- Missing Persons: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Disappeared ed. by Derek Congram
"And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,/this the nightmare you wake screaming from:/being forever/in the pre-trembling of a house that falls," writes the poet Galway Kinnell, in a poem addressed to his infant daughter.1 The words "missing person" evoke this same feeling: the sense of an emergency that has become frozen in time, a disaster that may have already happened but whose dimensions one does not yet fully comprehend. To mourn is to know, with certainty, that you have lost someone, and to mark that loss. But when a person is missing—neither certainly dead nor certainly alive—loved ones are thrown into a state sometimes called "ambiguous loss." Ambiguous loss "freeze[s] . . . the grief process" with no possibility for closure.2 The house keeps [End Page 758] trembling, but never falls. This uncertainty and anxiety, this empty space that cannot be filled, can be worse than mourning, worse than the reality of disaster.
There is another, overlooked dimension to the category of "missing persons." The "work of mourning" is often a communal affair; but out of preference or as a last resort it can also be conducted by individuals and in private.3 Sophocles' Antigone, most famously, took the matter of mourning into her own hands, in defiance of the law. But to have someone missing is almost always to find oneself dependent on others: investigators, police, lawyers, charities, the hospitals and shelters that may have taken the missing person in, or the morgue where a dead body awaits identification. Those who search for their own missing enter a network of institutions, some benevolent and others not, that modernity has made responsible for keeping track of persons—for making live and letting die, in Michel Foucault's famous formulation, but also for finding us and making us disappear.4 For this reason, as forensic anthropologist Lorena Valencia Caballero says in a recent article about Mexico's disappeared, families of the missing often acquire knowledge about "a thousand things they should never have had to learn," especially regarding institutions and bureaucratic processes they once had the luxury of ignoring.5
Missing Persons: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Disappeared provides multiple windows into the processes by which families, communities, professionals of various stripes, governments, and nongovernmental organizations become involved in the search for the missing. Though it shares topical terrain with other recent volumes about post-conflict and post-disaster forensic science, the dead body, and disappearance, Missing Persons is notable for the balance of contributions from scholars in many fields, as well as people whose work involves searching for the missing on a daily basis. It is also unique for the amount of material focused on missing persons in North America (or, in some cases, from North America but now buried in foreign soil), including the results of colonial violence against indigenous populations in Canada, recovery of the remains of United States and Canadian soldiers, and the human rights crisis at the US-Mexico border.6
The volume is dedicated to the families of missing persons, and Clyde Collins Snow. Snow was the famed forensic anthropologist who pioneered the practice of forensic science in the service of human rights. He promoted a model of scientifically rigorous but also victim-centered medico-legal investigation in Argentina, Guatemala, and at US-based organizations, such as my former employer, Physicians for Human Rights.7 Snow died in May 2014, and the book's epitaph for "a man who taught so many of us how to work to bring a measure of [End Page 759] peace to these families" pays due homage to his generosity as a mentor.8
Beginning with a portrait of Clyde Snow also helps to clarify the focus of a book whose title could indicate many things. Missing Persons is dedicated to a pioneering forensic anthropologist and edited by Derek Congram, an archaeologist, anthropologist, and independent forensic consultant—in other words, two people who specialize in...