It's so hard to disappear these days

Whatever happened to Barbara Newhall Follett?

In Friday’s subscriber’s only issue, we talked about Agatha Christie’s fugue state. If you like this issue, consider subscribing to the paid issue:

It’s not so easy to disappear anymore. Everything tracks us: our phones, our fitbits, our FOBs into the office, our CCTVs, everyone else’s phones. All of our money is on plastic cards that register when we use them, and in general, we are more connected than ever. The world is smaller. Even if you ran away, ghosted your entire life, and moved to a remote village in Costa Rica, what are the odds that someone you knew from your past life might end up there and find you? They aren’t zero.

It didn’t used to be like this. When Barbara Newhall Follett disappeared she just walked out the door. It was winter in Brookline, Massachusetts, and we know she wore a coat. It was 1939 and she had 30 dollars (more than 500 in 2019 money) in a pocket. She’d quarreled with her husband, presumably, and she never came back.

The missing person report her husband filed to the police four months later (suspicious???) describes her as fair complexioned with dark auburn hair in a long bob, wearing horn-rimmed glasses. She was 5 foot 7” and 125 pounds. Curiously, he also mentions that her “left shoulder slightly higher than right.” He filed the police report under her married name, and the press did not notice.

They should have. Barbara Newhall Follett was a literary prodigy. She was hailed as a genius. She was 26 years old.

Barbara was born in New Hampshire in 1914 into a family as literary as they come. Both of her parents were writers and she was quickly the most precocious child in a 50 mile radius. She invented a language, and loved nature. She wrote poetry at age 4. At 12 years old, her first novel was published. The House Without Windows garnered much acclaim and labelled little Barbara with that cursed title: prodigy.

At first everything was fine. At 13, she left home to hang on a maritime ship and then write a book about that, which was also acclaimed. By 14 she had two books, her name in half a dozen literary publications, and had reached (sadly) the peak of her career. That next year, when Barbara was 15, was 1928, and the country was crumbling.

In June 1930, just after the Wall Street Crash, at 16 years-old she wrote this, which, damn:

My dreams are going through their death flurries. I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heartstrings twinge. I mean no particular dream, you understand, but the whole radiant flock of them together -- with their rainbow wings, iridescent, bright, soaring, glorious, sublime. They are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money.

She got a job as a secretary. Her dad left her mom. She wrote several more manuscripts that did not go anywhere. Within 18 months she went from a review of her novel in the New York Times to desperately looking for work as a typist. So of course, she did what many women do when they’re stuck, she got married.

At 19 years old she married some man named Nickerson Rogers. He was unfaithful. Their marriage seemed boring. She became depressed, and 6 years in they quarreled, she left, and was never seen again.

Never ever. Not once.

It took her husband two weeks to file a report on her disappearance, which is maybe suspicious or maybe a normal way to behave when you assume your young unemployed wife will return home. It took him four months to request a missing persons bulletin. Later, Barbara’s mother would accuse Nickerson Rogers of murder, because if Law & Order has taught me anything it is that it is always smart to suspect the husband.

Here she is in 1932 camping:

There’s not so much more to say. She was depressed, she disappeared. At some point, she must have died. She did not publish another novel.

It is a shame. I have not finished reading The House Without Windows, but it is a beautiful, strange, enchanting story about a child name Eepersip “who ran away from loneliness to find companions in the woods—animal friends.” It is 40,000 words, a novella, really. It is juvenilia, but in the youth of its writer, it finds a creativity adults forget, a willingness to take risks.

Here is a paragraph I liked from the first section:

Then it grew dark. The sun was sinking and at last it went behind a thin, filmy cloud, producing wonderful colours, red, gold, silver and purple. Like fire it glowed and quivered, and through it all could be seen the ball of the sun, growing clearer as it sank, and growing larger too. And as Eepersip sprang to her feet and watched it glow and quiver, she saw, away off, an enormous range of mountains; and where the mountains left off there was the edge of the ocean, with the light of the dying day reflected in it, in purples reds and yellows.

And then, being very tired, she lay down on the grass beside the two deer; and in a few seconds she was sound asleep.

Some have argued that a body found in New Hampshire in 1948 could have been that of Barbara Newhall Follett. That she could have wandered out into the wilderness like her first little protagonist and in her depression drank the bottle of barbiturates found at the scene, and laid down with the deer. But it also could have been someone else too. We won’t know. It was easy, then, to disappear.

Here is a PDF of The House Without Windows

If you want to read more about our dear disappeared friend Barb, here are some good resources: