The DNA tests proved it. Fifty-three year old John Barnes is not long lost toddler Stephen Damman, missing since 1955 after his mother briefly left him outside a Long Island bakery, something she has now lived to regret for over 50 years. As much as I'm sorry that the Dammans have not found their son, there's a tiny, counterintuitive, part of me that thinks it's better for some other families that they haven't.
As someone who has spent years talking to the parents of Etan Patz, I've heard the anguish of living with that never-ending question mark. Etan was the beautiful, blond six-year old boy who disappeared thirty years ago last month, on a day marked annually as National Missing Children's Day. His smiling face haunted us from signs on New York City lampposts and street corners and made him, quite literally, the poster child for missing children everywhere.
The phrase I heard over and over again during my research was "the worst part was the not knowing." Not just from the Patzes, but as the mantra of every family of a missing child. Should we put his toys away, should we stop speaking of him in the present tense, should we begin to mourn his death, so we can struggle our way through that mourning period? As the years drag on, the goal becomes an ending of any kind, even if it is ultimately blind acceptance of the worst possible outcome.
In 1980, as the first year of the Patzes vigil waned, Stan and Julie had begun to allow themselves to do just that, even as they publicly maintained an optimistic front. But then, ten long months into the futile search for Etan, a fourteen-year old named Steven Stayner was famously recovered on the streets of Northern California, seven years after he'd been snatched from his family. And the Patzes were filled both with a revived hope, but also with the new certainty that unless they actually found their son or his body, there would never be a date after which they could assume the worst...and move on.
When CBS News "Sunday Morning" interviewed Stan and Julie soon afterward, the reporter asked if they could conceive of waiting seven years. Their answer is even more poignant today. "We would keep a little glimmer of hope," Stan replied. "But if someone had told us on May 26, 1979 that we'd be waiting ten months we'd have sunk into depression. If it takes seven years, so be it."
"We can't determine when it's going to end; IF it's going to end," Julie added. "We'll wait as long as we have to." "And then we'll wait longer," Stan finished.
By 1982, the third anniversary, the passage of time had eroded their stoicism, like flowing water carves out a riverbed as it pounds against earth and stone. Even if Etan were to be found, his father sometimes thought that, by this point, he would never really be theirs again. The damage done could take more than a lifetime of love and healing to undo.
Finally, in 2001, almost twenty years later, Stan Patz had his son declared legally dead in order to file a lawsuit against the man authorities believe is Etan's killer. But Stan had already accepted for years that his son wasn't coming home. If it's not a reason for complete certainty, 22 years is long enough to know in your heart.
Now think how long fifty years is. That's two generations. So if John Barnes HAD turned out to be little Stephen Damman, every parent out there who's been struggling to move on would be walloped anew with the message that 7 years, even 22 years, is not enough. Nor is 30. Or 40. Even though, in reality it almost never happens that way. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children figures at least 15 people over the last ten years have come to them with the belief they had "recovered themselves." None of them were right. But when their stories cause a media storm, like the Damman case did, that in turn stirs up a deep reservoir of grief and guilt -- for not having enough faith their child is still out there, and for having "lost" him in the first place.
When I began to write the Patzes' story a few years ago, Stan told me about yet another lost soul who was emailing him. This one was convinced she'd been married to Etan, now in the process of divorcing him. His grown up features resembled Etan's (I saw the picture -- they did) and he had no photos of himself before the age of six. At some time and emotional expense, Stan good-naturedly agreed to hand over a DNA sample, a mouth swab from a kit she sent him. Mostly he did it because he's that kind of helpful guy, but also, maybe, because the woman's request tapped into Stan's reservoir, and he just couldn't ignore that. Nothing came of it, but I'm sure that thirty years into this case, it's not the last time the phone will ring, or the email will ping.
And no, I don't really wish that the Dammans hadn't reunited with their son. Of course such a bittersweet moment is better than the alternative. Maybe what I really wish is that this sensational news story, ricocheting off the computers of millions; tweeted, blogged, and trumpeted in tabloid headlines, could have waited for the DNA results before it broke. A lot of protective scars might have remained intact. Instead this story undoubtedly drew fresh blood.
Follow Lisa Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AfterEtan