On Not Taking ‘No’ for an Answer

Throughout this project, I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face. The reasons vary, and some are impossible to argue with. If a file I’m requesting was purged decades ago, there’s no chance of ever seeing it. I get that. But other times, the reasons are squishier and I feel it’s worth putting up a fight. When a request for documents yields astonishingly little, I ask again, following whatever protocol is necessary, usually by submitting an appeal. When requests for a comment or status update are not responded to, I seek help from a higher authority—from a mediating organization maybe or even a U.S. senator or representative. And if an agency or institution continues to put up roadblocks and the question at hand is paramount to understanding the full truth, I explore the possibility of filing a lawsuit. I’m funny that way about roadblocks. They only egg me on.

When I started my research for a book on the Ronald Tammen disappearance, my mother asked me to remember the following three questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? This sentiment was published in the Christian Science Sentinel as a poem, entitled “Three Gates,” by Beth Day, in 1905. (Some have said that the origin of her poem was even earlier than that, in the 1800s.) I can attest that I am only interested in presenting what is truthful. Also, the information I hope to present is certainly necessary. Ronald Tammen’s remaining family members deserve to know what happened to their brother.

It’s the third question—Is it kind?—that always trips me up. Kind to whom? Some people probably don’t perceive my haranguing for an answer to a yes-or-no question or a status update on my FOIA request as particularly kind. At times, I’m a royal pain in the butt. But other people—the people who long to know what happened to Tammen, the people whose lives have been dramatically altered by his disappearance—may feel differently. These are the people I’m doing it for.