Every year in the UK, over 170,000 people are reported missing, a figure that’s likely grossly underestimated, according to charity Missing People. Often, the reality of these stories is a far cry from what we see depicted in sensationalist Netflix documentaries. They don’t necessarily have conclusive endings tied up in a neat bow. Sometimes missing people disappear voluntarily. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they don’t.
Either way, when it comes to the missing, there are myriad factors at play. Street homelessness, modern slavery, shifting drugs across county lines, suffering from addiction, domestic abuse and dipping in and out of vision are all symptoms of a fundamentally broken society that does little to provide the vulnerable with the help they need.
Making sense of what it means to go missing is the subject of writer and journalist Francisco Garcia’s new book, If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind – and it’s one he knows all too well. When Garcia was just seven, his own father, Christobal, went missing following the death of his mother, Stephanie.
Although its foundations are built on this experience, the book goes far beyond that. Garcia’s research into his father, those missing and those left behind, culminate in case studies which, alongside his own story, masterfully unravel the tense and ambiguous nature of estrangement.
“I can’t remember the precise point where my own personal story, the story of my dad, connected with [my interest] in missing people,” the 28-year-old says. “I always thought, ‘How can I write about these things? How can I help document them?’ One day, when I was researching missing people, it sort of clicked.
“Maybe my dad’s not exactly a missing person in the sense of a police report or an official missing person, but he’s missing from my life, which is an important distinction,” he continues. “The more people I spoke to who were in similar circumstances to me with regards to estrangement, made me realise that person is missing too. They’ll just never be recorded by a statistic.”
How did you embrace the inherent ambiguity of If You Were There’s subject matter?
You can’t let ambiguity consume you, because then whatever you end up writing will become unintelligible. It won’t be a good story. At some point, you have to impose a narrative structure onto it. A few weeks [into writing the book], I knew I wasn’t going to solve the missing persons crisis. I would love to be that person, but that’s unfeasible. It’s like saying you’re going to solve death.
Lots of super smart people have dedicated their lives to understanding the complicated patchwork of issues that comprise missing people. So there’s no solution, but there are things you can do to ameliorate the lives of people going through this, to help them and support them. Closure doesn’t really exist.
Closure is such a buzzword.
Exactly. And what is a missing person? Even that question is full of ambiguity.
Where has writing this book left you? Do you feel a sense of satisfaction?
It’s very easy and tempting as a writer to say, “When I started, I was an emotional mess and the book helped me pull it all together at the end.” That’s just not true. Before I started writing about missing people, my dad wasn’t in my thoughts that often, to be honest. He was absent and part of a past which is completely unknown to me.
Of course, it was a very emotional experience to write the book. When I went to Spain at the end, I wasn’t expecting this mad, “Oh! Now it all makes sense.” But it was nice to set foot there, into a physical space of my life I didn’t know. By the end, I was very content with where I got to. If You Were There is not a misery memoir. I’ve got a good life and a great, supportive family. The past is the past, you can’t change that. We often tell ourselves stories about our lives and who we are. A lot of it messy and stupid and without conclusions, but a lot of it is important as well.
You write about your dad without resentment. Is that an emotion you’ve overcome or one that was never there in the first place?
I’m not a saint, but I never felt any resentment towards him. I don’t know the guy. What I do remember isn’t great, but no one’s ever told me he was a terrible person. He was a good guy in many ways, but a very frail and weak one in others. He never had a fair chance at life anyway. I’m not saying I’m Gandhi or anything, I’ve got my own feelings about him, but resentment isn’t one of them. I can’t be bothered. Life’s too pressing – I had to worry about my mum, I was then living with my auntie and my gran. What a boring cliché as well, the boy resenting his absent father. It’s boring!
When there’s already a lot of hurt, why waste more energy on feeling angry?
I couldn’t put it better. Even in our daily lives, it’s a mug’s game. I’m all for a good grudge, but resentment saps your energy.
What was your favourite thing about writing If You Were There?
I loved all of it. I get my energy from meeting people, and I enjoy the cut and thrust of trying to create a cohesive narrative out of these stories. I don’t want to do anything else with my life. But my favourite moment was probably in February 2020, before lockdown, when I met up with my old friend Jamie in Edinburgh. We’d gone to university together. His mum had gone missing and ended up having died. Years later, we met on this cold, crisp night near the station and it was like, “Wow. We’re adults. Life has moved on.” That was really fascinating and lovely.
What would your advice be to someone who has had a friend or family member go missing?
It depends on the circumstances, but if they come back – which most people do – it’s very easy to be angry, which is completely understandable. The important thing is to try and understand what led this missing person to disappear in the first place, so you can stop it from happening again. Then, you can treat those root issues as to why someone might go missing. There’s also fantastic help out there and it doesn’t have to be from the police. The charity Missing People is fantastic. If you’re in a terrible situation where that missing person doesn’t come back, you’re not alone. There’s support out there for those who get left behind and it might come from channels you least expect.
If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind is published by Harper Collins.