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Making a run for their lives

Who knows why she ran? Perhaps Jennifer Wilbanks was frustrated; her fianc had decided not to have sex before the wedding night, one newspaper reported. Maybe she has a serious thyroid imbalance, which would explain her protuberant eyes and slightly bulging neck.

What was she thinking when she went out for a jog before her 600-guest, 14-bridesmaid wedding and boarded a Greyhound from Atlanta to Austin, Texas, and points west? And what had changed three days later in New Mexico, when she claimed to have been the victim of abduction by two women? Maybe she was inspired by Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride, cantering away from it all with her wedding dress and veil streaming behind her. Whatever her motivations, this runaway bride is in good company.

Our country's original colonists set the tone -- the American way is to blow the joint. We are a runaway culture, founded by runaways for runaways. The Pilgrims sailed to Massachusetts to get away from the religious practices of the Church of England. The dissenting Puritans followed them for the same reason. The very first American settlers were runaways, motivated by fear and frustration about their circumstances, willing to risk their lives to leave their problems behind. When life is too difficult, we get out of Dodge, whether the town is a repressive 17th-century London or an anticipatory 21st-century Duluth, Ga.

Our history is also a story of runaways. The American West was settled by families and adventurers running away from their problems. Second sons and plain daughters, rebel cousins, petty criminals and people whose failures seemed overwhelming, or whose opportunities seemed limited, joined the rush of wagon trains going west of the Mississippi.

It's not just Julia Roberts. Wilbanks fascinates us because she is us. Our divorce rate is another symptom of our propensity to run away, as is the fact that, in spite of more stringent laws, barely more than 50 percent of divorced fathers pay child support.

We increasingly are a nation populated by runaways from other countries, immigrants escaping political persecution, famine, war or poverty. "Go west, young man," advised Horace Greeley in the 19th century, and 32-year-old medical assistant Jennifer Wilbanks did just that.

Wilbanks also is not alone in faking abduction. In the past few years, women have faked abductions to disappear in Texas, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. Two young women in Texas duct-taped themselves into the trunk of a car; University of Wisconsin student Audrey Seiler said she just wanted some time to herself. Young females under stress seem to be faking abduction in increasing numbers. "It's the new cutting," says one friend, referring to another self-destructive behavior. According to author Benjamin Radford, false abductions happen in this country a few times a month.

Runaways rarely are prosecuted for their absences, as Wilbanks may be, and even more rarely are asked to make financial retribution for the resources used in searching for them. Wilbanks' fianc, John Mason, has said he has forgiven her and that he will take her back. But anyone who saw Wilbanks' father on television pleading for her safe return knows that wounds inflicted on family members may be hard to repair.

I remember running away only once, from a job in suburban New York, where I worked at the local newspaper. After a very rough week, I bought a Friday night plane ticket to San Francisco, and, by Saturday, I knew I wanted to stay there for a while. On Monday morning, I called my boss at work.

"I'm in San Francisco," I said. I could tell he was slightly distracted. I imagined the Monday morning city room, the piles of wire stories and the ringing phone on my empty desk. "Great," he said. "When are you coming in?"

"Never," I answered.

It felt good for a few minutes, but less good as the days went by. Eventually I returned to New York and had to beg my boss to let me have my old job. He was no John Mason. He said no.

Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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