Without You: What It's Like To Be The Sibling Of A Missing Person - The Guardian, 11th April 2015
It is 20 years since Richard Edwards’ car was found abandoned near the Severn bridge. Richard, better known as Richey, was a member of Manic Street Preachers, the most tortured and idolised. He was the guitarist who couldn’t play guitar, the skinny boy in eyeliner who cut himself (famously carving 4 REAL into his arm during an interview with NME).
I meet his sister Rachel Elias at her mother’s bungalow in Blackwood, a former mining town in south Wales. Rachel lives down the road, but spends lots of time here with her mother. In a small room off the kitchen, there is a photograph of Richard (Rachel always calls him Richard) receiving his English degree – young, hopeful, not very rock’n’roll. Next to it is a pile of old 45s, some hers, some his – the Smiths, Scott Walker.
Rachel, 45, is a small, striking woman. You don’t need to look hard to see Richard in her. Her memories of him are random, lingering. “One of the last matches he watched on telly was Newcastle v Blackburn. I don’t know why I remember him telling me that. A few weeks before he went missing, our dog died, a Welsh springer spaniel.” They were both living in Cardiff, where Richard had bought a flat. “We came back home, bought a tree from B&Q and buried the dog.”
Richard, two years older than Rachel, was a smart, creative boy, who would help her with her homework. In the years before he went missing, he suffered acute depression; he had only recently come out of the Priory after a previous stay at Whitchurch psychiatric hospital in Cardiff. Rachel didn’t think he was troubled as a teenager, but looking back she can see signs. “He used to pick up a compass and do this.” She scrapes herself with an imaginary compass. “He wouldn’t do it in front of me. But I knew. I never said anything.”
Most cases are quickly resolved: 99% are solved within a year. But that still leaves 2,500 people who leave no trace.
She visited him in hospital and by now he was seriously self-harming. “I’d say, look at your wrists. He’d say, that’s nothing compared to the mental pain I feel. One of the nurses gave him a book by Spike Milligan, Depression And How To Survive It. Milligan said he was so sensitive to things, he felt skinless – I think Richard identified with that.” Did the music business make things worse? “Who knows? Those symptoms might have manifested themselves if he’d been working in a bank.”
She thinks the Priory made him feel special, which she hated – as if his depression was a gift. “You were treated like a pop star. A psychiatrist told my mother he was the Richard Burton of the music world. I thought, what? Because he was Welsh?” Eric Clapton was an occasional counsellor there. “I thought it was funny he and Richard exchanged CDs. He gave him From The Cradle, his blues album. Richard couldn’t even play guitar.”
Richard had told her he wanted to leave the band and just write lyrics for them. But in the end he agreed to a US tour to promote their third album, The Holy Bible. On 31 January 1995, he and band mate James Dean Bradfield checked into the Embassy hotel in London, ahead of their flight. The next morning, when Bradfield knocked on his door, there was no answer. Staff found the room empty except for a few personal items. A fortnight later, Richard’s silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found at the Severn View service station. The Severn bridge was a renowned suicide location – but a lock had been fitted to the steering wheel, which made the family think Richard had been planning to return. richey edwards' graduation photo Richard Edwards receiving his English degree
His disappearance was entirely out of character. “He took his responsibilities seriously, and he’d made the decision to return to the band. He used to ring my mum and dad every day, so just deserting them, not making the flight… ”
Rachel knows how many people go missing, but says it’s an isolating experience: “Other people don’t know what to say to you or how to treat you.” Over the years, she has found comfort through Missing People. On her mother’s mantelpiece, there are framed pictures of families. I ask who they are. “Other families with missing people,” Rachel says. “They have become friends.”
There have been numerous conspiracy theories about Richard’s disappearance, including the suggestion he was targeted by government agents because he wrote a song called If White America Told The Truth For One Day Its World Would Fall Apart. But Rachel is not interested in speculation – she just wants the facts. She has campaigned to get the families of missing people one single point of police contact (there were three forces involved in the search for her brother) and has fought for the DNA of missing people to be cross-matched with Britain’s database of more than 1,000 unidentified bodies: “Most people simply don’t know about the database.” It took 10 years to get DNA from Richard’s hairbrush tested. No match was found. Advertisement
For a while after he went missing, Rachel would drive around at night, looking for him in their old haunts. Then she stopped, thinking it pointless. Twelve years ago, she took a job in a night shelter for homeless people. She never questioned why, then realised she was looking for Richard. “He’d shaved his head and had a bobble hat on before he went missing. And sometimes I’d walk past the living room, see the shape of someone and think…”
She has become less rose-tinted about the world, less secure. “If you go to the Missing People office, there is a wall of grainy photographs. You think you live in a safe world, then you see that and think, no, no. It makes everything seem more sinister.”
Seven years after someone has disappeared, they can be declared dead in absentia. The family decided against this initially, but in 2008, 13 years after Richard went missing, they agreed it would be the best course. Their parents were getting older, and they still had Richard’s bills to pay. His father, who has since died, told Rachel and her mother he didn’t want to leave them with these worries. “So we wound up his financial affairs. Until then we were going down to look after his flat.”
But it was not a simple process. Insurance companies often challenge a case, because they believe families might be on the make. “I had to go in front of the judge and swear on oath that I believe he is dead. That was a very difficult experience. I wrote the affidavit. We had to build up this picture about why we thought he may have died, prove his psychiatric history, how it was out of character, what effort we made to locate him. I’ve met families since who have had multiple applications rejected. Our first was. We had to add more information, then the judge just stamped it.” Can she remember the day they got the certificate? “It just came through. ‘Richard Edwards deceased.’ Yeah, that was hard to read.”
There is still no sense of closure. Does it become easier as the years go by? “Well, recently I’ve come to faith and I go to church. One of the hardest things is that my dad died not knowing. Sometimes I think, well, you have to face the possibility that you may have to live with this uncertainty.” She pauses. “But I think at some point, if not in this life, it will be revealed. And I will know.”