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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Brenda Heist wanted to run away from life. Naturally, she went to Key West, FL.

The first time I was down there, I saw a highway sign that, for me, perfectly captured the meaning of that place. North, it said, with an arrow pointing the way.

No South, you understand. Just the one option: North. Not that I didn’t know where I was before I saw that, but it struck me as a visceral manifestation of what the little island represents. As the southernmost dot of inhabited land in the continental United States, it is the nation’s designated refuge for troubled or nonconformist souls. You end up there because running any farther (by land, at least) is a geographic impossibility. It is, literally, the end of the road.

So the news that Heist, the Pennsylvania mother who disappeared 11 years ago, fled there, feels almost too on the nose. Of course she went to Key West. Of course she did.

Heist’s odd odyssey began in 2002 in the little town of Lititz. She was going through a divorce and had just been turned down for housing assistance when three strangers found her crying in a park and invited her to hitchhike with them. She said yes.

And with that, she disappeared, leaving behind a husband and two children, until last week when she walked into the sheriff’s office in Key Largo and told deputies she was a missing person. The 11 years in between are a confusing pastiche of aliases, petty crime, panhandling, trailer parks, common-law marriage, sleeping under bridges, and even working as a housekeeper. It unfolded up and down the Florida peninsula, but largely on that half-mythic island at the bottom.

You can read the cost of Heist’s journey by gazing on the before and after pictures, the former showing a middle-age mom wearing lipstick and a posed smile and the latter showing a gaunt, hollow-eyed wraith with stringy blond hair and no eyebrows. It requires an effort of will to realize that they are the same woman.

But the cost of Heist’s escape is not just seen on her face. It is also seen in the ruins of her relationships.

  • commserver

    Heist sounds like someone who had emotional problems as the time. I hope that she gets the help that she needs.

  • sigrid28

    I wish Brenda Heist had taken the time to read a book, almost any book, so many are written about the efficacy of escapism–or reading the book itself is the epitome of escapism. Whenever I taught Melville’s “Moby Dick” in high school or college, I alway had the students compare Ishmael’s emotional condition, as set forth in the first paragraph of the novel, to a pamphlet for teenagers listing ten symptoms of depression:

    The cure for this malaise in mid-eighteenth century New England was going to sea, and we all know chapter and verse what came of that, in the case of “Moby Dick.”

  • Allan Richardson

    Key West is a unique part of America, where people cheer the sunset every day, and the unofficial police station is the donut shop. When the government in the 1980’s put CUSTOMS inspectors on the Overseas Highway because of fear of drugs (or was it Cuban refugees?) using Key West to get in to the “rest” of America, their people satirically declared that if our government TREATED them like a foreign country, they might as well BE a foreign country. So they declared themselves the Conch Republic.

    After Sarah Palin (“I can see Russia from my house” according to the comedian’s impression, not TOO different from her actual attitude) lost the VP race, there were rumors of a 2012 run, and it occurred to me that if the GOP could get one of their own to become Mayor or Sheriff of Key West, he could make a good running mate for Sarah, because “I can see Cuba from MY house.” But the hard part would be getting a Republican elected in Key West.

  • sigrid28

    Let’s say Brenda Heist opened her bible and read the Book of Jonah instead of setting off toward Key West that day year’s ago in the park. Here is a story we think we all know, yet it is rich in more meaning than Sunday School programs lead us to believe. In “Moby Dick,” Melville’s Father Mapple, preaching in a New England sea port to mariners about to set sail for months at a time to work in a profitable oil business (whale oil, that is), makes the story of Jonah the subject of his sermon:

    “God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. . . . All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do–remember that–and hence, He oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him.”

    Knowing as we all know, that going off to sea was the nineteenth-century man’s preferred means of escaping the demands of life upon the shore, considering the mindset of Father Mapple’s congregation, can we not pause a moment before we harden our hearts once and for all against Brenda Heist?

  • JDavidS

    What could make her decide to disappear? Jeezus, as a father of two (now grown, thank God) kids, I can think of about a dozen things right off hand…

  • adriancrutch

    So you don’t pay your bills your a demon. When my 401k was raped nobody said they were sorry!

  • CrossWinds

    Revelation 21:7
    He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.