The following is a book review I wrote for the webzine Pop Matters in 2003:
During the spring of this year, while American, British and Iraqi citizens were losing their lives in scores in Iraq and the Israelis and Palestinians continued to trade casualties in their perpetual conflict, the media in the United States found time to become fixated on something else: Two missing people.
Prior to their disappearances, Laci Peterson and Elizabeth Smart were – except to their families and friends – not people of national note. One was a young wife from Modesto, California. The other a Utah teenager. Once they vanished, however, they became sensations, drawing attention in a matter wholly disproportionate to the circumstances. After all, thousands of people go missing in the U.S. each year. Few of them engender Fox News Channel hour-by-hour updates.
But the coverage was in line with a recent ramped-up interest taken in cases involving lost children. Laci Peterson was late-term pregnant when she disappeared, and the concern for her was intertwined with concern for her unborn baby. The 15-year-old Smart, a child herself, was abducted by a stranger from her Salt Lake City home last summer.
The two stories came after a year – 2002 – in which America grew almost obsessed with stories of missing children; there seemed to be a new horrifying story every week. Along with Smart, there were, to name two, five-year-old Samantha Runnion and seven-year-old Danielle van Dam, two young California girls who were kidnapped and murdered. The bodies of Laci Peterson and her undelivered child were ultimately discovered in April. Her husband is charged with the killings. Smart’s drama ended in happier fashion. She was discovered alive in Salt Lake City, Utah, in March.
The ascent of the vanished child to the level of national preoccupation is nothing new to film scholar Emma Wilson, who has been tracking the phenomenon in both Europe and the United States for years. Wilson, a professor at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, contends that images of missing children have become among the most predominant and haunting in western art, particularly in film. Using a handful of contemporary art films as illustration, Wilson argues that while cinema has become increasingly focused on the missing child as a means to explore ruptures in both family and societal dynamics, filmmakers have grappled — and sometimes struggled — with identifying tools within the medium to adequately represent the emotional toll that losing a child carries.