Beware Child Abduction Fiction

 I have lately come to dread spotting a book cover that shows an adult walking away holding a child’s hand, a tricycle turned over in a street, or a red coat disappearing into a snowstorm. It’s happening too often. Part of the problem is that we have more books, and more mysteries, than we have ever had before. While I can’t prove that plots are increasingly focused on child abduction more than any other subject, I see troubling evidence online.

The Barnes & Noble website has a section for “Abduction & Kidnapping – Fiction” that is 92 pages long. Of 3234 “results” proclaimed, the first 30 include books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also Elizabeth George, Joyce Maynard, and Charles Dickens. Most authors, however, I have not seen before.  If I narrow my search to “child abduction fiction” I get just 319. John Grisham turns up along with Lee Child, Laurie R. King, and a host of names I do not recognize.

Goodreads has a page ominously named “Popular Child Abduction Books” (listing 714). Even PaperBackSwap has a child abduction page with 21 books on offer, while “librarything.com” shows 208, a number followed by the comment: “(Aaagh, more!)” and a link. There are many variations on the theme, such as illegal adoption, snatchings by grandparents, kids held captive in closets, confused teens befriended by hermits, and, as you might expect, aliens. It would take exhaustive research to find out how well these sell, but there must be a reason for the interest in writing child abduction stories.

Is the child abduction novel the 21st century equivalent of orphan stories (though I suspect those were concocted to scare children, not adults)? Have there been more child abductions in real life? Are parents more fearful for their childrens’ safety than they have been in the past? Are they the ones buying these books? Or is abduction of children simply the most alluring subject in general — and if that is so, who is reading them and why?

A work of nonfiction by Berkeley historian Paula Fass lends some insight to the phenomenon. KIDNAPPED: CHILD ABDUCTION IN AMERICA (1997) is about notorious crimes as early as 1874 and Americans’ fascination with them. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t, but I’m intrigued by what people who have read it said:

Kirkus observes: “While most current kidnappings are more along the lines of noncustodial parent stealing the child, and stranger kidnappings are still very rare, in the public’s view, sexual predators lurk everywhere. Fass writes about organizations that provide ‘kidnap insurance’ and the histrionic tactics used to make parents aware of purportedly rampant pedophilia in this country.”

Library Journal complains that “[Fass] fails to deliver…speculations on why kidnapping crimes occur or why today they have become increasingly violent.”

Readers’ opinions are mixed. Peter Thomas Senese, who writes thrillers, makes the most poignant remarks. He says Fass’s book is “not easy reading, particularly for a left-behind parent.” He credits her for bringing out important issues, such as the role of media and the stalemate between objective laws and subjective courts, but asks for something else to help left-behind parents cope with their emotions, their health, spirits, and finances. By clicking on his name, I discovered that Senese founded the I CARE Foundation and donates 100% of his royalties to help protect children from international abduction. He calls international parental abduction a growing epidemic.

CHILD ABDUCTION AND KIDNAPPING by Susan O’Brien reports the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008 recorded more than 250,000 child abductions each year. There’s an update on the webs site of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. On the “child abduction” page statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice illuminate the situation. In one year an estimated 797,500 children are reported missing; more than 2,000 every day; but the vast majority (98%) of these children are recovered quickly. Another 203,900 children were victims of family abduction, where the child was taken by a noncustodial parent. An estimated 58,200 children were abducted by someone outside the family.

In addition, there’s analysis of 8,000 attempted abductions during the period from February 2005 to January 2013 that shows 40% involved children between the ages of 10 and 14; and 32% occurred while a child was walking along to/from school, the school bus or riding a bicycle.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children insists that sexual exploitation of children is underreported. Their research indicates that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before adulthood. The center addresses several issues surrounding the sexual exploitation of children: child pornography; child prostitution; sex tourism involving children; extra-familial child sexual molestation; and online enticement of children for sexual acts (including misleading domain names and misleading words or digital images on the Internet).

Further down the page, I see that attempted child abduction is currently in the news and floating through rumor mills. There are reports of child abduction rings — men with Russian accents — selling educational books from door to door in Indiana, gathering data on vulnerable children. In one account, home schoolers were targeted.

So, what do we have here? Is art mimicking life or vice versa?

I still don’t know what proportion of mystery and crime novels feature child abduction, of if it matters, but I am stunned to learn that in 2012 the U.S. population was 313,914,040, and twenty-five per cent of this count was under the age of 18, and that out of those 78,478,510, children, 797,500 went missing. That is over 10 per cent. A quarter of those were taken by family members. Okay…let’s say 600,000 children disappeared with strangers. Even if most were quickly recovered, it’s worth worrying about. But does writing and reading novels about child abduction help? Does it hurt? This brings us back to the question of who is reading them.

I am at a loss, but I have an idea, not quite a theory, about child abduction fears. Society is going through changes that make us feel as if we are losing children, not often to body-snatchers, but pandemically to mind-snatchers. It was scary enough for my generation to send kids off to kindergarten on yellow buses in the 1960s, but those children progressed to enrolling their kids in preschools with strangers at age 3, and now parents leave their babies at daycare from right after maternity leave, when they are completely helpless. Here’s the twist: When kids are home with us we allow and sometimes encourage them to watch television, play video games, browse the Internet and text endlessly and privately among their friends. Exhausted and distracted, we who are guardians of the young are hardly in their lives any more. We have allowed ourselves to be separated socially and perhaps emotionally from our progeny. It’s as if we have gone missing, not the children. Or at least we feel left behind.

It’s just a thought.

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