- Last Updated: 1:21 PM, May 27, 2012
- Posted: 12:59 AM, May 27, 2012
Thirty-three years ago this weekend, when I was 9 years old, police arrived at our front door to search for Etan Patz.
The 6-year-old had disappeared without a trace, seemingly vanished into the air. Just a child, I was convinced they’d come to the right place. I let them in, confident they’d find him in the kitchen having a snack, or in the basement reading a comic book. When they’d gone through every room and hadn’t found him, I thought they hadn’t been thorough.
It turns out I was right. They weren’t — not then, and possibly, not even now.
For obvious reasons we wanted him found. Parents feared for their children, children feared for themselves, and everyone feared for Etan. His sudden and incomprehensible disappearance trapped us in an interminable uncertainty. The not knowing introduced a dimension in the universe unknown to us. The world became exquisitely unsafe, not only because our childhood fears were validated — you could be suddenly snatched by strangers — but because something we hadn’t known was revealed: a person could instantly vanish. Etan Patz had simply disappeared, fallen into an invisible tear in the fabric of the universe, redefining the world as an object with hidden trap doors any of us could fall through.
With the other kids, I rode my bike around the neighborhood, searching for him, telling everyone to look for him, and we were quick with our sightings.
We wanted so desperately to find him that we saw him everywhere — at the lumber store, in Washington Square Park, on the subway. He continued to be lost and we continued to believe we’d find him.
The whirlwind arrest and confession of Pedro Hernandez reminds me of the scrambling urgency we felt those first months: the compulsion to find resolve so we could be released from the uncertainty.
But I don’t feel a resolution, because I don’t yet believe him. A confession, it turns out, is not enough.
Thirty years ago, Hernandez allegedly confessed to police, only to be dismissed as a “raving lunatic.” Now, he’s perfectly lucid and “tells a compelling story.” How is it possible that a person without a criminal record murders a little boy he’s never met before for no other reason than an urge which hadn’t gripped him before, or in the 33 years since?
“I don’t know,” does not a motive make. What is going on here? Is there something the cops aren’t telling us?
If what he says is true, then what to make of the investigation? Etan Patz disappeared on the first day of a holiday weekend, this holiday weekend. I remember the neighborhood then, the piles of purses discarded like trash on rooftops after snatchings, and the actual garbage, growing piles of teeming black bags. There were 100 cops out that first night alone and no one went through the pyramid of waste? Not one person witnessed the peculiar sight of a teenage boy lugging a heavy garbage bag for nearly two entire blocks in broad daylight?
Since the day he disappeared, many of us operated under a best-case scenario — that he’d been taken and was being raised as someone’s son. Etan was alive, we just needed to figure out where he was.
The idea that he died that day, his first walk alone to the school bus, minutes after saying goodbye to his mother, doesn’t fit with the narrative I’ve grown up with my entire life, the story that kept him missing, allowing me to hold on to the hope of his return. He remained 6 in my mind, and while I aged and he didn’t, he was still not dead, not even when his parents legally declared him so.
The truth is, whether or not Pedro Hernandez killed Etan Patz, there is no closure or relief. To those who grew up with his disappearance, he will always be missing and a part of us will always wait for his return because that’s what we’ve been doing almost our entire lives.
To accept this confession is to close the one door we’ve spent our entire lives holding open, just in case.
Amanda Stern is the author of the novel “The Long Haul.” She runs the critically acclaimed music and reading series Happy Ending at Joe’s Pub.