In the opening pages of Elena Ferrante’s first book of her Neapolitan novels, 66-year-old Lina Cerullo has gone missing. Her adult son discovers she has cut herself out of family photos. “She wanted to vanish” Elena, her best childhood friend, remembers. “She wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found, to leave not so much as a hair in the world.”
“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a spate of books published in the past couple of years whose female protagonist disappears. But these characters don’t get snatched by a madman lurking in the bushes; nor are these women the typical blonde innocents who make headlines and launch nationwide searches. Rather, these are affluent adult (and usually white) women who conscientiously choose to opt out of their lives.
In Catherine Lacey’s 2014 novel “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” the 28-year-old protagonist flees the country seeking not just a divorce from her husband but “a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history.” In Vendela Vida’s latest novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” a woman whose passport is robbed in Casablanca tries on different identities, shedding her old self for novel unblemished versions. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple satirizes the smothering, overly politically correct parenting and the trappings of tech money, so oppressive that the agoraphobic Bernadette ventures out into obscurity. Paula Bomer’s “Nine Months” centers on a mother pregnant with her third child who ditches her husband and two boys for the open highway and its limitless possibilities.
Beyond literary fiction, blockbuster titles that dominated the Best Seller List and the box office have been about women who leave their lives behind. “Gone Girl” turns the 6 o’clock news narrative of a pretty young wife tragically meeting an untimely end on its head and when Amy Dunne fakes her own murder. Even Oprah favorites, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” trace women shedding their former selves in the hopes of being transformed as something new.
The popularity and proliferation of these books suggests that their readers feel overburdened and yearn to disappear. But what accounts for such high demand for these stories at a time when women are earning more than ever before, enjoying more personal freedoms than any time in human history and allegedly surpassing their male counterparts in the so-called “end of men” argument?
Is it the crushing weight of modern ennui? Is it boredom? How much of it has to do with not measuring up to the Herculean task of being everything to everyone? Why do these characters reject their society’s, partners’, and families’ definitions of whom they should be and become the architects of their own disappearances?
One reason may be the constant surveillance and synthetic connectivity of the 21st century. From our barrages of group texts to the expectation that we respond to work emails from bed, women must be on-call to expend emotional and professional energies. To sever oneself from the world means going off the grid, which means freedom from boundless pings.
And while smartphones lord over us all, women especially absorb pressures through social media in its ceaseless parade of self-improvement. From Pinterest boards of dream weddings to yet another friend bragging about doing a cleanse on Facebook, images of what a woman should be are impossible to avoid We think we are escaping into our phone to zone out for a few minutes at lunch, but to truly escape that shame would mean a total rejection of the apparatus itself. “Airplane mode” can solve the problem for a few hours; disappearing is putting oneself on airplane mode ad infinitum.
Another reason may be that women are now shouldering more responsibilities at home and at work than ever before. Thirty-eight percent of American women outearn their husbands, and women account for more than half the professional and technical workforce. But a 2014 Bureau of Labor and Statistics Survey revealed that women still spend 2.6 hours of daily household labor to men’s 2.1, and in 2013 women earned 78 cents to a man’s dollar. The daydream of disappearance makes sense to indulge.
The appeal of escape is essential, regardless of gender. Dr. Laura Gold, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, observed, “I certainly have heard people fantasize about the power of the credit card: to just go to an airport and get on a flight somewhere far away from their lives.” Who hasn’t thought about repairing to a sandy shore and tending bar off the books, free from one’s history and mistakes? But because of children, family and an arguably overdeveloped sense of personal obligations, women’s lives seem far more intractable than men’s.
What’s curious is that men go missing all the time. The image of the deadbeat dad who walks out on his family is all too familiar. In fact, in my research for my book “Playing Dead: The Art and Folly of Pseudocide,” I found that far more men disappear and fake their deaths than women. Occasionally, wives will help commit life insurance fraud: Anne Darwin, for instance, reported her husband missing in a kayaking accident and then hid him next door while their adult sons thought their father was dead. But rarely do women themselves go missing.
To disappear is to walk away and let somebody else pick up the pieces. But for a woman to do so is an act of resistance, as it entails rejecting the roles of mother, daughter, girlfriend, even caring attentive friend and neighbor that have been foisted upon her. To disappear requires cordoning off the consequences and compartmentalizing the past while ordering your next coconut daiquiri, or whatever your disappearance fantasy may be. To disappear is to put oneself first, while women have been socially conditioned from time immemorial to put themselves last.
In a recent interview with the Paris Review, Elena Ferrante spoke about the theme of disappearance in her work. “It’s a feeling I know well,” she says. “I think all women know it … there are many reasons to disappear.” Reasons abound and yet escape routes, whether permanent or temporary, do not present themselves as readily. So readers can find catharsis in these yarns of disappearance — on the beach, or while nursing a baby, or in a few moments before drifting off to sleep — before the vacation ends, before the baby starts crying, before the alarm buzzes. And just for a moment, they are gone.