A five-year-old girl is sent to the child psychotherapist, Adam Phillips, for truancy issues at school and her father describes her as a ‘right little Houdini’. This seems pitifully young to be flirting so compulsively with the dangers of being lost, and startlingly precocious to be straining against the bonds of protection and restraint. I initially picture a child who simply longs to be free. But the game of hide-and-seek that she insists on playing at the start of every session is strange in the extreme, and suggests that the reality of children is always darker and more complex than we imagine. She enters the therapist’s room, empty apart from an armchair, a table and a chair, and standing with her eyes closed before him she commands him to ‘Start looking.’ Naturally disconcerted, Phillips is unsure what to do, but the game is in any case destined to failure. ‘No one can look everywhere,’ she will tell him, still standing right in front of him, and then eventually, in what Phillips describes as ‘her most world-weary voice’ she says ‘I give up.’ The game is over and she doesn’t want to talk about it, but Phillips is convinced it holds the key to her problems. What is he to make of this child who is lost in full view but cannot be found?
Let’s begin by marveling briefly at how much emotional and mental development children can pack into the simplest of games. Hide-and-seek, that old drama, never fails to delight children and is far more than something to do on a day when the weather is bad or the toys look uninviting. In fact, hide and seek is a way for children to ask a fundamentally important question, which is: what would life be like if I were no longer here? One of the most basic desires of human beings is to want to know what we mean to other people, and for children, whose survival depends on the good will of the opaque adults around them, this is no idle inquiry. Sometimes this can come as a surprise to parents, as their fiercely protective love is probably one of the most constant, unwavering emotions they feel towards their children. But children, low on intellectual understanding yet highly sensitive to the endless constraints and restraints put upon their behaviour, the regular scoldings and refusals and the overriding sense that their natural inclinations are often the wrong ones, are not always so sure that they are cherished. Hide-and-seek is a safe and reassuring way for the child to know that if he or she goes missing, someone, a friend, a sibling or a parent, will come looking. Hide-and-seek is the logical development of the baby’s favourite, peekaboo. How patiently the baby will sit with its bib or a corner of its blanket slung over its head, waiting for mother to lift the corner and reunite them! Babies gurgle with delight, bounce up and down on their nappies, grinning like maniacs, just from that delicious moment of reunion with the full blast of the loving maternal gaze. ‘Being found’ is a really powerful concept from this earliest moment on. But this most joyful of early transactions is based on a fault line between mother and child that may come to trouble them both. Mothers think that having their baby in their sights is the basic condition for the child’s safety and happiness, and whilst this may be true, it is incompatible with life. And children think that their mother’s gaze will always find them, which is not just a matter of locating them in physical space, but an act that will recognize them, know them, love them for who they are. In the exchange of looks, big promises are made between mother and child, promises for a lifetime’s security, a lifetime’s understanding. It’s no surprise that when people go missing, and when children in particular are lost, the breaking of such a precious bond seems to be not only an outrage, but the death of all hope.
So let’s return to Adam Phillips’s young patient and note straight off that something has already gone very wrong in this transaction for her. She is painfully aware that she can be right in front of an adult and still be lost. ‘Find me,’ her behaviour is imploring to him, whilst at the same time her blindsided, cynical self is saying ‘You’ll never do it.’ At this point I should stop withholding the information that the other reason this child is in therapy is for an assessment as a possible victim of child abuse. Phillips does not reveal the outcome of her story and so all I can do is speculate. But in this light, she might not be a mischievous child attempting to escape the authority of school and her parents; instead she may well be a bewildered and vulnerable little girl following an imperative urge to find safety. And maybe standing in front of Phillips, surrendering in her most world weary voice, is a way of letting him know how the games adults play with her are inevitably destined to end. If this child is lost, it may not be in the physical sense, but lost from the understanding, loving, protecting sight of those around her, seen as someone’s object, someone’s recompense and not the vulnerable infant she really is. When children are not seen for what they are in a loving, compassionate gaze, then they are lost not only to the adult who views them, but also to themselves, and it’s a situation every child instinctually recognizes as profoundly dangerous.
This is, of course, one way to lose a child that does not necessarily spring into a mother’s mind when the concept of losing children is raised. To lose is child is generally to invoke any number of scenarios of intolerable catastrophe: illness, accidents, predators, drug abuse, suicide. The fear that most grips parents in this day and age and seems to crystallize all the miasma of terrors and threats around children is the fear of abduction. I say it’s a modern fear, but in fact it’s a very old one indeed. In Greek mythology, Persephone is out picking flowers when she is abducted by the lustful god of the underworld, Hades. Her mother, the goddess of fertility, Demeter, is left so broken and despondent that ‘the springs of fertility ran dry: vegetation languished, animals ceased to multiply, and the hand of death touched mankind’. On one level, the myth provides an explanation for why the world plunges us into chilly winter, but on another it is a fine description of the loss of children as the nuclear winter of parenthood. The world might seem to keep turning, but it is without light, without warmth, without growth, joyless. The prospect of a god of the underworld invading the sunny security of a child’s life and removing it from all it knows and loves remains the stuff of a mother’s nightmares. And it’s probably no coincidence that it’s Demeter, the mother, who symbolizes parental loss. In the early years mothers still tend to be the child’s primary carer and therefore the one most in touch, on a daily basis, with the risks a child runs. In the table of maternal commandments, the first is, without question, thou shalt keep thy child safe at all times. To have let one’s child out of one’s sight at just the wrong moment is a threat that hangs over every mother and haunts her every move; children are that terrible combination of recklessness and inattention. Full of curiosity, empty of suspicion, more capable than their motor skills would lead you to believe, less intelligent than you might hope. Mothers are forced to contemplate their child’s mortality repeatedly, however much they may not wish to, and must often resort to the magic sustaining powers of their gaze, watching their children like hawks in the hope of keeping them upright and out of harm’s way.
Things being what they are, an incident can in any case occur despite the safest of circumstances. I lost my son once, only for a brief while, but it was not something I will ever forget. We were going on holiday to France and making our way to the departure gate at the airport. My husband and mother-in-law had gone on ahead because my son had wanted to buy some sweets. Clutching these, we followed on behind. Reaching the gate at Stansted requires boarding a small shuttle train, and not being an experienced traveler I wanted to check we were indeed headed in the right direction. My son took a step forwards onto the train, I took a step backwards to look at the sign on the side of the carriage. At that point the doors closed between us and we were left staring helplessly at each other as the train pulled away. Frantic is not the word. My son was 10, old enough to act sensibly, young enough to be unpredictable. What would he do when the train came to its next stop? We had no mobile phones, the salvation of many such a situation. I literally could not think for the emotion that flooded me at that moment. Every biological alarm bell was ringing on emergency alert: I had let my son out of my sight, I had lost him. Although there was a chance he would stay on the train and come full circle, I boarded the next one, hoping to catch up to him. After a few moments the train paused again at another platform and I scanned the crowds, searching for my child. Not seeing him, I called his name, and the crowds parted to reveal him running towards me. My son is not much of a public hugger, but he allowed me a full embrace, despite the carriage load of curious spectators. My son put the incident behind him in about five minutes, once we had told it to his father, and I shook all the way to France. ‘It was always going to be fine,’ said my husband. ‘Where was he going to go? He could hardly board a plane without us.’ But that wasn’t the point for me; the threats that stalk a lost little boy were infinite in my head, and the fact that he had been separated from me when I was standing right beside him was almost traumatic. I had glimpsed a future in which an error of judgement, a moment’s miscalculation would have haunted the rest of our lives. It was the briefest of events, happily resolved, but it was like a trailer for the kind of film that would mean sleeping with the lights on forever more.
That kind of film gets played out across the media all too often it seems. The lost children that come to the attention of the general public are those who have suffered at the hands of unspeakable violence and the cases of maximum coverage are also those where the notion of home as a safe haven is most appallingly violated. On August 4th 2002 in the small East Anglian village of Soham, two ten-year-old girls, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were murdered by their school caretaker, Ian Huntley. Police reconstructions suggest they were killed in what must have been a matter of minutes although it was weeks before their bodies were found What caught the public’s stricken imagination, beyond the horror of such violence wrought on innocent children, was the fact that their day up to that point had been so ordinary, that the village was a place where people mostly knew one another, where the girls were doing nothing more dangerous than walking along a populated road together. Ian Huntley was known within the local community and no one perceived him as a threat. Thus it was a cause for consternation and outrage when a fairly shocking past history of criminal abuse was revealed in the aftermath of the crime. Since 1995 he had been accused of nine sexual offences, including a string of rapes, an indecent assault of an 11-year-old girl, and unlawful sexual intercourse with four young girls. How could such an individual have been allowed to work in a school? This is a very good question, and one that authorities have since tried to tackle, but it was overlaid by the general incredulity that a potentially vicious killer should manage to masquerade so successfully as a harmless human being. The feeling remains that pedophiles, sex offenders and serial killers should look distinctly different to the run of humanity or display the traits that will denounce them. Writing in the Observer in an overview of the case, Nicci Gerrard summed up the impression that ‘you cannot protect your children because kindness and great cruelty wear the same face.’ The murder of young children is such an unthinkable, sickening event that inevitably people demand new preventative measures in the aftermath, and yet when such crimes occur it is the impossibility of protecting children that is all too often emphasized.
The emotional public response to such murders is driven in part by this stark cultural contradiction: the death of a child is experienced as an outrage, and one that is compounded by our fundamental inability to prevent children from encountering danger. The story of the Soham murders became a media circus and the village turned, briefly, into a kind of shrine with people traveling across the country to pay their respects. Subsequent accounts of the Soham tragedy have been both quick and careful to express a distinction between those who are grieving their lost children, and those whose sense of sorrow and anger has been awakened by the media representations of the event. We cannot know how the parents feel, has been a repeated cry, we cannot equate our sadness with what they are going through. This is true. And yet it doesn’t address the powerful complexity of grief that is never more anguished than when children are at stake. The death of a child is overwhelmingly affecting, and often not just for those who are directly concerned. It’s one of the most difficult topics to talk about, not a taboo exactly, but a minefield of explosive emotional triggers. An issue that brings us up short against everything that is broken and wrong and hopeless, not just with regard to the society we are living in, but with the cruelty and injustice of life itself. The psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom describes how: ‘To lose a parent or a lifelong friend is often to lose the past: the person who died may be the only other living witness to golden events of long ago. But to lose a child is to lose the future: what is lost is no less than one’s life project – what one lives for, how one projects oneself into the future, how one may hope to transcend death.’ This is true for parents, but we forget that it is true also for the community at large. The raising of children may well be the last community project that we cherish in our alienated and compartmentalized society, and as such it carries even more of our hopes for the future, even more of our idealized wishes and dreams.
But the grief we feel over children is more complicated still. Yalom’s remarks come in a case study of a 38-year-old mother, a taxi driver by trade, who had lost her daughter to leukemia at the age of 13 after a four-year struggle and whose experience provided Yalom with an instructive example of mourning. Penny was stuck in extreme grief, unable to move on, sleeping in her daughter’s bed, visiting her grave daily, keeping up with her daughter’s friends to continue her life at some level. She was acutely aware that these activities that had once brought her some comfort in the intolerable aftermath of her daughter’s death were now exerting an unreasonable grip over her life. But to give them up seemed to represent a final abandonment of her child that she could not contemplate, a final failure of maternal love that was worse even than having let her die. Yalom’s therapy involved initially addressing the terrible but somewhat perplexing guilt that Penny felt for having ‘failed her daughter’, despite the fact that she had been with her through every stage of her treatment and could not have done more. Yalom suggests that guilt is the almost unavoidable remainder for those left behind, no matter how attentive, how caring or how assiduous the parent was in reality. ‘The sentiment that one “should have done something more” reflects, it seems to me, an underlying wish to control the uncontrollable,’ Yalom explains. ‘After all, if one is guilty about not having done something that one should have done, then it follows that there is something that could have been done – a comforting thought that decoys us from our pathetic helplessness in the face of death.’ But as he dug deeper into Penny’s past, Yalom was startled to uncover even deeper sources of misery and guilt that had helped to lock her into a cycle of frozen grief. As they talked so it became clear that Penny’s own childhood was one of deprivation and hardship. Brought up by a bitter single mother who was rarely available to her daughter, Penny turned to alcohol and fell pregnant herself at the age of 15, giving birth to twin girls who were given up for adoption. It seems one of the piercing cruelties of life that wanting to wipe the slate clean and start over is so rarely possible, for bad experiences cast very long shadows. Not only was Penny trying to deal with the kind of loss that would overwhelm the most grounded of mothers, she was doing so on foundations that were broken and rotten from the bitter disappointments of her early life. No one assumes the process of mourning a child could be anything other than bleak beyond all imagining, but as Penny’s case shows, for those who have unresolved grief sealed in pockets of the past, the emotional turmoil becomes ever more complicated.
Yalom’s case study offers some hope to those who have suffered one of the most appalling experiences life has to offer. Losing a child is not something that can ever be overcome in any sense, but the miracle of mourning can still return some degree of normal life back to grieving parents, even if it is scarred and incomplete. Moving on, in a way that honours and contains the past, is possible. Parents who endure the endless wastelands of frozen grief are those who have already been damaged earlier in life and who are in no position to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen them. Penny’s inability to move on or to find any comfort in the present was bound up with a series of earlier losses that were reawakened by her daughter’s death. Not only had she lost her daughter and two earlier babies when she was not in a position to care for them, but she had lost, a long while back, her own optimism, her own enlivening hopes for herself. We carry within ourselves the shadow of our own childhood, and just as children can become compensations for what we did not achieve, so the blows that fate deals to sons and daughters reverberate in acutely painful ways with the damage done to our youthful selves.
We do not have to be the parents, or indeed to be parents at all, to identify with the particularly poignant image of a suffering child. The deaths of children we have never met can release terrible sadness, not simply because children are symbolic of purity and beauty and hope (as if that were not enough) but because their loss reactivates old but still aching sorrows, the obliterated hopes of youth, the feelings brutally quashed, the vulnerabilities that were damaged beyond repair. Although children are unformed in so many ways, their capacity to feel emotion is immense, and so to imagine the experience of a child facing death, fearing the attacker, or lost in terrifying circumstances, is to tap into ancient memories of abandonment, separation and anxiety that were never sufficiently assuaged. When bad things happen to children, we are thrust back into our old, suffering, childish selves, as if those years of hard-won maturity had never really happened.
With so much at stake, in an unpredictable and uncontrollable world, the repeated calls for ever more stringent measures to protect children within society seem wholly understandable if hard to effect. In the absence of such measures, parents become the guardians of gilded cages. Gone are the days when children used to roam the local countryside in their free time; home remains the privileged safe universe, with the family car as its mini extension, and the rest of the world is viewed as a perilous wilderness. Inevitably, the newest peril to arise is the technology that allows the outside world a kind of ultimate free access to the child’s private life inside the home: the internet. Chat rooms, role-playing online games, MySpace, blogging, all these innovations in virtual relationships are now widely available to children in a format that is awkward for parents to monitor. Young girls with a propensity to post pictures of themselves in bikinis and enthusiastically pursue confessional relationships are considered to be particularly at risk of the kind of male pervert who might assume an online persona in order to lure them into threatening assignations. In an award-winning article for The Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘Babes in the Wood’, Caitlin Flanagan quotes the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which suggests one in five children who use the internet has been propositioned for sex. These are alarming statistics and Flanagan proposes that the other 80 percent kept their own propositions quiet in order not to be disconnected by their parents.
Yet Flanagan’s article is itself wearing an ambiguous and troubling disguise. On the grounds of figuring out exactly what her 8-year-old twin sons were experiencing in the virtual arena, Flanagan logged onto Club Penguin, a typical online play space in which children create penguin alter egos that waddle around between various mini-games, winning coins that will buy them clothes and furniture for their igloos. What had worried Flanagan and caused her to put an imbargo on the site was the fact that these penguins could chat to each other. Despite the presence of so-called Secret Agents, long-term members of the club who are commissioned to report any inappropriate behaviour, Flanagan was concerned that it provided ‘the safest way for unsupervised children to talk to potentially malevolent strangers.’ And so selecting a pink penguin and logging on as ‘Tootsabella2’ she began to infiltrate the world of feisty and frosty penguin friends. The penguins appeared to be a benign environment, although even happiness alerted Flanagan’s aroused sensitivities so that ‘penguins deep in happy conversation who suddenly vanished from the scene’ were transported in her imagination to ‘a private chat in an out-of-the-way igloo, safe from the prying eyes of the Secret Agents.’ This is, of course, the problem with imagined dangers: one can never outwit them, or lay fantasy fears completely to rest. Minds that create such fears are oddly keen to preserve them rather than assuage them. And this is a problem bound up with being an overly concerned parent, who has reached such a level of intense suspicion that even scenes of mild contentment start to hint at darker shadows of intent. And beyond all of this, there is a big problem with being an adult peering in on the world of children and reading what goes on there through a filter of sexuality and transgression that children themselves do not possess. When does a concern for the innocence of children mutate into something that is itself prurient and misplaced? Flanagan’s fantasy of penguins disappearing into secret hideaways treads a very uncertain borderline indeed.
Yet most worrying of all is the transformation of the writer herself from concerned parent to dishonest adult to the kind of stalker she is most troubled about. After her adventures in Club Penguin, she picks out a teenager on MySpace and tries to crash her graduation ceremony, just to see whether it is possible. Flanagan’s attempts to test the security on the net lead her first into false pretences and then into a kind of disturbing twilight zone of uninvited surveillance. Her behaviour may be extreme, but it should invite us to pause and wonder for a moment whether we are looking in the right direction when it comes to protecting children from the dangers of the modern world, and whether such vigilance is necessary or sensible. Parents have surely never before in history been so acutely anxious about the threats posed to their children by the undesirable elements of the external world, and yet, alas, the greatest threat to the safety and happiness of children remains without question the parents themselves. I wonder whether it is because this is so very hard indeed for parents to hear that they turn an almost manic concentration on what lies outside the house. Criticizing a parent’s skills with a child is the quickest and surest way to provoke their outrage, unless you count suggesting that, despite the grip of a parenting ideology that currently makes children the little gods of their own homes, adults still allow their preoccupations and weaknesses to get in the way of good childcare. It’s curious too that the greatest fears for children’s safety should coincide with a resolutely cheerful and positive period in childcare in which all physical punishment is forbidden. I wonder if it would be possible for a parent today to admit to feeling anger and aggression, the desire to smack and scream at their own child, although inevitably it will be there. Humans have a great talent for placing emotions they cannot possess into temporary out houses, and it may be that quite natural but inadmissible rage is projected out and away onto the image of the dark stranger. But pride and guilt and repression aside, it might be better all round if parents felt able to accept in some way that they are human, and flawed, and capable of making mistakes even with the best of intentions. It’s not a failing, it’s just reality. Because the majority of lost children are lost not through the actions of evil strangers, and not through the intervention of cruel fate in the form of illnesses and accidents, but lost because that original bond of love and recognition with their parents is broken beyond repair.
Looking at statistics from the United States since the turn of the millennium, about one hundred children a year go missing due to ‘stereotypical kidnapping’ which is to say abduction involving a stranger or person of slight acquaintance. Many thousands are indeed abducted – but by adults who are parties in one way or another to family breakdown and divorce, and who are taking the child not necessarily for its own good but as a kind of emotional hostage or tool of revenge against their estranged partners. The U.S. Department of Justice records just over 200,000 children taken this way in 2002. But this figure is still relatively small compared to the 1.6 to 2.8 million children, recorded by the National Runaway Centre, who leave home for the most part due to conflicts with parents and guardians involving violence or sexual abuse. A staggeringly large proportion of lost children have ended up that way by their own volition. This is not to belittle the plight of families who lose their children in the most distressing of circumstances, this has nothing to do with the emotional ordeals they must undergo, the overwhelming guilt and grief they must feel. But it ought to speak to parents who suffer the typical fears for their child’s safety. Strangers are not the main threat to a child’s wellbeing. The situation is no different in Europe. The United Nations 2005 campaign ‘Stop Violence Against Children’ suggested that family violence claims the lives of four children under 14 each day in the European region, whilst thousands more are feared to endure terrible situations. We could look at this in a different light and consider the problem to be a social one rather than a parenting one, and there would certainly be value in this. We could consider unemployment, crime, poverty, addiction or the difficulties of the care system to be the most significant factors in the abuse and mistreatment of children, and undoubtedly they have a very important role to play. But there are also many families who manage to maintain loving bonds and bring their children up well despite the disadvantages they suffer. And there are many superficially privileged families who fall under the black spell of dysfunction. Being poor is no more of a surefire route to losing children than being rich is an insurance against it. There is no place to stand on the social scale where the dangers are reassuringly always and inevitably going to come from some distant, menacing place ‘outside’.
Again and again we are obliged to recognize that the greatest dangers to children are their parents and caregivers. The children at greatest risk are those in low-income families, or those bearing the strain of acrimonious divorce, or those where alcoholism or drug abuse have loosened adults from their mooring of their responsibilities. It is natural, and wholly laudable, that parents want to ensure the safety of very young children in whatever ways it is possible for them to do so. It is only sensible that we should remain alert to the potential dangers of new technology, to keep houses and schools safe environments and to teach children to be healthily suspicious of all that makes them uncomfortable. For the parents who have lost sons and daughters to random acts of unpredictable violence, we can do nothing of much use. We can only be humbled by what they have suffered. But for families whose members remain intact, if wary and worried about the strength of their vigilance, it is as well to remember that Adam Phillips’ five-year-old patient is still the most common form of lost child. The internal breakdown of the family, distressing arguments, out-of-control tempers, sad, distracted adults, overly demanding or controlling parents, these are the weapons that most regularly damage children, sometimes beyond repair. It is, I think, very difficult indeed for adults to come to terms with their capacity to hurt children; it is one of the new taboos our laid-back society has truly taken to its heart. We would rather agree that our desires are always innocent and compare the ferocity with which we revile sex offenders and internet predators. It is so much easier to be outraged, alarmed and disgusted by people we do not know, so much easier to construct a category of people who are somehow not human and assign all evil to them. But we ought to take heart from the thought that what we should be most afraid of – the loss of the loving bond of recognition between parent and child – is the one thing we have most in our power to keep safe. There are an infinite number of reasons why a child might drop below the radar of its parent, not least because she is keeping such a fixated eye on the world outside, but there are an equal number of opportunities to bring the child back into the sunshine of the approving parental gaze. It may not be easy sometimes, little about parenting ever is, but it is far preferable to all the alternatives and there is one big advantage on the side of the seeker. Lost children always want to be found.