The Mixed Meanings of Missing Girls

By Martha CooleyDecember 2, 2018

The Mixed Meanings of Missing Girls
WHAT DOES IT MEAN for a person to go missing? And what in particular does it mean when a girl or woman — as opposed to a boy or man — goes missing?

The figure of the missing girl is a familiar one in literature, both ancient and modern. Most narratives of her experience draw upon an implicit premise: unless she’s a young child, the missing female has somehow, without meaning to, provoked her own fate. This capacity to provoke isn’t synonymous with choicefulness, or with personal agency or power. The missing girl’s intentions and desires, her state of mind, her awareness (if any) of her sociopolitical context: little of this bears directly on what occurs when she goes missing. She is someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen. In effect, she’s a vessel, a carrier of messages.

The trope of the missing girl as an unintentional agent provocateur is not contradicted by the seeming counter-trope of cherchez la femme (look for the woman) — a typical exhortation in crime fiction and films in which a woman is purported to be “behind” the action. The command was first delivered by a detective to his colleague in Alexandre Dumas père’s novel The Mohicans of Paris (1854–’59), and variations on it have subsequently shown up in quite a few 20th-century popular entertainments, including films such as The Front Page (1931), My Man Godfrey (1936), Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), and, decades later, Chinatown (1974). Yet although cherchez la femme might seem to imply that la femme must be quite formidable, this isn’t how the trope usually functions. To Dumas’s detective — a kind of Everyman where missing women are concerned — la femme is neither wonderful (in the French sense of formidable) nor daunting (in the English sense of the word) but nettlesome. “There is a woman in everything,” the detective tells his colleague. “It is what makes our profession so difficult.” Whoever and wherever she may be, and regardless of her motives for action or inaction, la femme causes trouble simply because she can’t be found.

Recognizing the inherent narrative force of the missing girl, in his recent novel Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor dispenses with the promise of resolution altogether. A girl goes missing; we never learn why or how. Possible motives and means are explored only fleetingly. Instead, we’re occupied with the fates of individuals — indeed, of an entire social ecosystem — affected by the enigma of the girl’s disappearance. In another recent novel, Nicola Lagioia’s Ferocity, the question of resolution is handled differently: the female who’s gone missing is actually found. Yet a great deal turns on the question of what “found” means, and in what ways she remains missing despite the fact that her dead body is laid to rest. Then there’s Alison Moore’s newest novel, Missing, which features a missing girl and another female, the adult protagonist, who misses the missing girl and is herself missing. In this novel, irresolvability is less a problem to be tackled than an existential condition to be accepted, by fictional characters and readers alike. Together, these three novels raise intriguing questions about the gone-missing trope and, too, about the importance of being female.


McGregor’s Reservoir 13 begins swiftly and directly:

They gathered at the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top.

With these lines we’re thrust immediately into the territory of suspense. Yet this novel is surprising in what it proceeds not to do: namely, reinforce our expectation that more will be revealed about the missing girl’s fate. Instead, the narrative dwells for 13 years in the small English town where the girl vanished. It wasn’t hers; she was merely a visitor there, vacationing with her parents.

During those 13 years, various people devote energy to the mystery of Rebecca Shaw’s vanishing, yet those same people have practical problems to address, pleasures to experience, conflicts to resolve, and inner dilemmas to confront or reframe. Thus, a narrative that seems, initially, to be a whodunit gradually becomes the story of how a wound to the community affects that community’s self-understanding. Reservoir 13 is, in short, a novel about the extended aftermath of a shock. McGregor is clear-eyed about the shock’s complex events. We miss the missing deeply, this novel suggests, yet we carry on as if they’d never been, because we have to. We cannot miss them too much or we’ll cease living our own lives. Put differently, if we miss them too much, we’ll miss ourselves.

A choral novel, Reservoir 13 is thick with human voices and revelatory details that accrete without evident planning. Steadily (one could even say stealthily), these details cohere into a rich sensory and emotional mosaic. By the novel’s end, we feel we, too, have passed those 13 years in the place where the girl went missing. That place isn’t merely a physical locus. It’s a community whose members know one another well, though they sometimes pretend or try not to. They hold one another’s pleasures, secrets, and painful truths, hold one another to account, hold out hopes, and hold grudges. And they mourn, individually and collectively, their failure to retrieve Rebecca Shaw from whatever or whoever has taken her from them.

Here, near the start of the book, is an example of how McGregor builds his patterns of interconnection:

The police held a press conference in the function room at the Gladstone, and announced that they wanted to trace the driver of a red LDV Pilot van. The journalists asked if the driver was considered a suspect, and the detective in charge said they were keeping an open mind. The girl’s parents sat beside the detective and said nothing. In the afternoon the wind was high and the clouds blew quickly east. A blackbird dipped across Mr. Wilson’s garden with a beakful of dead grass for a nest. There were springtails under the beech trees behind the Close, feeding on fragments of fallen leaves. At night from the hill the lights could be seen along the motorway, the red and the white flowing past one another and the clouds blowing through overhead. The missing girl had been looked for. She had been looked for all over. She had been looked for in the nettles growing up around the dead oak tree in Thompson’s yard. Paving slabs and sheets of ply had been lifted before people moved away through the gates. She had been looked for at the Hunter place, around the back of the barn conversions and in the carports and woodsheds and workshops, in the woodland and the greenhouses and the walled gardens. […] At night there were dreams about where she might have gone. Dreams about her walking down from the moor, her clothes soaked and her skin almost blue. Dreams about being the first to reach her with a blanket and bring her safely home.

We can readily visualize the collective search for the girl, which is undertaken with a touching seriousness. But we notice other activity, too: cars passing each other along a two-lane motorway outside of town, each vehicle going where it needs to go. A girl may be gone, but local life continues. We also observe all manner of movement within the natural world, which articulates a necessary detachment from human searchings and sorrows: the wind picks up without reason; some birds use dead grass to make nests for their live offspring; other birds feast on dead leaves. Nature’s cycles will not cease.

The novel ends as it began, in winter. As at the start, McGregor reminds us of what certain birds are up to: “At the foot of the churchyard yew the goldcrests pressed close together against the chill.” Those birds are doing what humans do, too, when it’s cold: they try to warm and be warmed by one another. “The missing girl,” the narrator continues, “had not yet been forgotten.”

The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She had been looked for, everywhere. She had been looked for in the lambing sheds on Jackson’s farm, people moving through the thick stink of frightened ewes and climbing up into the lofts and squeezing behind the stacks of baled hay, and in the darkness outside great heaving lungfuls of fresh air were taken as people made their way across the field to the other barns. She had been looked for in the caves, and in the quarries, and in the reservoirs and all across the hills. It was no good. Dreams were had about her, still.

Those sentences, those persistent dreams, help braid the novel’s emotional strands. The book’s actual last sentence comes from “Silent Night,” the Christmas song being sung by a young female parishioner in the town’s church: “All was calm, all was bright.” The song celebrates an arrival, of course: a holy child’s. But here those six words herald no sacred event. Instead, they affirm an earthly existence forever brimming with irresolution. Like birds, we humans keep on huddling and singing simply because we must.


“Is there a more convenient plot device than the beautiful dead woman?”

Thus begins the New York Times review of Nicola Lagioia’s Strega Prize–winning novel Ferocity (La Ferocia), published in 2014 and translated into English by Anthony Shugaar. Elaborating on the beautiful dead woman, the reviewer continues: “An object of shared fascination, she sits at the center of a story, silent and inscrutable, ready to play whatever role she is cast in. […] The best part is that there is no need to choose just one.”

The impetus for this novel is a shocking death. The girl — or rather the woman, married and in her mid-30s — doesn’t vanish, at least not for long. We quickly learn that the temporarily unaccounted-for Clara Salvemini, daughter of a wealthy businessman, is dead, and we keep reading in hopes of discovering how and why her death was so brutal and, perhaps, so inevitable. Answers to our mounting questions about Clara and her fate come only in partial, murky form. What we get in place of answers are depictions of how various members of Clara’s community (in the southern Italian city of Bari) respond to her departure. Like McGregor, Lagioia paints a dense portrait of the missing girl’s context.

But why talk about Ferocity as a novel about a missing girl if the girl turns up right away? The answer is that Clara went missing before she died — was missing while alive and visible — and after her death she is still missing, though her physical body isn’t. As the daughter of the powerful and secretive Vittorio Salvemini, she could have only a life conducted behind masks, a life in which her every movement and appearance would be choreographed and costumed for maximum utility in the theater of male power.

Lagioia takes us back to Clara’s childhood, adolescence, and passage into adulthood. Intelligent as well as beautiful, Clara tries to rebel against her enforced role in the Salvemini family. But her rebellion gradually morphs into drug use and forays into a sexual demimonde. She becomes addicted to a sadomasochistic hedonism that brings her into contact with multiple men, some well known to her father and his circle. Her interactions with them summon those chilling lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport.”

Given who her father is, no man will choose to protect her, and no woman possibly could. Clara manages both self-alienation and self-concealment so effectively that nobody realizes she’s missing — not physically but as an autonomous human being. She pulls off this disappearing act not by refusing to obey the patriarchy’s rules, but by faking loyalty to them. She thinks she’ll be able to pull one over, so to speak, on her father and his crowd. But we can see she can’t, and this lends her story a stomach-churning tension.

It is Clara’s half-brother, Michele, spurned and traumatized by their parents, who understands as no one else can that his sister went missing long before her death. Michele’s aim is to break the levers of power so damaging to the entire ecosystem — natural as well as social — in which he and Clara have been forced to play their parts. Ferocity leaves unanswered the question of whether the damage wrought by Vittorio is irreparable. Yet what moves the reader is the love connecting the two siblings, as well as the silence that separates them.


For Jessie Noon, the protagonist of Alison Moore’s Missing, gone-ness is a peculiarly ordinary condition. Multiple people and things in Jessie’s life have gone missing — as has Jessie herself, though not literally, nor in the sense that Clara Salvamini disappears. Ostensibly the story of a 49-year-old woman’s struggle to carry on after multiple losses, this novel is really about a woman’s making of her own story — that is, about how she narrates to herself the story of her life. The reader catches Jessie in the act, so to speak, of veiling her narrative aim, obscuring it behind a scrim of apparent revelations and explanations. Her aim is to account for herself, not in a moral but an existential sense: am I actually here, not for others but for myself?

The novel opens as Jessie, who makes a living as a literary translator, is attending a conference. Unable to sleep, she stays up reading part of a biography of D. H. Lawrence, whose characters strike her as stand-ins for the author: “The characters that Jessie supposed to be him, really, in fictional form, were always torn between staying and leaving, torn between this world, this life, and another.” This liminal placement is familiar to Jessie. En route home from the conference, she notices things on the edges, soon to vanish: “There was graffiti spray-painted on the brickwork that ran alongside the train tracks — people left messages, or just their own names, so that someone would see it and know that they had been there. She tried to read them all but already the train was travelling too fast.” Like people, words come and go, leaving Jessie in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

Jessie certainly has reasons for feeling wobbly. Her husband of 13 years, a train conductor, has been gone for a year. He left unexpectedly, and she has no idea where he is. He and she tried unsuccessfully to have a child of their own, and the absence of a baby who “never arrived” — along with the fact that a teenager wearing headphones (hence deaf to danger) was struck by a train driven by the husband — has taken its toll.

Jessie does have a child from an earlier marriage, a boy who’s now an adult. But she hasn’t heard from him in many years. To top it all off, her only sibling’s five-year-old daughter, Eleanor, disappeared over three decades earlier, on Jessie’s watch. She’d taken the child to a local museum, where Eleanor vanished after the two of them visited the restroom. This disappearance is subtly prefigured in a scene on a ferry partway between England and France:

Eleanor asked to go up on deck, so Jessie took her. It was blustery, but they found somewhere to sit. Eleanor wanted her aunt to read her the Frogman book. […] They were still near the beginning when Eleanor pulled the book towards herself, to better see a picture. Jessie let go, but Eleanor must not have been holding it properly. The book fell through the railings and into the sea.

“You let go!” cried Eleanor.

“I thought you had it,” said Jessie.

“You were supposed to be holding it,” said Eleanor.

The child’s vanishing has alienated Jessie not only from her family but also from everyone around her. She thinks about leaving messages in her translations “to see if anyone would notice.” She thinks about word choices and their consequences: “If the author wrote Geliebte, Jessie had to choose whether to translate it as sweetheart or lover or mistress; if the author wrote Schatten, Jessie had to decide between shadow and shade. […] Sometimes it seemed like a terrible responsibility.” She thinks about the aftermath of Eleanor’s disappearance: “Life carried on, and in a way that was the worst thing.”

She also thinks there’s a ghost in her house. Ghosts are, of course, stand-ins for missing people, and sometimes they too miss someone. From time to time, Missing erupts into brief italicized passages written in the first person by someone whose identity is never revealed. Here is the first such passage: “I’ve begun the long journey home. I travel through time zones, the climate changing around me, and as I make my way I’m sending messages, to let her know I am coming, to say that I will be there soon.” Is the ghost-like writer of these lines Jessie’s missing husband, her son, Eleanor? Or might it even be the missing emigrant son of the great-great-grandmother in whose home on the Scottish-English border Jessie now lives, though the house may not in fact be hers? The book’s main narrator does not mention these messages. We’re led to assume their sender is Jessie’s husband, yet we suspect Jessie herself is concocting them, performing once again her translator/interpreter role — this time futilely.

Midway through Missing, Jessie meets and starts sleeping with a local man named Robert, whose rigidities of thought and feeling soon bump up against Jessie’s eccentricities. When Jessie claims she is pregnant, Robert rejects her, and her sister, Gail, expresses exasperated disbelief. As Jessie attempts a series of reckonings with her present and past which do not — cannot — satisfy anyone, the reader senses Jessie is being held to a disturbingly one-sided emotional bookkeeping. She has ceased to be trustworthy, though she has done nothing intentionally malicious. Wondering whether to abort or keep the child she may or may not be carrying, she begins reading another biography of D. H. Lawrence: “She would turn a page and find him newborn; he would once again be young and spirited.” This is not a heartening end to the novel; it makes us wince.

With admirable subtlety, Moore has put the words miss and missing through their paces in ways that neither McGregor or Lagioia manage to do. To go missing is to be unaccounted for; to miss is to fail to observe or take into account, or to feel pain at a loss or absence; to be missed is to count for something, and to not be missed is to count for little or nothing. These multiple and mixed meanings flicker steadily within Moore’s novel, their gleam rewarding the reader.


In a brief but potent piece in the literary journal Conjunctions, Erin Kate Ryan addresses the fate of a real-life missing girl named Paula Jean Welden, who vanished after going out for a walk in the Vermont woods:

On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden […] put on a bright-red parka, left her dorm, and began to exist by disappearing. The National Guard arrived for the search, as did her father, the Boy Scouts, the FBI. Psychics dreamt of her: bridge, cabin, long black car, balled-up map. The hole she left [was] somehow bigger than the space she had filled. We who are left behind try to paint her absence. […] We leave the canvas bare in the shape of our ideas, edging around a girl with a secret, a girl with a shame, a girl whose absence matters more to us than her life.

Ryan goes on to explicate what she calls “the perverse paradox of the missing girl”:

She cannot be anyone until she is gone. She is forever trapped in prelude; she will never [be] the hero of her own story. Rather, she lives on as ever-shifting chimera, cobbled together from supposition and wild-eyed fable. […] The missing girl is everything that everyone thought that she was, because it was those ideas that brought her to life. This is a story about the supposed disappearance of a supposed girl — but let’s not pretend that any of this is for her. The very act of storytelling makes this about the story, and about us.

Connecting Paula Jean Welden with Eurydice, Ryan notes that, like other missing girls, Eurydice becomes

a temptress into the shadow world. Unlike the masculine hero of myth, the missing girl will not arrive in the foreign terrain to find that she is the Chosen One. Instead: She is […] [t]he instigating event that draws the hero into a realm that splinters expectations of the real. […] [In] the underworld, music melts steel but the missing girl never appears. She is not rescued, she does not return, and even her absence dissolves as her story finds its focus — on us and our idea of what it means to be real.

Ryan posits the missing girl as a figure who sets into motion a male’s quest but is not allowed to fulfill one of her own. She has the power to destabilize the male mission, but not to take it over and run it herself. Her disappearance is likely her own fault, her sexuality the culprit. And the causes of her vanishing will be determined or “revealed” not by her but by a collective immaginario whose assumptions reflect and reinforce patriarchal rather than matriarchal power.

Does it matter to the missing-girl narrative, and in particular to the question of female power, if the girl in question is a child or adolescent instead of a grown woman? If they’re very young, boys who go missing suffer fates similar to those of very young girls. But once they become adolescents, they typically end up having adventures, not forced into undesired unions with adults. They’re pioneers, explorers, lively mischief-makers (think of Tom Sawyer), or heros-in-the-making. As for missing grown men, they’re often on missions requiring bravery, cunning, and secrecy. Their narratives push us to view their absences not as a function of weakness and vulnerability — or a havoc-making sexuality — but rather as the consequence of risk-taking that places them in unavoidable danger.


Narratives of the missing girl are inevitably entangled with “our idea about what it means to be real,” as Erin Kate Ryan puts it. No one can say who a missing girl such as Rebecca, or Eleanor in Missing, actually was or is; when she vanishes, her realness gets erased.

Clara in Ferocity is a somewhat different case. She’s accounted for physically, yet while alive, she is a walking incoherence. As for Jessie Noon, her inability (one might even say refusal) to organize her life experience into a coherent narrative of motives and reasons may seem proof of her untrustworthiness, yet the truth is that she has no choice but to self-efface. She’s missing, too — and she’s somehow brought this upon herself, simply because she’s female.


Where girls and women are concerned, we’re living in strange times. The #MeToo movement has exposed (as if they were ever truly hidden) the range of aggressive acts to which females of all classes and races are daily prey. We have a US president who can speak of his right to “grab [women] by the pussy,” and who mocks a sexual-assault victim brave enough to recount her experience. At the same time, we revel in the photo-ops of Prince Harry’s marriage with a biracial woman, and Ireland legalizes abortion. Are things really so dire for girls and women?

Let’s not answer “yes” or “no.” Let’s think instead about what’s present and what’s missing in this moment. What’s present is a daily flood of facts, falsities, and images related to women and their experiences, a flood let loose by social media and news channels from Facebook to Breitbart. What’s missing are the voices of countless women who have been relentlessly and effectively silenced. Sure, some of us talk. Oh, do we. But more often than not, we do not dictate either the terms or the direction of the conversation. Or we borrow the patriarchy’s language, trying to retrofit it for our purposes. This makes it nearly impossible to determine why a woman holds her tongue, or self-edits much more carefully than a man might in a similar situation.

There is, of course, power in silence. Whatever one’s gender or sexual identity, keeping one’s own counsel is frequently more fruitful than soliciting aid or comfort from the wrong quarters. But there’s no power in enforced silence. If it is to be empowering, silence must be chosen; and what’s missing, in the flood of words washing over us daily, is an examination of why silence might be chosen by women, and how choosing it profits or punishes them.

In Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus asserts that when Orpheus goes to the underworld, the infernal deities don’t show him the real Eurydice but an “apparition,” a simulacrum. They do so to punish Orpheus, because his love for his wife wasn’t true enough. He doesn’t deserve the real thing.

Once again the narrative is male-centered: its focus is on Orpheus. Yet Phaedrus’s assertion pries open a possibility. What if Eurydice thinks it over and decides she’s had enough — of Hades, of Orpheus, of the infernal deities? What if, as the male deities are busy displaying to a mortal man a simulacrum of a female so as to prove their power over him, the female herself walks past them, crosses the threshold, and inhales fresh air, ready to sing, speak, or be quiet as she alone wishes?


Martha Cooley is a professor of English at Adelphi University and the author of two novels, The Archivist and Thirty-Swoons.

LARB Contributor

Martha Cooley is the author of two novels — The Archivist, a national best seller, and Thirty-Three Swoons — and a memoir, Guesswork. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Adelphi University. Her third novel, Buy Me Love, will be published in June 2021.


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