The Horror of Disappearance

Dogs at the Perimeter: A beautiful novel, with heartbreaking truths

As Canada welcomes Syrian refugees, our Book Club is exploring a story of rebuilding a life in Canada so that we may gain a better understanding of the horrors faced by those who escape persecution. Amidst the violence and destruction in home countries, there is one particular experience that haunts far too many: the unanswered disappearances of loved ones. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers, and friends: one moment there, the next, gone.

Beautifully realized, deeply affecting, Dogs at the Perimeter evokes totalitarianism through the eyes of a little girl, and draws a remarkable map of the mind’s battle with memory, loss and the horrors of war. While she survives, her family does not.

Join us this Monday, February 29th at 7:30 PM EST as we host Madeleine Thein in a live webcast conversation aboud the book. 

My father disappeared. But still, even now, I imagine seeing him again. In my dreams, he tells me that time ran away from him . . . Just last night my father had knocked at my door, surprised and embarrassed, asking me where everyone had disappeared to, demanding to know why we hadn’t waited and why, all these years, we had never answered his calling. (p. 48)

In this novel, Hiroji is haunted by the disappearance of his brother, and Janie is haunted by the disappearance of her father. Their fate is unknown, but what is clear is the intolerable anguish that families experience when the fate of a loved one remains unknown.

Hiroji knew what it was to have the missing live on, unending, within us. They grow so large, and we so empty, that even the coldest winter nights won’t swallow them. (p. 13)

Many years later, after being adopted by a Canadian family, Janie spends her life trying to disassociate from the loss of her mother, father and brother. But when a colleague suddenly disappears without explanation, she embarks upon a journey that will piece together both who she was, who she has become and the consequences of reconciling these different lives.

Remember this night,” my father said. “Mark it in your memories because tomorrow everything changes.” There are moments that define change in our life – a breaking away from innocence when everything irreversibly changes.

Have you ever experienced such a moment? How did it impact your engagement with the world?

Dogs at the Perimeter GuideAuthor Madeleine Thein describes each character’s relationships in this novel as “a desperate love of family, as well as a need, under extreme pressure and heartache, to let that family go.”

How does this relate to your own personal experience of love, loss and heartbreak?

It’s hard to read this book and not imagine how scared we would feel if our loved one disappeared. As you read this month’s guide, you’ll learn of families who are speaking out against enforced disappearances.

An “enforced disappearance” is a grave human rights violation and a crime under international law. The human story is simple: people literally disappear. They disappear from their loved ones and their community. State officials (or someone acting with state consent) make someone “disappear” from the street or from their homes and then deny it or refuse to say where they are.

Often people are never released and their fate remains unknown. Victims who are held by state officials are frequently tortured and live in constant fear of being killed. They know their families have no idea where they are and the chances are no one is coming to help. Even if they escape death and are eventually released, the physical and psychological scars stay with them.

Every disappearance violates a range of human rights including:

  • right to security and dignity of person
  • right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • right to humane conditions of detention
  • right to a legal legal identity
  • right to a fair trial
  • right to a family life
  • right to life (if the disappeared person is killed or their fate is unknown).

“Disappearance” is a word which is well known in human rights work. Today, in the midst of conflict and violence, “disappearances” are all too common. Mexico, for example, has seen more than 26,000 people “disappear” since 2006, half of them in the past three years alone. Among the disappeared are 43 students from a teacher training college who were taken away in September 2014 and never seen again.

Visit to support the families’ quest for the return of their loved ones. Pressure from Canadians truly makes a difference, especially given Mexico’s concern about its international image.

For more books and human rights conversations, join our community at