Ellen Maegerchuck was 53, a divorced mother of two living alone in Poughkeepsie, New York, when she awoke to find herself translucent.
At first she thought the bathroom mirror must be steam-fogged, but she hadn’t showered yet. She’d had an anxious night, dreamed bad dreams, and gotten out of bed too early just to get the whole thing over with.
By nine o’clock she was alarmed enough to call in sick to work and make her way to a nearby walk-in clinic. 'My regular doctor couldn’t see me, which I hated because he was the only one I felt I could trust with a problem this crazy,’ she recalls. 'I thought the people at the clinic wouldn't be able to see it, or maybe it would have gone away by the time I got there, and I’d sound even crazier than I already felt.’
By the time she got to the clinic, however, it was clear to her - and to everyone else - that she wasn’t crazy.
'They looked at me like I was an apparition,’ she says. 'Like I was a ghost.’
Ellen Maegerchuck was not patient zero for the fade. So far, such a person has been impossible to identify. Given that instances of fading are especially prevalent among isolated populations, it has been reasonably conjectured that the phenomenon could have existed for months, and even reached its final stage, before a single case was documented.
We are accustomed to describing the fade in the language of plague - terms like outbreak, spread, and diagnosis are common - but many are reluctant to define it as a medical condition.
'The fade is not a sickness,’ asserts Ibrahim Malek, a scholar of public health at the Rockefeller Institute who has written a book documenting the event, Still Here: A Guide to Healing in the Age of the Fade. ‘It is, rather, existential. A religious gloss may be applied if one so desires, but whatever our beliefs, the fade exists as lived reality. It is a phenomenon of nature that must be grappled with, practically and philosophically - not a disease to be cured.’
Malek cites the growing body of research demonstrating that the fade does not follow any epidemiological pattern; it does not spread from person to person. In fact, the opposite seems true: the fade is far more likely to strike people who have little contact with others.
It also appeared simultaneously in various places throughout the world with no obvious connections between them. Geographically, the isolation model also fits best: remote communities in places like Greenland, Patagonia, and Mongolia were some of the most affected. In the contiguous United States, rates of fade are highest in Montana and Wyoming.
That said, the average rate of fade in American cities is still relatively high. Even contrarian models don't seem to explain the sheer randomness of the event, at least from a medical standpoint.
Fade advocacy groups also push back against the idea that the fade carries with it the other, more salient trait of a medical condition: pain and suffering. 'It doesn't bother me, and it shouldn't bother you,’ Larry Caldwell, the president of Not Fade Away, is fond of saying. 'We’re right here. And we’re loud. You can’t miss us.’
The fade begins with translucence, as though some light is getting through the substance of one’s body. In the very early stages, it can seem like a kind of glow. After a few weeks, patches start to appear, like bald spots, where whatever’s on the other side is visible in outline. These spots give way to holes over the ensuing months. Then the holes grow. Usually inside of a year, the body disappears completely.
As far as can be told, that is where it ends. No other repercussions have been observed that are not the simple result of not being visible. Medical interventions become extremely difficult, and in most cases any complex procedure is out of the question. Early concerns about childbirth have been largely allayed: it turns out that a delivery can be performed reasonably well by feel and verbal direction. So far, no babies have been born faded, although their bodies do not become visible until they are outside the bodies of faded mothers.
Faded bodies feel no different to the touch, are subject to no alteration, and have the same material effect as any other bodies in nature. All interactions, all physical principles remain unchanged. The body, inexplicably to all investigators, simply remains unseeable.
Not everyone who lives with the fade is as sanguine as Caldwell about its effect on their lives. Ellen Maegerchuck wasn't able to continue her career as a child speech therapist because her students simply couldn't focus on her instruction. She wasn't fired, but she eventually quit anyway in frustration.
'I felt like I was failing those kids,’ she says. 'I could draw things, I could make do, but I couldn't connect with them. And no matter how hard they or their parents tried, the fact remained that they were scared of me. I was just this floating pile of clothes. They couldn't deal. I mean, these are kids. Kids who need help. I didn't want to make them have to deal.’
Maegerchuck’s dilemna is one that Malek addresses at length in his book. Humans, after all, have deeply embedded social cues they rely on to communicate - some of them inborn. It can be disconcerting for us to cope when there are no signals on offer. More than this, we tend to automatically situate ourselves with people as they exist before us - Malek calls this social contextualizing - and this is impossible with the faded.
'You don't know if you're talking to a child, an infirm old lady, someone you know, someone you don’t,’ he writes. 'This disconnect makes the faded into outsiders of a whole new order. In a very real way, they're not there.’
Although the degree to which the faded use and abuse their state is both highly controversial and widely disputed, it remains true that some of the faded have abandoned the norms of civilized society. Theft is common; security camera footage of burglaries carried out by the faded has become a virtual cottage industry on YouTube. Enclaves of fade parties and even small communities have been discovered in locales ranging from Miami Beach to Central Park. In some cases, the faded have committed violent crimes against people both faded and not, and pursuit of the perpetrators has been nearly impossible.
Yet the faded are beginning to find their way as a community unlike any before. Central to this is a burgeoning quest to understand what has happened - and why.
The NFA argues that this is self-defeating; that why is not an appropriate question, and that posing it risks opening a vein of persecution among both faded and non-faded people.
'Why am I faded is like saying why am I gay,’ says Caldwell. 'You just are. You only ask why if you wish it weren't so, and I don't think any faded person should wish that.’
Scholars like Malek, on the other hand, are quick to point out that existential questions have their place, and that they can lead us on journeys that can help us realize ourselves. 'Why am I here is a good question, among many other good questions,’ Malek writes. 'Why was I born? Why will I die? Why did I appear? Why did I disappear? And how am I still here? These are things we should all be trying to address, even if the answer is ultimately obscure.’
Maegerchuck, who now runs a support group for the faded, agrees.
‘For many of us, it’s not as easy as saying that it’s a genetic trait like any other,’ she says. 'Saying we were born this way - that this is like being gay or black or white - doesn't satisfy everyone. That’s the party line, and that’s the language of other recent identity movements, but it doesn't ring true for all of us. Maybe this is about us. Maybe there’s something about us.’
Those who have faded are twice as likely to be women; three times as likely to be over fifty; four times as likely to be unmarried; six times as likely to be poor. The incarcerated have the highest rate of fading among all groups so far defined. Among the professions most affected are long-haul truck drivers, dishwashers, factory workers, and janitors.
At first or second glance, there would seem to be a broadly unifying principle of dispossession; the faded often belong to marginalized groups. But the limitations of this reading are instructive, and discourage a political reading of any sort, be it identity, class, or ideology. There are broad swaths of educated professionals who have faded along with the working class; college graduates and high school dropouts alike; Democrats and Republicans; the fiercely religious and the mildly agnostic.
Interpersonal traits seem to be another dead end: while there is a prevalence of fading among the unmarried, for example, it is not any more significant than many other factors. Same goes for non-negotiables like age or health status. In the words of one numbers wonk, 'the why of the fade is not census-answerable.’
Although Malek makes a generally sturdy argument for seeing through the consequences of the fade both practically and philosophically, over the course of the book’s closing pages, he takes a turn for the mystical. After long conversation with dozens of the faded as they go about their lives, it is a turn I can forgive.
The facts of the case may be obscure when taken in aggregate, he acknowledges. Yet ‘there is a feeling one immediately senses when one is close to someone faded, whether we have known and loved them for long or are trying to. It is a kind of solitude. The faded are alone in a way others are not. It is not loneliness; rather, it is the vestige of the long-accepted fact that they are not wanted. In this way, the fade is not unexpected to them. It is merely final.’