My mother’s family comes from a small village in Transylvania, a province horseshoed by the Carpathian Mountains and smack in the center of Romania. A shallow, purling river, the Sebeş, flows down from the foothills, cutting the village in half. With cemeteries at the edge and churches in the center, a whole string of villages—interspersed by potato and hay farmlands—hug the Sebeş’s banks. As you follow the river’s source and head up toward the mountains, the land crumples and rises, the crags beginning to molar out of uncut grass. This is where shepherds corral and tend their flocks. Facing back down into the plains, you can see steeples and roofs clustering along the river, smokestacks thrusting into the sky from a decrepit communist-era munitions factory, and the distant city of Făgăraș.
The last time I visited the village was almost a decade ago. My cousin and I drove a tractor out to visit some shepherds he knew—a long, slow, teeth-shattering haul up into the foothills. The shepherds, in rubber boots and thick smocks, greeted us laconically in their grizzled, squinting manner. They shared their muscular-smelling sheep’s cheese. My cousin had brought them gifts as well: jars of food prepared by his mother, some wine. Each of the shepherds slept, just outside of the pen, in small doghouse-size huts raised off the ground on stilts. Their quarters resembled coffins floating above the windswept grass. They had no phones or electricity, but I noticed a dirty, battery-powered radio that was flicked off just as we arrived.
Isolated shepherds living without cell phones or modern technology are not such a rarity in Romania. Parts of the country can seem suspended outside of history. As of 2016, a third of all Romanians survived by agriculture; few have ever left their villages, and only a minority have access to modern farming equipment. While electricity has reached most parts, some of my family members still drink water from a hand-drawn well. The rhythm of small village life still predominates, though it’s increasingly inflected with gas lines, indoor plumbing, and WhatsApp.
As someone brought up in the U.S. Midwest, I have always found trips back to Transylvania entrancing. Yet the visits also had a somber undertone. Those boulders and hills, that river and that now-leaning barn and sagging church-roof are part of the same landscape—and the violence that marked it—that my family escaped from in the 1960s. Those foothills led up to the mountains where my great-uncle Toma attended clandestine meetings. And then, one night, in the early 1950s, the Securitate secret police forced their way into his home in one of those small villages along the Sebeş and told him to get dressed. He barely had time to say goodbye to his parents.
The story of my great-uncle’s disappearance came together for me in pieces: stray comments, verbal detours, the occasional admonition. It’s coming together still. When I asked my grandmother about it recently, she made me promise not to use her name in anything I published. (To honor the same request, I’m not naming their village.) It’s been more than sixty years since Uncle Toma was taken away, and over fifty years since my grandmother and my grandfather and their two children, my mother and uncle, migrated to Ohio. Yet the events that led to Uncle Toma’s arrest still haunt and frighten her, as if the Romanian state forces might at any moment come pounding on her door. “I knew things,” my grandmother told me, referring to Toma’s underground activities. “I know things, but I don’t know anything. You never tell. Never tell, honey.”
Postwar Romania was one of the least stable states in Europe. After supporting the Nazis for much of the war, the country’s nationalist leadership pulled a volte-face to align with the Russians, who installed a puppet interim government in 1945. Soon the local Communist Party (PCR) dissolved all other parties and, in 1947, the last king of Romania was forced to abdicate. The power vacuum enabled the rise of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, an apparatchik of Stalinist persuasion, whose forces dispossessed much of the country’s privately held land (including my family’s small farm), quartered soldiers in homes, and conscripted men into military service and hard labor.
The story of my great-uncle’s disappearance came together for me in pieces: stray comments, verbal detours, the occasional admonition. It’s coming together still.
My grandfather was forced into the military, days after he married my grandmother. But instead of a gun, he was handed a shovel, and he spent years digging trenches and laying roads, with little in the way of food or leave. His brother, Toma, was the family darling and prodigy, the only child sent to high school in Făgăraș, where he got involved in anti-government organizing. There had been underground student groups forming throughout the country—some Marxist, some fascist, some sui generis. Depending on who I ask, Toma was variously involved or even a budding leader in one such group.
There is some dispute in my family over what exactly his crime was, but Toma was either caught carrying anti-government pamphlets or listening to anti-government radio that was broadcasts from diaspora communities in the United States. Probably, he committed both crimes. His arrest was part of a larger wave of suppression. In the 1950s, there were mass arrests, forced labor, executions, and disappearances in Romania. About a half a million people were rounded up and sent to labor camps, one of many things forgotten in the era of postbellum triumphalism.
For the past decade or so, I have found myself increasingly, at times inexplicably, drawn to the topic of disappearance. I read about it in fiction: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter, among many others. I translated Anabel Hernández’s A Massacre in Mexico, dragging myself, sentence by sentence, through the excruciating details of the case of the forty-three disappeared normal school students from Ayotzinapa. As a volunteer with No More Deaths, a migrant rights organization in Arizona, I helped author a report about migrants who went missing in the desert as they crossed the U.S.–Mexico border. I wrote articles, reviewed books and films on the subject. And I pored over reports about the disappeared as they vanished across the globe.
Yet it was only while reading the scholar Daniel Heller-Roazen’s new book, Absentees: On Variously Missing Persons, that it first struck me that my great uncle had been forcibly disappeared. It was an experience we had all, in some way, been a part of—this is what Absentees snapped into focus. Absence, as Heller-Roazen shows, is so much more than presence’s inverse. Those who disappear are never neatly cut out of society. They are torn, leaving behind the shreds of a wound in those who remain.
Heller-Roazen’s book is a catalog and cultural history of the ways in which human beings have been rendered less than fully present. While it may sound like an absolute dissolution of being, there is, he argues, a spectrum of non-personhood. All absences have their own legal or epistemological colorings, and Heller-Roazen organizes the typologies. His first category is vanishings (when a person has gone missing and their legal persona remains); then lessenings (when a person is present but their legal persona is diminished); and finally survivals (when a person dies but their persona lingers).
Much of Heller-Roazen’s attention is drawn to literature—from the Icelandic sagas and Arabian Nights to Kafka and Wordsworth—though he also weaves in accounts from legal and religious scholarship, and history. A representative focus is the eponymous character from Luigi Pirandello’s novel The Late Mattia Pascal, about a man who gets a chance to begin life afresh after he’s mistakenly presumed dead. He is initially delighted to be rid of his dreary wife and dead-end job but soon comes to lament that “playing dead is not a good profession.” And though Pirandello’s plot is playful, sometimes ridiculous, there is an existential, wracking concern. “There exists a survival beyond the law,” Heller-Roazen writes. That remainder is what interests us. Through such analysis, Absentees offers a framework for seeing the world from the viewpoint of those who are only partly in it, as well as for those who’ve recently left.
Heller-Roazen pinpoints the critical moment in the thirteenth century when European canon lawyers realized they could “sunder the legal persona from the individual body.” The maneuver was meant, in part, to deal with the confusion surrounding people who had gone missing and become legal deadweights to their spouses and family. What to do with their contracts, claims, debts, marriage licenses? The separation of our legal and physical bodies allowed for a more insidious practice: a person could be absented even while still physically present, such as when they are imprisoned, enslaved, or marked with ignominy. The technical Roman term for such an action was a capitis deminutio, or “decrease of the head”—a person is rendered as a legal thing, “as dead, although they are alive.” “Someone, assisted by something such as law, religion, or a social force, declares some human body to be unworthy of fully presenting itself or to be, for one of many reasons, unfit to claim proper personhood,” Heller-Roazen writes.
Such carving-ups of personhood are more common than we think. The legal demi-presence of well over half of all residents was written into the founding documents of the United States: with women entirely overlooked, the Indigenous legally ignored even as they were murdered and dispossessed, and enslaved people counted as three-fifths of their persons in a perverse concession to slave-holding states. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass writes that he “was generally introduced as a ‘chattel’—a ‘thing’—a piece of southern ‘property’—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak.”
The Thirteenth Amendment might have outlawed chattel slavery, but it carved out an exception as punishment for having committed a crime. As Eric Foner explains in his history of the Reconstruction Era, The Second Founding, “To this day, persons convicted of crimes are routinely subjected to involuntary servitude while incarcerated and to otherwise prohibited forms of discrimination—in employment, access to housing, and the right to vote—even after serving their sentences.” Current disenfranchisement laws in eleven states strip voting rights from people convicted of felonies. A similar civil death can take place when a person crosses the border, as they may be unrecognized, marked by being unmarked with legal status, and stripped of rights. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes in The Undocumented Americans, “As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram.”
The Wrong Goodbye
Forced disappearance became a favored political tactic in the twentieth century, as nation states got their hands on modern technologies of transportation and violence. Where the state once consumed individuals, in the Hobbesian sense, it could now also annul them. Regimes have opted for disappearances over public persecution to create confusion and disorder, to make anyone and everyone fear they could be next. One of the paradoxes of the crime is that it is both overt and covert. It is meant as both signal and warning, and yet the message is never explicitly articulated. By their very nature, a comprehensive catalog of forced disappearances is impossible.
Absence, as Heller-Roazen shows, is so much more than presence’s inverse. Those who disappear are never neatly cut out of society.
In sheer numbers, the Nazi Party probably disappeared the most people. Hitler’s Night and Fog Decree was designed to remove detainees from occupied foreign territories to concentration camps in the Reich, where they were held or quietly eliminated. While the Nazis kept meticulous documentation, survivors often had to wait decades to learn of a family member’s fate, and many never got that closure. Stalin, too, executed or disappeared over a million people during the “Great Purge.” In following decades, millions more were sent to the gulags.
Disappearances in the latter half of the century have garnered more attention, especially in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile—where the term is said to have originated. Regimes in those countries disappeared into black sites or threw out of aircraft tens of thousands, many of whose relatives continue searching for them today. A new book by Tessa Bridal, The Dark Side of Memory, poignantly captures the specific traumas when children, including babies, were disappeared from their parents. Many were born in torture centers and “adopted” out to adults friendly to the regimes.
These state crimes in Latin America spurred international organizations to recognize forced disappearances as a human rights violation, as stipulated in a 1992 UN declaration. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that the UN finalized the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which recognizes the “extreme seriousness of enforced disappearance, which constitutes a crime and, in certain circumstances defined in international law, a crime against humanity.” It is largely in retrospect that the international community saw violations in other parts of the world as constituting the specific offense. Governments and state-backed forces in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Iran, and Syria have all disappeared civilians in the thousands.
Though they are outlawed under international convention, disappearances today continue apace. This despite near-blanket surveillance in some parts of the world, and near-constant digital contact. In the last fifteen years, state forces or state-backed paramilitary cartels have disappeared around eighty thousand people in Mexico, what one report called the nation’s “silent mass disaster.” Most of those missing are surely dead, scattered across the country’s mass and clandestine graves. Meanwhile, the U.S. border enforcement regime has pushed thousands to die alone and forever out of view in the southwestern deserts.
I recently wrote about a man from Syria who was picked up in Greece by armed commandos—likely agents of the European Union’s border agency, Frontex—and kept incommunicado for three years. I asked him if he had felt like he had been disappeared. “That was exactly what it felt like,” he told me. “I felt like I didn’t exist, that I was nothing.”
Chain of Doubt
My great-uncle Toma disappeared one night in the 1950s. And then, ten years later, he reappeared. When I spoke with my mother, uncle, and grandmother recently, I heard three distinct versions of his return. It was either the morning or the middle of the night; he wore a yellow coat reduced to a rag or a sheepskin blanket over his shoulders; it was my mother, a neighbor, or his parents who first spotted him. The three spoke of his return in the same tone they used to describe his departure: as if in slow-wincing remembrance of what they had endured.
As years passed, Toma slowly opened up, telling snippets of stories. From these we gathered that he was forced into hard labor in a salt mine, was starved, participated in hunger strikes, and underwent years of torture. One family member later dug up Uncle Toma’s prison certificate, which mentioned a stint at the infamous Periprava labor camp, where inmates were sometimes worked to death. In 2016, one of the camp’s former commanders was tried and convicted. At his trial, a former prisoner testified, “We were forced to cut reed, sometimes covered in water to the waist, together with the water rats and the leeches. We were full of pus-filled wounds from that Periprava sand.” The prisoner recounted that he and others drank water from the Danube so as not to die of thirst.
I never met Uncle Toma, but the streaks of emotion and pain were always palpable in stories about him. Even as a child, I could tell how raw the wounds still were in my family. It was Toma’s oldest grandson, with whom I’ve never discussed the topic, who took me to visit the shepherds in the foothills. Looking down at the string of villages tied to the Sebeş, at the munitions factory slowly being dismantled by scavengers, the stories cast a dark shadow. Toma wasn’t the only one to have gone missing from the village. Almost everyone had someone who wasn’t there. We were, in some regards, lucky. After a decade, our family got closure.
In some ways, a disappearance is worse than death. The disappeared are removed from the sequence of time—not ended, just interrupted. This makes the possibilities of what they are enduring seem endless: overwhelming both thought and grief. The Jewish legal term agunah refers to a woman whose husband has gone missing and yet remains “anchored” or “chained” to him and cannot remarry. It’s not the impossibility of remarriage that binds her to the missing member, but another emotional chain—of doubt, of hope, of pain. In The Return, his memoir of his father’s disappearance in Libya, Hisham Matar puts this starkly: “I envy the finality of funerals. I covet the certainty.”
I heard differing accounts from my family about another part of Toma’s story—how he died. He was in a field burning the stubble left from a straw harvest, a task that I once helped my cousins with, pitchforking crop duff into piles, with waves of heat breaking over my face. When the fire began spreading out of control, he frantically tried to smother the blaze, felt a pain rip inside his chest, and, amidst the crack and moan of the flames, died of heart failure. Or, according to my grandmother, someone from the government purposefully set the field ablaze. When I pressed her again by phone recently, she said she would have to wait to talk to me in person. “We’ll go into a room, close the door, and I can tell you.”