The XX Factor

The Life That Might Have Been

Etan Patz vanished from the streets of New York City 30 years ago this month. He is not living in an alternative universe as a 36-year-old man who grew up on Prince Street in Soho, the middle child of a school teacher and a photographer who then went to Brown or Reed and became a journalist or documentary maker married to his college sweetheart with a 7-year-old little girl and a boy, nearly 5. He doesn’t live in Tribeca near his wife’s former office at the Department of Homeless Services. The man Etan would have been, if a very bad person hadn’t stolen his future, doesn’t exist. The 6-year-old tow head did not grow into a handsome sandy-haired man with an open smile. Along with his parents, Stan and Julie Patz, who weathered an unspeakable loss, the world was robbed of an independent spirit full of curiosity and joy.

I’ve written before about After Etan, Lisa Cohen’s riveting book on the effect of the boy’s disappearance on his family and the community, which is excerpted in New York Magazine this week. Etan was detoured by something terribly evil along the two blocks from his front door to his school bus stop at West Broadway in Soho in 1979 and was never seen again. The primary suspect for Etan’s murder (the first-grader’s small body was never found), Jose Ramos, currently imprisoned for molesting another child, was not charged for the crime. “Stan and Julie recognized at some indefinable moment that their son was never coming home, no matter what they said, so they stopped saying anything, turning away from the spotlight,” Lisa writes. But, as long-serving Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau prepares to retire, the victim’s father has renewed demands for Ramos’ indictment. With the 30th anniversary of his kidnapping approaching, it’s worth reminding ourselves how the child who never grew up changed society’s perception of danger to unsupervised children, adding a vigilance and parental fear that was, and sadly remains, all too necessary.