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A Vanishing Fantasy

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

If for nothing else, we should be grateful to John and Anne Darwin for bringing the excellent word "pseudocide" back into wider public use. For those who don't follow the British press as closely as they should, John Darwin is a canoeist who paddled off into the North Sea in 2002 and was presumed dead after the remains of his canoe washed ashore. Last week, he walked into a police station in Hartlepool and announced he had amnesia. "I think I am a missing person," he declared.

Unfortunately for Darwin, there was some evidence that his memory was rather better than he claimed. Having perused the press accounts of his death and reappearance, one curious member of the public decided to Google the words"John," "Anne," and "Panama." She clicked on a few images -- and there they were, on the Web site of a Panamanian real estate agent, grinning. The picture was dated July 14, 2006.

It now seems that the Darwins have been reunited in a quasi-afterlife even longer than that. In the past few days, police have discovered a secret door in the back of a wardrobe in Mrs. Darwin's former house, which led into a secret apartment next door (thus inspiring the immortal headline "The Lie, the Switch and the Wardrobe"). Presumably, this arrangement grew awkward over time, which explains why Mrs. Darwin traveled to Panama in 2005, looking to invest her husband's life insurance money in waterfront property.

A number of mysteries remain to be solved, primary among them why Darwin abandoned his tropical paradise and turned himself in. Still, it is already clear that this was indeed a pseudocide -- or faked death, a form of deception that has a remarkably extensive history. Huckleberry Finn carried one out to escape his alcoholic father; James Bond once pretended to die ("You Only Live Twice"), as did Kate Winslet's character in "Titanic." In real life, the trick has been attempted by a British politician who wanted to escape to Australia with his mistress; Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," who fled to Mexico to escape drug prosecution; and at least two people who pretended to have died on Sept. 11, 2001. Urban legend has it that as many as a quarter of those who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge are pseudocides. There are even how-to books ("How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found") for the pseudocidal.

The most interesting thing about the Darwin case, though, is the enormous attention the story has received in Britain. For these sorts of enthusiasms are rarely accidental: Like the " runaway bride" whose story enraptured America a few years ago, this one surely taps into some deep, universal dream of escape. Columnists are inspired to fantasize about vanishing in the back of a taxi ("The only trace would be a lip gloss that fell out of my bag and rolled onto the back seat"), and the police are openly making jokes -- among other things holding a "Lazarus Press Conference" -- to the amusement of everyone else ("Say what you like about the British constabulary, they have a faultless grip on ironic biblical reference"). Everyone, it seems, has considered vanishing. The potential motives are innumerable -- boredom, love, greed, shame, guilt, debt avoidance, revenge or simply a desire to lead a more interesting life -- which is perhaps why the wish to disappear is a lot more widespread than one would think.

Yet the story also shows that even if the desire remains deep and universal, the technical difficulties involved in a successful disappearance are increasing all the time. Video surveillance cameras, DNA testing, biometric identification, electronic banking, the tax authorities and, yes, the unexpected hazard of Google are going to make this sort of caper ever harder to pull off. Even the most distant, obscure place one can think of -- Panama, say -- is inhabited by people with cameras in their cellphones.

A complete identity change requires a would-be pseudocide to wriggle out from the vast tangle of the modern financial, personal and government networks that ensnare us all. Escape is now harder to achieve than ever -- which could explain why it is also more appealing than ever.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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