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Checking the exits: The hope of pseudocide - Daniel Silliman

What did he take with him? What did he leave behind?

John Darwin allegedly faked his own death, disappearing from a canoe, only to be discovered, alive again, this month, five years after he reportedly died.

He walked into an English police station and said, "I believe I am a missing person," and he claimed to have had amnesia, but he looked tan and it turns out he's been living off life insurance money in a big waterfront house down in Panama.

The news splashed all over the British press -- for a public more amused than shocked, more fascinated than disapproving -- and made it over to America and onto slate.com, last week. Now I find myself wondering about the details of Darwin's disappearance. I don't wonder why he did it. I don't find myself surprised he did it.

But I want to know how.

"Pseudocide," faking one's own death, has an enduring place in popular culture, regularly revived by stories about our favorite celebrities who may, or may not, have committed pseudocide. We talk about Elvis. We talk about Andy Kaufman. We talk about D.B. Cooper. Rather than being disturbed by the idea they wandered off in a faux-amenesia, a self-imposed exile, of sorts, we hope they made it.

We live a modern society where everyone's tracked, where everyone's classified according to Capitalism, where debt and credit and Google, taxes and utility bills and pay stubs all quantify and, maybe even, qualify our lives.

I understand why we sometimes want to quit everything. I look at my cell phone bill, and I can feel why Darwin would want it all behind him. We have all felt the crush of the system, have all felt trapped by our belongings, tethered by our responsibilities.

I write stories regularly about criminals who've fled and been tracked down by the U.S. Marshals. Every time they're caught because they kept their cell phone, went to their mother's house, or, in some way, couldn't make the break from the life they knew. We're all glad they've been caught, but part of me always wonders when it became so impossible to leave.

Is there no way out?

Darwin's desire to disappear is really common. What's amazing, what's weirdly inspiring, is the sort of hope he must have had to go through with it. Amateur therapists would have told him that you can't run away from yourself, but this man really believed that his problems were situational, and he could alter his fate. He found the faith to think he wasn't doomed to live life as it was.

That's the sort of hope that causes immigrants, religious converts and political reformers. It's fantastical, delusional, ridiculous, and also deeply redemptive. As wild-eyed as it is to believe we can completely change our lives, it's also our only hope at being saved from the drudgery of destiny. As much as our modern world is constructed out of these inescapable entanglements, it's also built by those who slipped free, those who quit, broke away, or found a way to refuse -- those who didn't accept the pre-existing order of things.

That fantasy has been held up, at least since Achilles quit fighting the Trojans. Achilles refused to wage war in exchange for wages, saying, "Men can steal cattle, fat sheep, get tripods, herds of horses. But no man gets his life back, not by theft or plunder, once it has flown out from him, passed beyond the barrier of his teeth."

We recall the dream of "really living" when we imagine our own getaways, our own pseudocides -- beach houses, faked deaths, new jobs, new worlds.

In truth, Elvis is dead and Darwin is a cheap con. There's no way out, no escape clause, no new world. But when we talk about pseudocide, we find ourselves idly dreaming, tenatively hoping, and secretly checking the exits.

Daniel Silliman covers crime and courts for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.