Missing Words on Missing Children

A Professor Mines the Historical and Social Roots of a Parent's Worst Fear

by Fernando Quintero

"Only seconds before Charlie had been behind us. Now he was gone. We ran back to State Street, thinking he must be there. He was not. We searched frantically for a couple of minutes, each of us going in a different direction. People began to ask us what was wrong; the police came. Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Then I dropped into a black hole. I was literally inside a nightmare, my ears seemed disconnected to the outside world and humming, my eyes were staring into a tunnel, all my senses were focused on one excruciating fact-Charlie was gone... Fortunately, the experience (but not the understanding) lasted only 10 minutes, 10 minutes I cannot adequately describe, despite an academic's usual facility for words, and for which there is no analogy.

-History professor Paula Fass, from her book, "Kidnapped."

In her new book, "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America," history professor Paula Fass is hoping to reach out to a wider audience by leaving out the academic jargon and putting a human face on her research subject matter.

Starting with her own.

On the afternoon of Dec. 28, 1994, Fass and her family took a short and much-needed vacation in Santa Barbara. As they were strolling down the picturesque California coastal town's main drag, seven-year-old Charlie momentarily disappeared.

"I have opened (the book) with my own little story because losing Charlie in Santa Barbara taught me as much about the people whose stories I tell as all the thousands of hours of reading, thinking and writing that I have put into this book," writes Fass in her introduction. "It taught me about the intensity and the boundlessness of the pain that comes with the realization that your child has vanished."

Fass first began investigating the subject of child kidnapping after she found herself becoming preoccupied with the idea of losing her own child.

"In the early '80s, we were told to fingerprint our children so when their corpses were found, we could identify them," Fass recalled from her dark Dwinelle Hall office. "I am what you would describe as an overanxious mother. I became even more anxious. And I began to wonder if this feeling was new. Or was there a history to this parental anxiety?"

Much to her dismay, Fass found that no book on the history of child kidnapping in America existed. She decided to write a book that would not only put the subject in an historical as well as social and psychological context, but also be accessible to a general audience.

"As a mother, I found comfort in better understanding my fears and anxieties about child kidnapping. I thought that other parents, not just academics, should have the opportunity to put things in perspective. As historians, we're dropping the ball if we don't provide a perspective for fellow citizens. We're beginning to do the kinds of history that speaks to people today."

Fass's own fears grew from "a specific social interpretation that has spread like a deadly cancer...That interpretation has been shaped by and through stories about real kidnappings, and our fears have developed over time as a result of particular historical experiences and the ways in which actual kidnappings have been publicly represented."

Fass begins her book with the kidnapping of Charley Ross from his home in 1874. The incident not only created a new kind of American crime, namely, kidnapping of a child for ransom. It also acted as a socially significant harbinger: kidnapping exposed the children of the middle class to the new dangers of urban life.

By the early 20th century, that danger took on a new and horrifying direction, fueled by sensationalized media attention. It moved the crime away from theft for money, to more brutal motives.

Fass also includes a chapter on the celebrated abduction of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., which broadcast the vulnerability of even the most rich and powerful.

By the 1950s, increasing concern about gender roles and sexuality came about at the same time that the kidnapping threat turned into fear of the sexual predator.

Today, kidnapping plays out society's fear of sexuality and abandonment and the dissolution of the American family.

"On one hand, you have the loosening of sexual taboos. On the other, you have the fear that this opening will target your child. We have women liberated from the home and the fear that a stranger in your house can kill your child when we're out at work trying to make a living." Fass said.

"We're investigating child care workers-the British au pair on trial-and hearing stories of strangers coming in and snatching our children from our homes, like with the Polly Klass case," Fass said. "In Cambridge one week we have the death of one child creating the possibility of a new law permitting capital punishment and an outcry about justice in the case of another."

Child abduction has also become a strange paradox of anxiety and titillation. It has become frightening and entertaining at the same time, evidenced by the number of newspaper, tabloid and magazine articles written about Jon Benet Ramsey.

But despite the cultural indulgence that has come to exploit the very children we seek to protect, Fass ends her book on a hopeful note.

"The more we talk about what's really bothering us, the more we see things clearly, the better off we'll be."



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail berkeleyan@pa.urel.berkeley.edu.