By JOE NOCERA
New York Times News Service
When you drive into Bloomington, Ind., a classic college town of 82,000 dominated by Indiana University, one of the first things you see is a large, handmade billboard with the picture of a pretty young woman. Next to her picture is her name, Lauren Spierer, and, in bold red letters, the word “MISSING.” More than two years ago, Lauren, who was finishing her sophomore year, disappeared.
Her parents, Rob and Charlene Spierer, who live in Westchester, N.Y., immediately flew to Bloomington, where they stayed for the next six months, organizing search parties, printing fliers, and working round the clock to find their daughter. Private people, they nonetheless held daily news conferences alongside the police. “You have a singular purpose,” Rob Spierer told me a few weeks ago, “and that is to find your child.”
There came a point, however, when the police told the Spierers that the search effort was going to become a recovery effort instead, which meant that the authorities had come to believe that Lauren was dead. The daily news conferences gradually tapered off, as did the searches.
And eventually, the Spierers returned home. Although they, too, believe their daughter is dead, they have never stopped trying to find out what happened. Last month, Charlene posted an open letter, her third, the purpose of which was to prick the conscience of someone who might know why Lauren disappeared. In speaking to the Spierers, I came to realize that their goal is less to track down some guilty party than it is just to simply understand what happened.
“Not knowing is a nightmare,” Charlene said. “Having the knowledge of what happened would help us deal with her loss in a way we can’t right now,” Rob added.
What brought the disappearance of Lauren Spierer to mind was the news this week that New York police had discovered the identity of a slain girl they dubbed Baby Hope. On the one hand, the two cases are very different: More than two decades ago, the remains of a small girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, were found in a cooler that had been left on the side of the Henry Hudson Parkway in Washington Heights. It wasn’t her body that was missing; it was her identity.
But I think the reason I associate the two stories is that at some point along the way, the detectives assigned to the case had much the same motivation as the Spierers. They embraced Baby Hope, and as they did they developed a profound need to know what had happened, a need that transcended the desire to nab a killer in a case that gone cold a long time ago.
To an unusual degree for a case so old, the police kept the investigation alive, regularly staking out her gravestone, driving around with loudspeakers asking for information, and tacking up posters. Incredibly, those efforts paid off recently when someone made the link between Baby Hope and a long-ago conversation with a person who talked about a relative who’d been killed. Although the police have held back most of the details, it is clear that they are in the process of developing a narrative that goes beyond the crime that was committed, but will give a deep picture of Baby Hope’s short, tragic life.
I have a friend, a former next-door neighbor named John Todd, whose brother Sam disappeared one night from the streets of New York in 1983. Sam was 24, and attending Yale Divinity School when he disappeared. When I asked John recently what the search for his brother had been like, he made it sound a lot like what the Spierers did when they learned that Lauren was missing. But in addition to the search itself, John recalls that “we began to pry into Sam’s life, almost in the hope that there was something bad in there, like a big debt.” They were looking for a reason that might make Sam’s disappearance understandable. But Sam’s life yielded no clues.
For years afterward, says John, “I would walk the streets of New York, thinking that I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I realize that I was driven not only by the desire to see him, but also to finally find out what had happened.”
I asked John if he had ever thought about why the need to know was so powerful. He told me that he thought it had to do with our natural, unconscious tendency to see ourselves as different from a person who’s been victimized. When someone we know disappears, seemingly without any reason, it puts us face to face with how random life can be. And that is hard to accept.
One hopes that the Spierers will one day find some answers — and the solace that comes of knowing what happened.