Cleo Smith’s alleged kidnapping puts all parents on high alert – but this must stop being our story
No one wants to be that helicopter parent.
The one who watches anxiously from the door as your child rides their bike freely, as they should.
You remember the whole days you spent as a kid away from home, so far out of sight of your parents. You were told to be “home in time for tea” and more often than not you were even asked how you had spent your day.
As children, my older brothers played in the old quarry behind our house. Let me repeat this – an abandoned career: a place of holes so deep that they could swallow a child forever.
No one wants to be the parent who worries about a stranger danger so rare that crime figures always show that a child is always more at risk in the face of someone they know.
And then little Cleo is ripped off and your carefully constructed, self-confident world crumbles.
The stories that haunt us
We all have our formative experience of first learning about child abduction.
I grew up with the story of Eloise Worledge, taken from her bed in Beaumaris in 1976 and never found. I dreamed of her. I can see his face in my mind at all times.
Generations of childhood in Adelaide have been defined by the story of Beaumont’s missing children.
The sad little ghosts of these stories must have returned in droves just under three weeks ago.
You may tell yourself that this is rare, but it won’t always help: the fear of the stranger runs deep.
A little over a year ago, I wrote here about another lost and found child and the good news that was desperately needed when little William Callaghan was rescued from equally hostile terrain. . The jubilation of her safe recovery was the same kind of universal relief expressed for Cleo: it was as if the country was exhaling, finally, and suddenly.
But something about the celebrations that accompanied this brilliant achievement was unsettling.
Sarah Krasnostein, author of the deeply moving book The Trauma Cleaner, has found the words to say it. At social networks this week she was worried and exasperated by repeated references to a smiling and “good” child; to a girl who made everyone so happy by seeming to be so happy herself:
“The fact that a deeply traumatized child is described as ‘bubbly’, ‘sweet’, ‘just delicious’ to satisfy a collective need for a magically redemptive narrative is disturbing.”
She went on to say that this framing fits with a story of how we don’t see trauma and just expect children to ‘get over it’. She saw it as a “dangerous public health message”.
I could see what she meant. It was clearly so desperately important to us, and of course, I imagine, especially to those who love this little girl that she’s fine.
But I have had so many listeners who felt the same, severely asking me to stop saying that she was “fine”: how could a little girl torn from her family and hidden for almost three weeks? to go well ? His trauma, they worried, was just beginning.
We understand trauma better now
Equally unsettling to me was the media call in which Washington State Premier Mark McGowan happily recounted how he met the family and the little girl, gifting her a teddy bear. The well-meaning Prime Minister clearly had the best interests of the family at heart, but more weird men and more gifts and more care for the little girl?
I wanted everyone, including my media colleagues, to get rid of and leave them alone.
But because of the incredible work done by many professionals, and writers like Krasnostein too, our understanding of trauma – its complexity, its long shadows – is so much greater. The meticulous and subtle work of reconnecting this girl to her world and her own sense of agency will be well advanced, and Sarah is right: none of this is being done for our gratification. The story is terrifying and we are going to have to find our own ways to deal with our terror.
I suspect family tents are going to fly out of the doors of camping stores this summer. The answer may be irrational, but completely understandable: there will be no children’s tent this year. We will sleep in sweaty piles, our children huddled against us.
This weekend, you can reflect on the frightening real estate bubble and its intergenerational consequences, spend time with the conundrum that is Jana Pittman, and have your hearts swelling with pride at the award-winning life’s work. Prime Minister’s scientist, Eddie Holmes.
Have a safe weekend and thank you Radiohead for keeping little gifts in their pockets to give us at the right time.
The weather is going to be very, very kind with Thom Yorke’s art rock band, and the forgotten or overlooked tracks from their extended reissue, KID A MNESIA, prove it. The passing time has been their friend. Here is one of their lost masterpieces – I think it’s magnificent.
Virginia Trioli is an anchor for Mornings on ABC Radio Melbourne and a former co-host of ABC News Breakfast.