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Monday, May 11, 2009

After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Changed Everything

When I was in high school, I attended a writer's conference at which I heard true crime writer Ann Rule speak. I found her so fascinating that I immediately checked out several of her books. Although gritty and raw, the books fascinated me, especially from a psychological point of few. Her experience with Ted Bundy (chronicled in her first book The Stranger Beside Me), especially, made an impact with its underlying question - How well can we ever really know the people around us? As compelling as her books are, their gruesome details soon got to be too much for me. I abandoned Rule years ago and never re-visited the genre she made popular. That is, until Hachette Book Group sent me a copy of After Etan by journalist Lisa R. Cohen. Like Rule's books, Cohen's is interesting and well-written (although Rule's style is less clinical, more readable), but also filled with so much human nastiness that it reminded me why I quit true crime books in the first place.

The book discusses the case of Etan Patz (pronounced AYTAHN PATES), a 6-year-old who disappeared from New York's SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979. The first-grader had been begging his mother all year to let him walk the 2 blocks to his bus stop. She had finally relented. But Etan never made it to school. He vanished, plunging his family - and parents all over the country - into a terrifying nightmare that jolted them out of their innocence. Suddenly, families became all too aware of the acute danger posed by sexual predators who preyed on children, an increasing problem that until then hadn't received enough attention. Fear made parents more vigilant - for a time, anyway. As the months wore on, all the Missing posters, neighborhood canvassing, televised pleas and police interviews came to naught. Blonde-haired blue-eyed Etan didn't turn up. Neither did his corpse.

As the case slowly went cold, new atrocities hit the news, burying the story of Etan's disappearance under fresh horrors. His parents still dutifully recorded every phone call they recevied, traipsed down to the police station for interviews and polygraphs, and investigated every "look alike" the detectives found, but one thing soon became obvious: The case was at a stand still. Federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois knew he couldn't let the case stagnate, couldn't let the Patzes down - determined to figure out what happened to Etan, he spent years in a dogged pursuit of the truth. After investigating several possible suspects, including the parents themselves, he honed in on a drifter with a history of violence toward children. GraBois refused to give up, even when Jose Antonio Ramos denied knowing Etan Patz. Although he never got a full confession out of Ramos, and never learned exactly what happened to the missing boy, the prosecutor's tenacious investigation of other of Ramos' victims put the dangerous predator away for the better part of his life. Maybe GraBois didn't crack the Etan Patz case wide open, but he did the next best thing - made sure Ramos could never again hurt a child. Without solid evidence to prove Ramos killed Etan, the child's case remains one of New York's unsolved mysteries.

Now, you're probably saying, "I guess there's no point in reading the book - Susan's just told me the whole plot." Well, that's correct, although the truth is that although this book chronicles the Etan Patz case, it's almost more about what happened because of the case: Because of Etan's disappearance, parents everywhere got a wake-up call about sexual predators. Because of his parents' ability to turn their own grief into something worthwhile, systems and laws were created that better protect and serve children. Because of young boys who bravely told their stories, a monster is behind bars. What started with man's inhumanity to man (although we don't know exactly what happened to Etan, we can assume it was nothing good) grew into something powerful, something important. It may have been too late to save Etan, but those whom he inspired have worked tirelessly to bring justice for all abused children. And that's what this story is really about.

Curiously, the thing I find most interesting about true crime stories - the psychological history of the perpetrator - was almost absent from After Etan. I think we all want to know what turns an innocent child into a person capable of committing unspeakable acts against another person. The book really didn't go into Ramos' history, which made the story seem incomplete. Maybe the investigators were just never able to turn up much information, but I would have liked to know (or maybe I'm better off not knowing) what made this guy tick. Other than that, I have no real criticisms. After Etan is certainly raw, it's definitely graphic, but it's also powerful and compelling. It's really a tribute to the dedication of law enforcement professionals, the bravery of victims courageous enough to speak out, and the plight of grieving families who allow their lives to be doubly torn apart in pursuit of justice. The fact that this book was published at all speaks volumes about the ability of one child to slip under our skin and into our hearts, pushing us harder to protect the most vulnerable among us - our children.

Grade: B

P.S. Interestingly, After Etan contains a couple of literary references. It includes a quote by Anna Quindlen, who worked for the New York Times between the late 1970s and early '90s. It also talks about Beth Gutcheon, who interviewed Julie Patz (Etan's mother) as part of her research for Still Missing. When the book came out, Julie was startled to find that the story mirrored her own so closely. Although she was grateful to Gutcheon for keeping the issue of missing kids in the spotlight, the novel "felt invasive to Julie, who also worried that readers would confuse the novel's fictional details - the disintegrating marriage of the boy's bereft parents, for example - with the real-life story of her family" (68). Interesting.

(Book image from After Etan's website)


  1. Could not ever read this book. I'm freaked out just by your review.

  2. I am definitely going to check this book out. As horrifying as it is, I am interested in reading these books and trying to understand how and why these things happen.

  3. Actually, I just found your blog recently and wanted to tell you I've been here several times in the last few days! I love your layout and your conversational style!


  4. You know what's great? I recently commented in one of my blog posts that I'm obsessed with Law & Order SVU but that most of my books are not crime fiction at all.

    I ended up reading Harlan Coben's The Woods to satiate that craving and did not even consider non fiction! Gosh, I remember when Bundy was electrocuted here in Florida. Thanks for the review.

  5. I don't read too much true crime, but this one does sound interesting. I think I can handle a certain amount of grittyness in a book as long as there is a point to it.


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