Sleep, little child, sleep
An Obituary for Madeleine McCann
By Günter Franzen*
“There was once a stubborn child," reads the shortest fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers, "and she did not do as her mother wanted her to. That's why God had no pleasure in her and let her become ill, and no doctor could help her, and within a short time, the child was on her death bed. When she was sunk into the grave and was covered with earth, her little arm came out once again and reached up, and even if they put it back and put fresh earth over it, it was of no use, and the little arm came out again and again. Therefore the mother had to go to the grave herself, and beat the little arm with a rod, and after she had done this, the little arm pulled back into the earth, and the child finally could rest below the ground.”
This fairy tale which since the establishment of an idealized mother image at the end of the 19th century can no longer be found in the relevant popular editions was used by the leaders of the anti-authoritarian education movement in the seventies as a favoured example for the continuing validity of a sadistic society, motivated by "black pedagogy", and also served Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt in their 1981 published monumental cultural fragment "History and stubbornness" as evidence for a tendency to cling to principles and inexorability - anchored in the German soul from the Nibelungen saga and Stalingrad through Stuttgart-Stammheim until the Federal Republic's childcare practices.
Meanwhile, after this ideologically reinforced self-accusation rhetoric was exhausted, along with the anti-educational fantasy of a self-regulated childhood, it is possible to approach this story and its desolate meagreness with the adequate hermeneutic humility: It is about a mother who is so threatened by her child’s autonomy, that she kills her.
The story that is told by the former Portuguese police officer Gonçales [sic] Amaral in his book, published on the 20th July 2008, "Maddie - The truth of the lie" - and which for legal reasons should be called a fairy tale - is free from such teutonic gloom and takes place in Praia da Luz in the Algarve, which is mainly frequented by members of the English and German middle class. The 3rd of May 2007 promises to be a sunny day like the previous ones, also for the attractive doctor couple McCann from Leicestershire, their three-year-old daughter Madeleine and her one year younger twin siblings Amelie and Sean.
For parents of small children the nights are short, also while on holiday. While still half asleep, it has to be clarified who gets up and who cares for the children. The breakfast is not entirely free of tension, because Madeleine loudly refuses the dishes that she is offered, and after that refuses to play alone or with her siblings until the joint trip to the beach.
The father tries to keep his daughter in a good mood through the prospect of a visit to an ice cream parlour that is located within the resort. A verbal battle erupts between Kate and Gerry McCann over the competing styles of education, culminating in the accusation that the father only encourages Madeleine’s pesky moaning through his indulgence and keeps out of everything as always, even on vacation.
Because of the discussion over the child, it is forgotten that there is no discussion with the child, and the unwanted behaviour carries on. A fact that gets lost during the day, due to the dense sequence of distractions and attractions, accompanied by numerous acts of consumption. Given the fact that Madeleine is seen less as a stubborn than an annoying child, whose excessive activity makes her mother feel temporarily exhausted according to her own accord, it is the logic of parental action to reduce the marital pain levels by temporarily getting rid of this burden. The parents plan to meet with friends for dinner in the Tapas bar "Millennium", and because Madeleine’s continued unrest raises the fear that it could thwart this project, the anaesthetist and her husband agree to administer sedatives to the daughter, in a dose that enables a harmonic end to the holiday and stabilizes the conjugal ceasefire. Madeleine McCann falls silent and disappears under the global dome of chatter.
One must not go very far back in the process of Western civilization to find that only 250 years ago, the negligent killing of a child in a core country of this civilization was a crime which neither called the law into the plan nor was it likely to provoke states of social arousal.
Elisabeth Badinter, a sociologist who teaches at the Ecole Polytechnique Paris, quotes in her 1991 published study "Mother Love - The story of a sentiment from the 17th century until today", the 18th Century Christian moral theologians Crousaz, whom she doesn’t regard as particularly efficacious.
Crousaz accused the women of the aristocracy and of the bourgeoisie of treating their offspring like toys: "You treat your children just like they treat their dolls. You are amused by them as long as they are naive and cute and say clever little things. However, once they are getting older and more serious, you are not interested in them and the exaggerated closeness is followed by exaggerated rigor or icy indifference."
An indifference which, according to Badinter, often already started in infancy and which manifested itself in the cross-class habit of handing the children over to emaciated wet nurses from the peasant underclass, under whose care 10 to 15 percent of these children used to die.
If one understands the silencing of a child through the use of medication as evidence of a new feudalisation of the mother-child relationship, characterized by contingency, arbitrariness and satiety, and withstands the temptation to hastily pathologise the behaviour of the British physician, one can not avoid the daunting assumption that Kate McCann is part of a European convoy of hazardous child carers and thus in good company:
In the years 1993 to 2007,the consumption of the prescription drug methylphenidate, known under the brand name Ritalin, which has been successfully used for forty years to curb the motor hyperactivity in offspring in the western hemisphere, has now grown from 34 of 1221 kilograms, according to a survey by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices; this increasingly lax prescription procedure being due to the pressure of parents who are seeking peace and quiet.
According to the current "pharmaceutical prescription report" it becomes clear that the ban on administering psychopharmacology to children before they have reached elementary school age is regularly disregarded.
In her publication, Elisabeth Badinter defends the carefully documented thesis that a child in the French society prior 1762, i.e. before the appearance of Rousseau's "Emile" and its draft on a constant and fluctuation-free motherly love based modern family, "did count little, and was meaningless at best."
This is a historical finding that has now (during the early socialization of post-modernism) changed into its opposite. However, it does not inevitably lead to a full recognition of the unborn or newborn child’s physical and mental integrity.
This apparent paradox can be explained by the fact that the growing importance of and increasing focus on the offspring in Western societies is less directed at the empirical than at the idealized child.
I experience the likely meaning of this in my professional life as an employee of a busy psychological, church sponsored counselling practice, mainly when dealing with academic mothers who give birth later in life. Desperate, weary end-30s, who struggle with their fate; who experience the long-awaited, often with the help of reproductive medicine-induced arrival of the child as a continuing insult and who unload their grievances in the recurrent phrase: "I had quite different expectations."
The affected mothers and their surrounding society can luckily state that the gap between ideal and reality usually closes under the pressure of the facts of life and with the help of confrontational therapeutic interventions, enabling them to take an unselfish look at a sensitive and unique being.
This luck failed Kate McCann, who received her daughter at the age of 35 after a long period of waiting on the path of artificial insemination. The real child is dead. The idealized child haunts the internet under findmadeleine.com and leads the willing users to a pink colour-framed Barbie world, in which the horror has a name: kitsch. Family scenes banned onto video clips, hand-wringing desperation, a dream couple under interrogation, the ranks of celebrities from Beckham to Benedict, calls for donations and trade of devotional articles and a blue eyed doll in the logo, whose empty eyes reflect the emptiness of the world: godless, fatherless, without conscience. Mourning on the World Wide Web. A memorial second for Madeleine McCann 2003-2007.
Text: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper, 14.09.2008, No. 37 / page 10
*Guenter Franzen, aged 69, is a German group analyst and author. He concluded studies in pedagogy and social services. Living in Frankfurt am Main, Franzen works for the psychological support services of the Diakonisches Werk in Hanau. He is also an author; his works include romances, short-stories and essays.