‘How to Disappear in America Without a Trace’, by Jennifer Down


This is an edited version of the reading given by Jennifer Down at the Late Night Lit: Cult Friction event at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival.

In December 2013 I was in Los Angeles. It was cold, even for that time of year. I left a plastic bottle of orange juice on the windowsill of my motel room overnight and it froze. In a small bookstore in Chinatown, I bought a zine for five dollars. It was called Vanishing Point: How to Disappear in America Without a Trace. It’s a little smaller than A5 size, with a sensible blue cover that bears its title. The paper is white and very thin, like the pages of a hymn book. On the first page, before the table of contents, it says:

The following text is an edited reprint of an anonymous upload to The Skeptic Tank website http://www.skeptic-tank.org. Everything you read here should be considered opinion and idle speculation. The contact information on groups and individuals who can assist you may be out-of-date so plan your disappearance accordingly.

There are many good reasons to run and hide from people (or the government) just as there are many bad reasons. Please don’t take the existence of this text as any endorsement of any kind.

And it pretty much does what it says on the box. It’s an essay on leaving your life behind. Chapter by chapter, it details what you need to do in order to erase yourself.

Some of the tips are practical:

Total destruction of automobiles can be accomplished easily enough: Add long-grain rice to the car’s radiator fluid. If you’ve been a house wife for decades, you may not know that much about cars so here’s what you look for.

There’s a passage on which deserts are recommended to hide in, information on what to bring with you when freight hopping, tips on running from ground forces and helicopters, and a whole chapter called ‘Checkpoints on America’s Highways – People Looking for You’.

The writing is functional and unspectacular; though occasionally, there’s something almost poetic about it:

Section II: Understand Who or What You’re Hiding From

Section III: Throw Away Yourself and Build a New You

Section IV: Keep from Depositing Traces of Yourself

I’ve never wanted to leave my life behind, and I’ve never had cause to run from law enforcement, or hide from the government. But I have wanted to disappear.

One of the finest books I’ve read this year is Fiona Wright’s exquisite Small Acts of Disappearance, a collection of essays on hunger; or rather, on her relationship to hunger and her eating disorder. She writes:

Miniatures, too-small things, are always scale models; they do not exist except as a representation of something else, or more precisely, as an exemplar of something less carefully-crafted, less constructed … To be miniature, then, is to occupy space differently, and especially, pointedly, to have a different occupation of public space … I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible.

When I read this I felt caught out, somehow. I was on the train on my way to work and I had to put my fist to my mouth to keep from sobbing. Wright is talking, of course, about the anorectic manner of thinking, but I understand very well the desire to erase your physical form in the absence of being able to literally disappear. When I say this, I’m thinking about the discomfort of being asked How are you? or What have you been up to?; the way that when I’m at my saddest, to be reminded that I exist is too much to bear. I’m thinking about the way I move through space trying not to disturb the air, and the way everything I do is undertaken to bother or touch others as little as possible. I never sit on trains when I’m alone so I can avoid drawing attention to myself when I say Excuse me or pick my way across the folded legs. When I was twenty I dyed my hair for the first and only time, brown, thinking it was somehow less conspicuous than the blonde I’ve had since I was a baby. I have never struggled with an eating disorder, but the symptoms of my own mental illness are obliquely related to food. When I’m anxious, I gag violently and inexplicably. When I’m very anxious, I vomit. All this is linked to that question Wright raises about deserving—or more precisely, not deserving—to occupy physical space. I have longed to disappear.

It fascinates me from a writing perspective, too. In some ways, to write is to disappear from your own life and become someone else. In this way, I think it must be a little like acting. It lets me try on other people’s skin. When I finished high school I desperately wanted to be a doctor, but I was only accepted interstate, and moving across the country wasn’t a financially viable option for me. In fiction, I’ve been a medical student. I’ve been a forest scientist, a paramedic, an undertaker, a social worker, a courthouse stenographer, a mother, a man. Writing has allowed me to make a home in an economically depressed ex-mining town in California, in the shadow of the coal power stations in Gippsland, on a mountain in Catalunya known for its UFO sightings and pro-secession fervour.

Recently I wrote a short story about a woman who decides to erase herself. I think it’s actually a novel, but it’s years away from being the book I want it to be. It took me a long time to work out the answer to one of the most important questions I had: what could you do that was so bad you needed to disappear altogether?

In my story, the woman is charged with three counts of infanticide, her own children.

I’m still turning it over in my head. I don’t know, for instance, who she becomes after she disappears. This is important. You have to grow a new self very quickly. My little blue book says: “The idea is to run and hide only as long as you have to and then start rebuilding your life under a new identity.”

But you’re not you anymore. When I think of disguises, I think of the obvious, even farcical things – wigs and name changes, a backstory memorised, a pair of eyes moving behind cut-out slits in a newspaper. But to rebuild yourself is extraordinarily complex. The blue book advises:

If you’re a smoker, stop. If you don’t smoke, start. If you enjoy hot and spicy foods, stop purchasing those items and change to mild foods. Patterns are predictable. Break them.

Your memories must be annihilated. To remember is to risk telling the truth. Once, early in the morning, I was lying in bed in the arm of the man I was fucking. He said, You were talking in your sleep. I was embarrassed, and then afraid. What had I said? He touched my brow, hooked a leg over mine. It wasn’t really words, he said, just noises. You sounded distressed. He told me that he held me and made soothing noises until I fell asleep again. I never knew if he was telling the truth, or saving me from my own embarrassment in that moment. What could I have said?

Most of your cells are dying and regenerating all the time, so you’re perpetually growing a new self – even if it’s one that looks the same. But like fingerprints and teeth, your memories can be used to identify you and catch you out. If, as the book says, I throw away myself and build a new me, where do I deposit my old memories? I’m the only one who carries them. I’m the only one who can tell these stories.

My blue book was written in a time just before the internet really took off, before people stopped writing cheques and Facebook owned all the pictures of our babies. Now our phones know where we work and live, who we call the most, what time we wake up. Walking down the street, our image may be captured by CCTV cameras on buildings, in taxis, on the GoPro cameras on cyclists’ helmets and car dashboards. Things have changed in the last ten or fifteen years. Most of the information is already dated – and for that reason, it’s sort of endearingly naïve, like watching a re-run of The X-Files now and hearing them refer to “the interwebs”.

The writing is strange and paranoid and funny and sad. More than being a story, though, it offers the possibility of one. Chapter nine—the summary—presents a series of steps recommended for acquiring a new life. After the first five or so steps, I don’t think they’re so different from the normal societal checkboxes, or acceptable rules for life:

Discard your old life.

Limit the resolve and resources of your opposition.

Run from your opposition (and your old life).

Hide from your opposition.

Make new friends.

Acquire a new identity. (Legal papers: Birth record, Social Security #)

Find gainful employment.

Pay your taxes.

Get medical, life and automotive insurance.

Get a credit card – and keep it paid up.

Perhaps take college courses to learn a new marketable skill.

Acquire and maintain respectability in your community.

Find a wife or husband: make a new family.

Don’t drink heavily, don’t use any illegal drugs, don’t do any crimes.

Die with dignity.

Jennifer Down is a writer, editor and translator. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, is available through Text Publishing.