Monday Mystery: The Disappearance of Connie Converse

In August 1974, a few days after turning fifty, Elizabeth Converse -- known to many of her friends as "Connie" -- packed up her car and drove away from her life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, never to be seen again.

This in and of itself is not unheard of. People vanish every day. Most of them start out more unstable than Connie, lacking money or family or steady responsibilities, but every so often a pillar of the community gets fed up with it all and just wanders off. It's not like there's a rule saying 'You must be this disenfranchised to abandon your life'. Others are more likely to take note when someone with connections scarpers, but that's about it. Some of them are found again; many are not.

Connie Converse caught my attention. Much of what preceded her disappearance is familiar to me, the dark side of having what other people refer to as "potential".

Interviews make it clear that Connie's family and friends had always considered her to be brilliant.
Her brother Phil, writing in 2000, described her as "a genius and a polymath", adding: "I do not use the terms lightly." (BBC)
The brother in question was a professor of political science at the University of Michigan with quite a number of publications, prominent enough that when he passed away last year it was noted in the New York Times. One presumes he knew about these things.

As a child, Connie excelled in school. She crammed her head full of biographies and Shakespeare and anything else she fancied. She read poetry. She wrote poetry. Her poetry was -- once -- published in the local paper. She sculpted. She taught herself to paint. She taught herself to play the piano, and later the guitar. She won countless awards, countless honors, and a scholarship to Mt Holyoke.

After two years of college, she dropped out.

When you are that smart, and people notice early on, your life is a never-ending litany of people murmuring, "You'll go far." They usually mean it as a prediction, I think. Nobody ever asks you if you want to go far, or if maybe you would like to go far in a direction that is not the direction they're thinking of. It morphs into an order rather quickly: You will go far, is that understood?

They also make it pretty clear that, no matter what they say, their approval is contingent on you going just as far as they want you to in the exact direction they were thinking. They might not hate you or throw you out of the house, but you will get a lot of tongue-clucking and concern trolling about underachieving or 'not living up to your potential'. You will be the family disappointment. People will be sad on your behalf. Mainly they will be sad at you on your behalf, whether you want their pity or not.

Connie moved to New York City, where she and the musical talent so lauded today were completely ignored for a decade.

Genius kids get a lot of encouragement when they fail, but only if they fail at doing what other people consider a proper genius thing. Can't find the cure for cancer? Keep at it, it'll happen someday! With brains like that, you can't lose! Can't break into the music biz? Why didn't you finish college and go to work on the cure for cancer, like you were supposed to? Stop fucking around and apply yourself.

She finally gave up and slunk back to Ann Arbor, MI, where her brother the poli-sci professor found her a job that was at least smart enough to keep her sane. She eventually came to enjoy it enough that she was crushed when the journal she worked for was sold to Yale without notice, and her job vanished. Her colleagues, noting her increasing depression and burnout, once took up a collection and sent her to live in London for eight months.

I imagine it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand... eight months in London? That's a hell of a collection. But on the other hand, she mentions in one of the papers she left behind that it was the only time in her life she'd allowed herself to have some unproductive, unstructured fun. It suggests to me that Connie felt what a lot of us feel, a tremendous pressure to produce, and produce brilliantly, without any breaks or course corrections. When people won't shut up about what great things they expect out of you, it's hard to tell them you can't even, even when it's true. You can go on vacation, but as soon as you come back they start giving you that hopeful, expectant look again, like a dog that just has so much faith you're going to give him a chunk of your sandwich.

I tend to think that Connie didn't drive her car right off a cliff, or at least didn't intend to. If there's one thing I have absorbed from reading an inordinate number of books written by the Chief Medical Examiners of the world, it's what real suicide notes look like. I know on TV they're all hyperdramatic pieces of florid poetry, and the reported contents of Connie's letters to family wouldn't feel out of place among them -- talking about how she needed to find something better than the life she had, and maybe they'd see her again and maybe they wouldn't, and all that. Real suicide notes stab you right in the heart because they're pragmatic. They start with a brief apology for being a failure at life, list the bills that have been left neatly on the hall table and when they're due, and ask you to please take care of the cat. It's a rare suicide who makes as many plans as Connie appears to have done and doesn't go out of their way to be, in a strange and depersonalized sort of way, as little bother as possible.

Check the category label for more Monday Mysteries!