Most of us snuff out the question instantly or toy with it occasionally as a harmless mental escape hatch. But every year, thousands of adults decide to act on it, walking out the door with no plan to return and no desire to be found. The precise number is elusive. Nearly 200,000 Americans over age 18 were recorded missing by law enforcement in 2007, but they represent only a fraction of the intentional missing: Many aren’t reported unless they are believed to be in danger. And according to a 2003 British study, two-thirds of missing adults make a conscious decision to leave.
People who go missing do so with an endless variety of motives, from the considered to the impulsive. There are of course those running from their own transgressions: Ponzi schemers, bail jumpers, deadbeat parents, or insurance scammers dreaming of life in a tropical paradise. But most people who abandon their lives do so for noncriminal reasons — relationship breakups, family pressures, financial obligations, or a simple desire for reinvention. The federal government’s Witness Security Program provides new identities for endangered witnesses, but thousands of people who testify in lower-profile cases are on their own to face potential retribution or flee to a safer identity. So too are those trying to escape the unwanted attention of stalkers, obsessive ex-spouses, or psychotically disgruntled clients.