Law in Popular Culture

'The Vanished' and the need for closure

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Image courtesy of Marissa Jones.

I’m a big fan of podcasts. I’ve previously written about one I listen to daily, along with another genre-defining series I haven’t followed quite as frequently. I listen to podcasts in the morning while I stretch and organize my thoughts for the day, and I often listen to them at work while I type.

I’m constantly discovering new offerings in the medium. Sometimes I learn of new podcasts based on word of mouth; other times they’re brought to my attention via the advertisements on the podcasts I currently listen to. That’s exactly how I stumbled across The Vanished.

‘The Vanished’

Launched in 2016, The Vanished attempts to take a different approach to your standard cold case concept. Instead of focusing on “newsworthy” stories of missing persons, the goal is to spotlight individuals whose stories don’t appear on major platforms and outlets. To further this grassroots approach, the podcast’s website even provides a “case submission form” where individuals can submit their loved one’s information in hopes of having their stories featured on the show.

The series, which is hosted by Marissa Jones and has been downloaded in excess of 51 million times, touts itself as “covering missing persons, one episode at a time.” Jones started the series as nothing more than a hobby while working as a paralegal. The goal of focusing on cases lacking mainstream national appeal leads to the ancillary effect of profiling individuals who may seem less deserving of attention based on their socioeconomic status. The Vanished isn’t afraid to delve into the details of those down in the depths of addiction and sex trafficking. It’s refreshing someone is willing to give a voice to the voiceless.

But it’s not just Jones’ voice championing the plight of those missing persons. The podcast episodes feature interviews with interested parties, from law enforcement to family and friends. As she has explained on her social media, there is a purpose behind the series’ structure: “The whole point of the show is to give a voice to those who are searching for a missing loved one. I can’t narrate their grief and pain.”

Closure for victims’ families

Having worked in criminal defense for well over a decade, I’ve had a lot of time to examine ideas of good and evil. After all, “repercussions” is the name of my business, and it’s hard turning a blind eye to historical notions of heaven and hell (I’m more spiritual than religious, but I did minor in religious studies). In light of that contemplation, I’ve concluded that a hell for parents would involve being locked in a cage, forced for all eternity to listen to your young child cry for help … all the while unable to escape or even call back that everything will be OK.

Consequently, that “grief and pain” Jones discusses is palpable in the voices of those holding out hope their babies are safe. In the same vein as my previous attempt to wax poetic regarding personal worries about the afterlife, I believe the absolute embodiment of a parent’s living hell would be never knowing where my son is and whether he’s OK. I couldn’t think of a worse existence, and my heart goes out to anyone in that position. It’s a circumstance no parent should experience and far too many suffer.

As such, it makes total and complete sense that family and friends would reach out to Jones (and anyone else willing to help, for that matter). One of humanity’s defining characteristics is its ability and desire to exhaust all options, good, bad or indifferent. Sometimes it changes nothing, but sometimes it changes everything. And more frequently than most would like to admit, it provides nothing more than closure.

Nevertheless, in the depths of desperation, closure can be the cousin of salvation.

And The Vanished has been able to provide that closure in many instances. Some profiled individuals, such as Lillianna Pagano, Teresa Kennedy, Bethany Tiner, Rachel Lewis and Benjamin Redfearn, have been found alive. Sadly, in many other examples, that closure involves a revelation that the missing person has died. For some, knowing their loved one is deceased is more comforting than the unknown. For others, hope springs eternal.

Closure for defendants’ families

Nevertheless, in the words of the Shawshank Redemption character Red, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” After all, unfettered longing for some revelation or twist of fate can turn into an all-encompassing pipe dream that obliterates one’s grasp on reality. I understand that sometimes hope is all one has. However, there must be a line where hope starts and delusion begins. That the line is often blurred by human naivete is quite unfair. Again, as a parent, I don’t know if I could ever acknowledge that line and pray I never have to.

The simple truth is, it’s hard to accept the truth. And that realization becomes even more challenging when the truth isn’t evident. Because of my occupation, I live in a world where things aren’t always as they seem, and my reality is shaped by a caster fueled by supposition and patchwork guesstimates. Sure, many of the cases I defend involve insurmountable evidence of guilt, but that isn’t always the case.

Consequently, it’s normal for a family to contact me regarding their loved one’s postconviction or appellate representation, even in the face of constant and consistent dead ends. That is often the case in matters lacking concrete direct evidence of guilt. When I receive requests to represent someone in that capacity, I always let the representative know the odds are not in our favor, and the likelihood of achieving any traction is slim to none. Regardless, the family usually marches onward, undaunted by my admission.

I know that in many situations, the drive to continue fighting and searching for “the truth” is fueled by the desire for justice. The family doesn’t believe their beloved could ever commit the offense of conviction, and the lack of evidence supports their plausible deniability. In other cases where the evidence of guilt is much more substantial, you see a different rationale at play.

Survivor’s guilt

Prisoners often pressure their families to exhaust all options and potential remedies, no matter the cost. I can’t count the number of parents who have sat in my office over the years and outlined the difficulty they face trying to navigate their relationship with an incarcerated child. They understand the evidence against their offspring and often acknowledge the likelihood of guilt.

Nevertheless, there is immense pressure, both externally and internally, to move onward. There’s external pressure from the convict to continue fighting for them, no matter the cost. Parents end up spending their retirement funds to appease that person because, internally, they can’t live with the possibility they didn’t do everything in their power to help. Exhausting all options is exhausting.

Ultimately, this notion of exhaustion holds true regardless of whether the loved one in question is a victim or a perpetrator; those who love them are left with a great deal of loss. “Survivor’s guilt” is genuine, and it doesn’t merely apply when someone dies—any form of significant loss can send someone into a spiral of post-traumatic stress.

For those suffering from the loss of a loved one, it’s easy to wonder what they did or didn’t do that may have contributed to the catastrophe. Again, it’s unfair, but it’s not uncommon. The hope is that the people affected most can find some closure sooner rather than later.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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