Etan Patz: the case that changed America

Thirty-three years on, a man has been arrested for the murder of six-year-old Etan. But America is still reeling from that abduction.

Nancy McDermott

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On 25 May 1979, a six-year-old boy named Etan Patz went missing on his first solo journey to school. Last week, almost 33 years to the day, New York police announced the arrest of Pedro Hernandez for Etan’s murder.

New Yorkers are greeting the news cautiously and with something like bewilderment. We’ve been down this road before. Thirty-three years of false leads and wild speculation have rendered this event so much larger than life. The disappearance of Etan haunted a generation. This was the story that changed everything. It was the abduction that came to define childhood in the years to follow. It seems almost impossible to imagine that it could, finally, be over.

It’s still possible to visit the corner of Prince and Broom where Etan disappeared so many years ago. Today the area is gentrified, with restaurants and expensive boutiques; barely a trace remains of the New York of the 1970s. Looking at the city today, it’s hard to imagine how different things were then, before its rise to become the de facto financial centre of the world.

In one sense, New York has always been a great city, but in the 1970s she was in decline. The world was changing. The manufacturing jobs that built the city dried up. Her old institutions and power brokers, the unions, the police and the Democratic Party machine, were as corrupt as the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Huge parts of the outer boroughs became wastelands of derelict buildings ravaged by crime and neglect. Nearly a million people fled. The murder rate soared and the nation’s candidate for Greatest City in the World became its greatest embarrassment. Bankrupt and broken, the city appealed to the federal government for help. But President Gerald Ford refused, inspiring the famous New York Daily News headline: ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead.’

Things weren’t much better nationally. Watergate and Vietnam had a demoralising effect on civic life, but private life was just no escape. The mass permanent entry of women into the workforce profoundly changed the family. Marriages broke apart and parents struggled to raise their children in a world that was completely alien to the one they had grown up in.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty and disintegration, the Etan Patz case seemed to amplify a sense of growing mistrust not just in New York but across America. It became the crucible for every secret dread about what people were capable of. Over time, it took the form of an obsession with child sexual abuse.

According to Paula Fass, author of Child Abduction in America, the idea that Etan had been abducted by an adult for the purposes of sexual abuse emerged only several years after his disappearance. Sex crimes against children were not unknown, but were considered extremely rare. The first suggestion that Etan’s abduction was such a crime came in the form of a novel published by Beth Gutcheon in 1981. Still Missing was based on the Patz case, but in Gutceon’s account, the missing boy is found in the clutches of a paedophile. Over the years, the idea that Etan was the victim of a paedophile has become the standard explanation for his disappearance and the imagined motive for any child abduction after.

Only a few years later, Adam Walsh would disappear from a shopping centre in Florida and Iowa paperboy Johnny Gosch would vanish from his route, never to be seen again. In 1983, then president Ronald Reagan declared 25 May, the day of Etan’s disappearance, as National Missing Children’s day and 1,800 independent dairies decided to feature the photographs of missing children on cartons of milk. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the numbers of child abductions tended to be greatly exaggerated. Campaigns against ‘stranger danger’ claimed that as many as 50,000 children were abducted each year, even though the real number was nearer 300 and most of those were in custodial disputes.

With hindsight, the Patz case and the other panics about child safety that followed were probably rooted in the unsettling social changes that took place in the 1970s and 80s. But it wasn’t so easy to see then. Every story about a murder or disappearance and every milk carton seemed to mock everything Americans had ever believed about adults and children as simply wrong.

Perhaps the most extreme expression of this was so-called ‘recovered memory syndrome’, which came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, in which therapists ‘helped’ adults and children supposedly to retrieve blocked-out memories of bizarre and depraved acts of abuse by their parents. Daycare facilities across the country were hit with unlikely allegations of bizarre ritual sexual abuse. Americans believed these things because they had lost faith in their own ability to know reality.

The disappearance of Etan Patz has cast a long shadow. Though a large body of evidence contradicts the vision of mass abductions and child abuse that arose in the aftermath of the Patz disappearance, there are still nagging fears about what might happen. What mother or father hasn’t felt the pang of doubt when letting their child do things they once took for granted? There’s always the stone-cold fear that, just maybe, if we let them out of our sight they might slip away forever, like Etan Patz.

Whether Hernandez did, as he claims, kill Etan Patz, or not, 33 years on it is worth reassessing the Patz case – not so much in its particulars but in terms of the role it came to play in redefining the relationship between children and adults. Where once adults basically trusted one another to safeguard all children, we now view all interactions between children and adults as suspect. Julie and Stanley Patz lost their young son in 1979, but a whole generation of children lost their freedom and parents lost their peace of mind. The time has come to let the climate of fear go and to let Etan Patz rest in peace.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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