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Etan Patz is Dead

The gruesome disappearance which spawned the “missing children” movement.

I grew up in New York City in the aftermath of an event that changed the way people parented in New York — the disappearance of Etan Patz, missing since 1979, when he left his mother’s sight for a few minutes walking to his school bus. The details of this story are described relentlessly in Lisa Cohen’s new book After Etan: The Missing Child Case that Held America Captive (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99). It turns out that the words “Etan Patz” are code. “To many Americans, and to an entire generation of New Yorkers,” Cohen writes, “the two words are synonymous with suddenly, mysteriously, losing a child forever.” I had never known the terrifying details. Now, after having read the book, I’m not sure I’m glad that I do.

The book reads like a combination of a detective story and a police report. It begins on a cloudy May morning, and ends, chillingly, with the hovering date of 2014, when Jose Ramos is expected to be released from prison. We think, but are not certain, that he is the man who abducted, sodomized, murdered and destroyed the body of the blond boy who had just learned to pour chocolate milk for himself, and who would become the first missing child whose photo would appear on milk cartons nationwide.

Cohen, a journalist, re-creates for the reader a tiny fraction of the agony the Patz family has been living with for almost 30 years. She makes a compelling case against Ramos, but then reveals, horrifyingly, that the proof of his guilt is not substantial enough to keep him in jail (he is serving a sentence now for the abduction of another boy, who testified against him). But the gruesome facts could have been summarized in a page, and this intimate sharing of years of agonized searching for the sake of a story feels like voyeurism.

The most valuable parts of the book — a few pages in the beginning and the end — describe Julie Patz, Etan’s mother. A convert to Judaism who left her family and her background to marry her husband and raise a family in New York City, she responded to this tragedy with action. She and her husband managed to raise their two other children, Shira and Ari, and were responsible for helping to create a movement for missing and exploited children, and numerous childprotection laws. She became a school librarian, and then principal, and nurtured generations of children, showering them with kindness, love, and attention.

She even helped to teach their parents how to give them the independence she believed was healthy and necessary for children. She worked at a middle school that allowed its students to leave the building for lunch. “Every year,” writes Cohen, “a few parents balked at giving the necessary permission… Julie would intervene… to plead a student’s case.” Despite what had happened to her son, she poignantly instructed her students’ parents: “they have to grow and gain confidence in themselves… you can’t lock them in the house or in class.”

I don’t know if Julie Patz would recommend this book. I would, instead, recommend her example: a dedication to the vulnerable and the innocent, and a life of action, imbued with grace, courage, and compassion.

Maya Bernstein works as Director of Education for UpStart, a nonprofit that supports Jewish social entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, and is a frequent contributor to the Lilith blog and e-jewish philanthropy.