Headlines, hate mail
and Kate McCann.
A very public agony
One May afternoon in 2007 in Praia da Luz, Portugal, barely 48 hours
before their daughter Madeleine disappeared, Kate and Gerry McCann took
their three young children down to the beach. It began to rain, and the
children were grumpy, but the promise of an ice cream worked its magic.
Kate and the kids sat on a bench as Gerry went over to the shop, about
25 feet away. When he called to Kate to come and give him a hand with
the five ice creams, she was "momentarily torn. Would the children be OK
on the bench while I nipped over? I hurried across, watching them all
Life as a parent, as anyone with children knows, is crammed with such
split-second judgements and (sometimes) misjudgements, so when the
McCanns' story hit the press just a couple of days after that afternoon
ice cream, parents all over the world caught their breath, recognising
the situation. Would we have chosen to eat dinner while our children
slept, unguarded, a matter of yards away? Some of us would, some of us
wouldn't, but I doubt there is a parent on this earth who hasn't
negotiated with their child's safety in similar ways at one time or
Kate McCann says her main motive in writing Madeleine was to "give an
account of the truth". Given how much false information has been
circulated about the family, this impulse to exert a little control
excites my full sympathy. One night, exhausted and sad, she switched
on the TV for light relief, only to see a picture of her daughter with
the headline "She's dead" as the following day's newspapers were
previewed. The McCanns often felt that they were kept in the dark by the
police, so, for all she knew, a body could have been found - but time
and again, she and Gerry were forced to pick their battles, to shrug off
the lorryloads of critical comment, because anything that impeded the
search for their daughter had to be ignored.
Much of the comment certainly has been negative. Even now, I am not sure
I understand how the McCanns came to be considered as arguidos (named
suspects). Although I imagine that the Portuguese police would offer a
different version of some of the events described here, no UK official
believed that the McCanns were in any way responsible for their
daughter's disappearance. That didn't stop the headlines and the hate
mail, however, so it seems both understandable that Kate should want to
take this opportunity to set the record straight and fair that she
should do so.
Yet the book clearly has another reason for existing: Kate wrote it
because she knew that there was a market for it. The search for
Madeleine can continue only if there is money, and all royalties go to
the fund set up in her name. With no evidence that their daughter is
dead, the McCanns are determined to go on looking. Meanwhile, it's a
particularly gruesome limbo they are condemned to inhabit. Kate depicts
it here with chilling precision.
Before tragedy struck, this was an ordinary family. Kate tells of her
happy Catholic childhood in Liverpool, where her grandad had been "chief
clerk for a firm importing nuts and dried fruits". She recalls midnight
feasts of pickled onion crisps and dancing to Seventies disco hits. Then
came Gerry, youngest in a "boisterous" family of five, growing up in a
one-bedroom tenement in Govan. Both he and Kate did well at school and
went on to study medicine, she at Dundee and he at Glasgow - which is
where, as junior doctors, they met.
These were clearly hard-working and driven young people. Even so, their
early married years were tough. There was the hard graft of moving
between jobs as he trained in cardiology. She specialised as an
anaesthetist, but, wanting more sociable hours, eventually opted to be a
GP. Then there was the trying - and failing - to conceive a child. I was
startled to read that all three McCann children were IVF babies.
Madeleine, their first, arrived after many attempts. "Suddenly," Kate
writes, "your world revolves around this little bundle, and you don't
mind in the slightest."
Madeleine is crammed with clichés of this kind, but I confess that, far
from bothering me, they drew me in. Kate McCann is not a writer and
makes no claims to be one - the power of her book lies in its
straightforward, chatty ordinariness. It is hard, too, not to admire its
complete lack of self-pity, bolstered by the McCanns' uncomplicated
though sorely tested religious faith. The agony lies in the small,
Take how, when friends first suggested a spring holiday in the Algarve,
Kate wasn't keen. It seemed like a lot of effort, with three children
who were so small - all that equipment to lug around. But, not wanting
to spoil things, she came round to the idea. "It was the first in a
series of apparently minor decisions I'd give anything to change now."
Another factor was how and where they put their children down to sleep
at the resort. The McCanns' apartment was on a corner with easy access
from the street. It is now considered likely that someone was keeping an
eye on their comings and goings. And it wasn't until a whole year later,
when finally they were given access to the police files, that Kate
discovered that anyone checking the book at reception would have seen a
note stating that the McCann party wished to eat in the tapas restaurant
every night because they were leaving young children alone in the
apartments and needed to be able to check on them easily.
The story of how Madeleine went missing need not be repeated here, but
the book gives us what the press never could: a sense of the misery of
that first night and those that followed. The slow breaking of dawn,
followed by the sickening job of telling the news to relatives in the
UK. Kate's inability to stop banging and bruising her fists on the metal
railings of the veranda, "trying to expel the intolerable pain inside
me". Gerry breaking down and "roaring like a bull".
The McCanns were soon, and wisely, given access to a trauma specialist,
who immediately reassured the couple that they seemed like model
parents. "I cannot overstate how much such kind reassurance meant to us
at that moment," Kate writes. He explained to them the importance of
taking control little by little, "starting with tiny actions as simple
as making ourselves a cup of tea".
fact, kindness and forgiveness - being gentle with yourself in the face
of unrelenting shock - is the core, though perhaps unwitting, theme of
Kate McCann's book. Her husband was able to shut off his pain for hours
at a time in order to deal with the world - something that she admits
she occasionally resented. With touching self-awareness, she describes
how she could not do the same. She was unable to settle to anything that
did not relate directly to finding Madeleine: "I could not even sit down
unless it was for a purpose, to eat or to work at the computer."
She conjures a heartbreaking image of the bereft mother, condemned to
pace up and down eternally, sniffing for her young. It was two years
before she could listen to music or watch television, or allow herself
to take pleasure in anything at all without feeling that she was letting
her daughter down.
Hugging friends whom she hadn't seen since before Madeleine disappeared,
she would find she could "hardly bear to let go", because she knew that
the moment she stepped back and saw their faces, she would be reminded
of "days spent together with Madeleine". She also says candidly that her
sex life with Gerry suffered and that she finally took "a cognitive
approach" to getting it back on track.
Years later, even beginning to feel more normal brings its own problems.
She worries about what people will think if they see her speaking
crossly to her other children in public. Or that, if "people saw me
smile or laugh, they'd think it inappropriate". She has a fear that if
anyone spots her shopping in Marks & Spencer, they will frown on her
"for not going somewhere cheaper like Aldi and putting the pennies saved
into Madeleine's fund".
Kate McCann doesn't feel she deserves to be forgiven, it is striking
nevertheless that this is a boldly empathetic and forgiving book. She
writes without bitterness about the people whose correspondence goes
straight into the "nutty box".
doctors, she and Gerry have some professional experience of dealing with
mental illness, and are not surprised that their tragedy attracts such
attention - "within days of Madeleine's disappearance, several people
with major psychiatric problems made their way over to Praia da Luz".
And although the trauma specialist had warned them that they would lose
some good friends (and they did), she is grateful for the "quiet
majority". Astonishingly, perhaps, she still believes that "most human
beings are inherently good".
Even though I am sure there is a readership for Madeleine, many others
will feel free to discuss and comment on the book without having read
it. I would urge them to be as kind and non-judgemental as Kate McCann
has been. Although she and Gerry come across as remarkably strong -
clearly their love for their two remaining children, together with the
search for Madeleine, has kept them going - I don't think anyone should
underestimate how vulnerable they are.
endure tragedy of this sort, followed by relentless press attention,
leaves you raw, your skin feeling stripped right off. One night almost a
year after they lost Madeleine, the couple woke in the night in
Leicester to find the whole room shaking. "With the occasional death
threat turning up in our morning mail, it is perhaps not surprising that
our first instinct was to think we were being attacked."
Thankfully the "attack" turned out to be an earth tremor. You hope for
the McCanns' sake that, whether or not they ever discover what happened
to their daughter, the agonising rawness - like the tremor - will
eventually subside to nothing. l
Bantam Press, 400pp, £20
Julie Myerson's next novel, "Then", will be published by Jonathan Cape
in June. To read more reviews by her for the New Statesman, go to: