Getting Away From It All

Why do so many of us want to disappear and start over?

John and Anne Darwin

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 an amateur canoeist who paddled off into the North Sea in 2002, vanished completely, and was presumed dead after the remains of his canoe washed up onshore. Last week, he walked into a police station in Hartlepool in northeast England and announced he had been suffering from 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 accounts of his death and reappearance in the newspapers, one curious member of the public decided to Google the words “John, Anne, Panama.” She clicked on a few images—and there they were, on the Web site of a Panamanian real-estate agent, grinning happily. The picture was even dated, July 14, 2006, nearly a year and a half ago.

Slowly, evidence is emerging that the Darwins have been reunited in a quasi-afterlife even longer than that. Police have discovered a hidden door in the back of a wardrobe in Anne 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 is why Anne 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 the question of why Darwin decided to toss away his tropical paradise and turn himself in. Still, enough details have now been confirmed to make clear that this was indeed a pseudocide—or faked suicide, a form of deception that has a remarkably extensive history, both in fact and fiction. Huck Finn carried one out, in order 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 parliamentarian who wanted to escape to Australia and live 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 in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. According to urban legend, as many as a quarter of those who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge may have been 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 sheer enthusiasm with which the story is being received by the British. 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,” wrote one Times columnist.) Everyone, it seems, is now confessing to have thought at least once about vanishing, taking on a new identity, maybe reappearing in a new guise—or maybe not. 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 techniques, the electronic banking system, 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 farthest-away, most obscure place one can think of—Panama, say—is now inhabited by people with cameras in their cell phones.

A complete identity change now 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—which could explain why it is more appealing than ever.