If any parent, myself included, were asked to imagine the worst kind of living
hell, it might well go something like this. First, their child disappears from
a holiday hotel room. A police investigation fails to provide any leads
whatsoever. Finally, they themselves are accused by police of killing their own
child and disposing of the body.
That is, of course, what has happened to Kate and then Gerry McCann, who have
been declared arguidos, or formal suspects, by the Portuguese police. Kate
McCann's face, glimpsed in pictures, looked particularly drawn. A friend
initially described her response to the development as "stunned and
disappointed". I imagine that the exhausted Mrs McCann has now become
almost numb to whatever freshly surreal barbs of horror life can throw at her:
the fiercest, deepest anguish possible surely came in May, with the
disappearance of her daughter.
The world has now become intensely familiar with images of Gerry and Kate
McCann, trapped in their unchanging distress like insects in amber. They
receive the coverage normally afforded to celebrities, yet the sole source of
their uneasy fame is the cruel fact that their daughter is missing.
After her disappearance, one friend of the McCanns reported having seen a
dark-haired man making off with a sleeping child in his arms, and there were
endless "sightings" of the little blonde girl. There have been pleas,
posters, prayers and a meeting with the Pope, and back from the unknown has
come the most dreaded sound of all: silence.
Early on, the McCanns decided to use the media as a megaphone to broadcast
their search for Madeleine to every shadowy corner of the world. But the mass
media is more than a simple instrument of broadcast: it is a half-tame tiger
that will permit people to ride for a while upon its back while it roars, but
may also turn and maul them.
In the case of the McCanns, the effect of the media has been double-edged. The
publicising of their plight generated an enormous wave of public sympathy,
albeit one with an undercurrent of prurient fascination.
Many people debated fiercely whether they themselves would ever leave their
small children alone in a hotel room while they dined nearby with friends, and
some openly attacked the McCanns for having done so. There were whispers of
disapproval, too, for aspects of their behaviour that were not judged "in
keeping" with their grim situation: some onlookers clucked disapprovingly
when Kate went jogging, or seemed too composed, or when Gerry lost his temper.
This type of criticism, particularly of Mrs McCann, has always infuriated me:
it is as though our society is perpetually eager to unmask a cold-hearted Lady
Macbeth lurking behind the gentler image of a mother, wife or girlfriend. There
are echoes of the much harsher press treatment meted out to Joanne Lees after
her boyfriend Peter Falconio was murdered in the outback by Bradley John
Murdoch in 2001. At the time there were widespread suggestions in the media
that Lees - who had managed to escape the attacker - was suspiciously composed,
and overt accusations that she had killed Falconio herself. It only later
emerged that Lees had been given Valium and, in any case, how precisely should
one behave after fleeing a psychopath who has shot one's boyfriend?
A similar question, I think, applies to the McCanns: how exactly should one
behave when one's child simply disappears? Pray to God, if you like, that none
of Kate McCann's critics are ever compelled to find out.
The media campaign has had another unpredictable effect. It has stirred up
national resentments, and inflamed the Portuguese newspapers to wild
accusations against the McCanns. The flailing Portuguese police, stung by
largely legitimate criticism of what has undoubtedly been a bungled
investigation, have evidently grown desperate for a swift resolution. The
unreliable whiff of the Salem
witch-hunt is entering the process: the McCanns have now been ensnared in the
curious Portuguese legal no-man's-land of the "arguido" - and what of
that other, continuing "arguido", Robert Murat, whose life has
effectively been destroyed by the accusation?
Week by week, the public, first appalled, has gradually grown accustomed to
treating the McCanns' search as a kind of running drama. Yet drama craves
momentum, and last week brought a plot twist which has led a nation of armchair
Poirots avidly to debate times, places and possible motives.
I find myself incapable of believing that the McCanns had anything at all to do
with the disappearance of their daughter. We must, of course, await the outcome
of the investigation. But we would do well to remember that this is not in fact
a Grimm's fairy tale, a soap opera, or a murder mystery. It is the real life of
Kate and Gerry McCann, and it must now have become a place of agony beyond all
understanding. Pity them, if you have any compassion at all, and demonstrate
the minimum of grace: the ability to desist from judgment.