By jake goldman
How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found
by Doug Richmond
Published by Loompanics Unlimited, 1985
Found in Better World Books, onlin

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found is a book I sought out. About a year ago, I was at a friend’s house late. We sat around his living room having the standard, depressing-yet-inevitable “What Are We Doing With Our Goddamn Lives?” talk. We were in grad school, halfway to getting pretty useless art degrees, wondering if we’d be any further along post graduation than when we began. Probably not, we decided, unless we miraculously spun our theses into six-figure book deals (or even $200 and a pizza).

Heading home on my bike, I shot down a side-street instead of the main road. A gust of wind slowed me and everything went eerily quiet. I thought, What would it be like for me to just leave? I’d been feeling like a failure for quite some time — before grad school, I tried performing comedy in New York City for six years and never made it far, and I wasn’t much further along two years later. What would it be like if I chose to streak past my apartment, all the way across New Haven to the Farmington Canal Trail and ride through the night to Massachusetts, then Maine, eventually landing in a provincial Quebecois town to start a new life. I could have pedaled all night, but I didn’t. I missed my apartment building without realizing it at first, but skidded to halt two blocks later. Who was I kidding? I wouldn’t have lasted two days. I love my wife and family too much. I love my cats. And I’m pretty into showers; I don’t think drifters do showers.

I wanted comfort of some kind, though, which is where the book comes in. I sat down at my laptop searching for stories of deliberate disappearances. Problem is, most people aren’t willing to tell those stories or, if they’re successful, they’re never found to tell the tale in the first place. But How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found by Doug Richmond promised to tell these stories, as well as provide helpful tips on establishing a new life.

(Credit: Photo by author)

What I thought I’d be getting in Richmond’s book was a set of in-depth tales of survival, of elaborate deceptions and triumph, all alongside helpful advice. Instead, what I got was a poorly written, strangely delivered and surprisingly sexist book that fetishizes deliberate disappearance in a gross way. Richmond thinks he’s writing a book that’s actually going to help people, but he offers little in the way of solid advice. For example, in a chapter that discusses the idea of fleeing to Mexico, he speaks of establishing citizenship there:

“For what it’s worth, the easiest way to become a citizen of the Republic is to get yourself born there. In some cases, this can be accomplished ‘after the fact’ through a small donation to some official’s ‘favorite charity,’ or by having the right friends.”

Thanks for being so helpful and specific, Doug. I will make my way toward Mexico, step into a seedy bar and just start winking at every person I see; hopefully after that, some of the people who receive my winks will become my friends and I will donate to their favorite charity (probably Amnesty International or a drug cartel), and they will create a fake video of my birth along with the proper paperwork.

But wait, Doug, should I really go to Mexico if I want to escape?

“Now that I’ve discussed getting into Mexico, I’ll add that for most Americans, Canadians or other foreigners, Mexico is a lousy haven.”

Oh, OK! Well, I do have some other questions about leaving the country, Doug: What if I want to get a passport under a different name? Should I assume the identity of someone already living, maybe get his passport or say I lost it, try to get a new one?

“When the State Department realizes it has issued passports to two different people with the same exact name and vital statistics, the shit is going to hit the fan!”

Good to know! And then he goes onto to describe (poorly) how someone wanting to escape would be best served by getting the passport in the name of a dead person — unless that dead person is a war veteran because that would be “out and out fraud.” Regular dead dudes? Go nuts, lost souls!

What’s most curious about the book is the presentation of anecdotes. A big reason I wanted to read it was its promise of true tales of deliberate disappearance. I wanted to get a better understanding of what might drive someone to seek a new life. I wanted insight on that momentary feeling I’d had. Dissatisfaction was a huge factor, sure, but there’s some other component separating someone who bails on their existence for a brand new one from someone who is just your run-of-the-mill office drone wishing life was just a little more colorful.

But I never really found out. The stories Richmond presents are questionable. He’s really just a fetishist, a guy who romances the idea of the male outlaw, the loner, the guy that doesn’t play by the rules and selfishly ditches everything in favor of a cowboy-like existence, roaming around taking odd jobs and many women. In other words, there is very little about the human side of disappearing in the book. Not once does Richmond ever question the motives of anyone he speaks to, which I find peculiar since Richmond’s brief bio states that he’d spent years as a journalist prior to the publication of this book. Seems to me a decent journalist would eventually ask a deserter something along the lines of: Don’t you feel remorse for leaving your family? Aren’t you kind of a dick?

More than once, Richmond mentions this is how most people begin their escape: saying they’re stepping out for cigarettes, the old chestnut. I don’t believe him. (Credit: Image from The Onion)

There are three fully fleshed out anecdotes Richmond relays. None of these stories were recorded nor was Richmond allowed to take notes as most men he talked to became uncomfortable at the sight of a tape recorder or a legal pad. So the stories are told complete with quotations Richmond admits he reconstructed — which would be fine, except he isn’t great with voice or character, so all the men he quotes basically sound the same, which is to say they sound like Doug Richmond.

What’s highly suspect is the similarity between the stories:

  • Story One is about a man who has deep love for model railroads and is in an unhappy marriage to a woman who thinks he spends too much time with toy trains — so he ditches.

  • Story Two is about a man who has deep love for boating and is in an unhappy marriage to a woman who thinks he spends too much time with boats — so he bails.

  • Story Three is about a man who has deep love for fishing and — well, you get the idea.

Here’s the other weird/terrible thing about the book: It’s got a strong undercurrent of misogyny. First, Richmond only interviews men and only men who were in horrendous marriages. Criminal disappearances are outside the “scope” of this book, he says. He does acknowledge that women do indeed deliberately disappear from time to time, but he claims that it’s only battered women who do. So why don’t women in unhappy marriages up and leave? Tell us, Douglas:
“The system of ‘justice’ in the United States is heavily favored of [sic] women in a divorce. Why would a woman want to split on her husband if she could divorce him and make him take care of most of her bills?”

Ha, ha. I don’t know! A lot of other reasons because people are not all the same? But he doesn’t end there. Here he is warning men to never tell women (like, any woman because all women are the same, apparently) of their planned disappearances:

“The old gag about the fastest methods of news dissemination being telephone and tell-a-woman is as true today as when it was coined some hundred years ago.”

But I shouldn’t be so hard on Richmond. He’s created an entertaining book here, even if he didn’t realize it and even if he probably hates women. It’s poorly researched, terribly written and consistently hilarious. His advice is ridiculous, and I would never follow it. Here’s two final gems:

“You shouldn’t need more than two references to land another job. …  If someone asks you for a phone reference, you can simply tell them your manager retired or went to work for a competitor. … or [give them a number] through a secretarial service that always tells callers the person they want is in a meeting.”

On ditching a car:

“Simply drive your car into one of the poorer neighborhoods of a big city, park it on a residential street and leave the keys in the car and the doors unlocked. Before morning your car will probably have changed hands several times.”

And if I want to get rid of my kid, do I just drive up to a fertility clinic, paste a sign on him that says “Can Read + No Diseases” and drop him at the door?

I did get something out of this book: I have no desire to split and never will. The men about which Richmond writes are selfish and fairly emotionless about leaving a life behind. Really, they’re terrified of life and hope a new one might change that. Who knows if it does, but I’ll take my failures and own the shit out of them.