions, and decided it was time to read in depth about the case instead of relying on memory or short news articles.

The story is heartbreaking: six year old Etan disappears during the short walk to his school bus stop. Etan never arrived at school that morning, but the school didn’t call his parents, so it wasn’t until Etan didn’t come home that his mother knew he’d gone missing. After Etan is about those first few days, yes, but it also the months and years and decades after. It is about Etan’s parents. It is about the change in society, in knowledge, in laws.

What perhaps made the strongest impact on me was what happened to Etan’s family. (Cohen only briefly touches on Etan’s two siblings, respecting their privacy). The Patzes are going through a nightmare, a nightmare that this past week’s headlines show is literally a never-ending nightmare, yet they have lives to live. Two other children to raise. Finding their son, finding what happened to Etan, justice, matters, but so, too, does creating a loving home for their other children.

After Etan is a reason I sometimes prefer non-fiction to fiction, because the family survives. It does not self-destruct. A fictional version of an always-lost child would have demanded more darkness and scars; would have insisted that those touched be permanently broken.

References are made to other cases, showing the tight time frame that raised the public awareness of  missing and murdered children and the way the police and legal system addressed the cases. The Atlanta Child Murders were happening at the same time. Steven Stayner’s 1980 escape from his kidnapper. Adam Walsh’s kidnapping and murder in 1981.

Reading the book as a basement is being excavated is chilling, because there is no answer. Is Jose Ramos, the person many believe molested and murdered Etan Patz, guilty? The author of the book (like the investigators in the book as well as the Patz family) clearly believe the evidence is there. Is what is happening now going to provide evidence supporting or contradicting that belief?

One thing that struck me as I read the book: the changing way society deals with allegations of pedophilia and molestation.

Additional reading: The Long Search for Etan Patz by Edward Klein, Vanity Fair, 1991; What Happened to Etan Patz by Lisa R. Cohen, New York Magazine, 2009

One thought on “Review: After Etan

  1. I was 11 and living in FL but I remember this case so vividly. It is probably because of Etan and then the ATL child murders and Adam Walsh (oh – Adam – the whole state was riveted by the loss of Adam!) that it seems like the world became so dangerous. I rode my bike to school every morning alone from the time I was eight – several blocks, several street crossings – and no one thought anything of it. But everything changed after this period, the time that started with Etan.

    I think for a lot of us who are a certain age, these three events are the end of thinking you could be safe outside – the beginning of when we knew that someone was out to get us.

    I hope they find out what happened to him so very very much.


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