Friday, September 28, 2007

What if?

The following sentences in Anne Enright's intriguing essay at the London Review of Books -- on the case surrounding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann -- provoked a spark of recognition:

Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me? In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns ‘did it’ swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah. Of course they had. It made a lot more sense to me than their leaving the children to sleep alone.

For us, that 'peculiar hallelujah' swept over us during our vacation in early September (leading to much frantic perusal of French newspapers and German satellite television for new developments), but it involved otherwise much the same sort of feelings that Enright describes.

It just seemed so...right, so much more interesting than the alternative version focusing on the random paedophile (a word which seems to have become as common in the British press as any definite article and therefore much reduced in shock effect).

The almost unimaginable level of hypocrisy and lying that would have been involved had they 'done it' (in whatever way and to whatever extent) was just almost too good to be true (i.e., too horrible to be believed).

But, as a recent and unconnected story shows, the larger the lie the more believable it might be.

Now that sort of turn in the McCann story would be psychologically interesting.

And it was at this point that the 'Madeleine' case began to intrigue me in a way that it previously hadn't. The 'story', as such, suddenly became much more fascinating.

Which, I realise, might say more about me than it does about the case itself.

Of course, the matter has since become rather more muddy again and, to be honest, I have no idea what really happened.

And I have a suspicion that we (apart from at least one key person involved in whatever happened) might never know.

But regardless of what turns out to be the truth, it occurred to me recently that I really don't like the McCanns. No. I don't.

As Enright notes, 'Disliking the McCanns is an international sport', so I know I'm not alone in this, and during that somehow very exciting week or two I wasn't. But, for some reasons that I can't quite describe in a way that seems to justify it, even if Kate and Gerry McCann turn out to be victims of a horrible crime and a (in that case) shameful set of police and press insinuations, I won't be capable of liking them or feeling all that sympathetic toward them.

As people.

And I'm intrigued by this issue in a particularly strong way, as I'm currently writing a book about a woman who, in the 1920s, was acquitted of committing a horrible crime, and her acquittal, while legally correct and at the time not apparently doubted by anyone in the press, leaves enough room for doubt to be painfully tantalising.

The question 'did she do it or didn't she' is the one I typically get when discussing this case, and, honestly, I really don't know. My own opinion, my gut reaction, has swung back and forth between seeing her as an innocent and tragic victim of the police and prosecution and a cynical manipulator of public opinion. The fact that she was (apparently unanimously) idealised by the newspapers of the time makes her case (much like that of the McCanns until recently) all the more fascinating. Like the McCanns, at least for a while, the woman I'm studying was idealised in the press, becoming a household name (though she has long since been forgotten, as the McCanns, someday, will be too.)

As in Madeleine's case, people invested a great deal of attention and emotion in the experiences of someone who was a stranger to their family.

What an odd thing to do.

And our fascination in such cases comes down to a great extent to the following question: What if?

Which allows us -- and our imaginations -- all kinds of options.

I think that Enright is correct to some extent that our opinions of the McCanns have a lot to do with things that are completely unconnected to their case and reflect our own perspectives on our own lives.

But unlike her own experience (related in her last sentence), I have yet to wake up one morning 'liking the McCanns'.

No. For whatever reason, I can't do that.

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