In this rendering of a mother-son relationship, author Scott Heim paints a vivid illustration of love and memory in an emotional landscape that is bleakly beautiful but also quite nightmarish and real. We Disappear begins as our young narrator, Scott (the author's alter-ego), is living a depressed and methamphetamine-fuelled life in Manhattan,
trying to carve out a living writing freelance copy for a small textbook publishing agency.
In the opening chapters, Scott is suddenly awakened back to the needs of his sixty-year-old mother, Donna, who is dying of cancer. Receiving an Express Mail envelope from her, Scott discovers within detailed clippings from five separate Kansas newspapers advertising an upcoming book that she is planning to write about disappeared people.
Also contained within the letter is the headstrong assertion that she has finally discovered what had happened to her all those years ago. Now, perhaps at the end of her life and with a long flood of memories coming back from when she was a little girl, Donna remembers being taken from a playground, a boy called Warren, a coloring book, peaches and candy bars, and an older lady who cried into her hanky: "I think I understand now. I think I finally know what happened to me."
With this message providing a continuously echoing loop in his ears, Scott returns to Hutchinson to find his mother's health failing, her obsession with the stories of the missing children increasing her anxiety as she continues to plaster the walls of her kitchen and her truck with the cut-out remnants of newspaper articles, the images reminding her of when she was a girl
and someone scooped her up in their car and took her away right out of her everyday "little girl life."
One article in particular, the headline and photograph of Henry Barradale, his strangled body recently found by a group of schoolgirls in the outskirts of Hutchinson, proves to be too much for the physically fragile and emotionally distraught Donna.
It is the beaded bracelet found on Henry's body that now connects her to the
irreversibility of Henry's murder, finally stirring up something inside of her to get as close as she can, perhaps even understand these victims who are now "gone without a trace."
Into this brittle mix returns Scott, still reeling from his meth addiction as he witnesses his mother's gradual decline and
the cancer treatments that make her constantly irritable, drowsy, and nauseous. Even in her illness, she's still troubled by her son, with his invariable forgetfulness and mood swings.
Part of her difficulty is that even now she fails to understand and fully comprehend her son's violent druggie cravings.
Perhaps the only relief for Donna - and for Scott - is in the form of Donna's loyal friend Dolores, herself a cancer survivor who wears pink-framed glasses and drinks too much bourbon. From the outset, both Delores and Scott would like to quite literally murder one another, but as Donna's health declines, the two forge a new and dependable partnership, making peace with the turbulent history that has defined Donna's helplessness to leave her past behind.
Heim steadily unfurls his profound story of furtive boxes and secret scrapbooks, little girls like Donna and boys like Warren, and a young transient teenager called Otis who is inexplicably picked up by Donna then bizarrely imprisoned in her basement for no apparent reason. Throughout all of this, the threads of memory
intertwine and knot, both the distant past and the present with all of Donna's "uncertain truths and her partial changeable lies" gradually unfurling from page to page.
Only when Scott can finally see the links, when he looks deep into the pictures of the missing little boys and all of the other boys
who have come before and between, can he eventually unlock the mystery behind his mother's disappearance.
Her life almost becomes a reflection of Scott's own inner self and his total willingness to disappear into the world of drugs, a world refracted through a looking glass.
In the end, it is Heim's own experiences with his mother and his battles with drug addiction propel this story's rock-hard realism and brutal sense of urgency. Scott's undeclared conversations, his memories, jealousies and his insecurities, and also the pain of his complicated and ultimately loving relationship with his mother, thrust the plot of the book toward its final heart-breaking and affecting conclusion.