We are truly in a fun house of justice, a kind of deconstructed reality where everyone brings to the trial his or her own story, and the media fan the flames so high and hot that every Dick and Jane becomes an expert with an opinion, and onlookers weep and cheer as if their own private destinies were in question. We noticed this madness in the ill-fated trial of O.J. Simpson, and here it is again. There seems to be no objective reality, only narrative, point of view. If you stay at home with your baby, you might hate Deborah Eappen; if you are educated, have work you love and worry about your day care, you might look on Louise Woodward with fear and loathing. The case was not a search for justice. It was a broken mirror in which New England could view its class dislikes, its fears of social change, its hostility to educated professionals, its downright irrational nastiness.
The sobbing horde’s identification with Louise was not because she appeared as innocent as all that. It occurred despite her obvious involvement in the infant’s death. It sprang, like the inner-city identification with O.J., from a sense of injustice embedded like original sin in American life. Some people have it made, and others don’t. When we open that can of nematodes, all hell breaks loose. It’s enough to break the heart, to discourage feminists who may have believed that certain battles were won. Put Barry Scheck together with a smoking gun, and he’ll find six expert witnesses to tell you that the gun is really a pastrami sandwich, and the burning in your eyes is nothing more than an allergic reaction to the prosecution blowing smoke in your face.
No cool heads in Boston, that’s for sure. Watching Louise Woodward on television protesting her innocence, I saw a young, flat-faced, not especially appealing girl who might simply have been immature and unable to take the wearing discipline that caring for young children demands, your own or somebody else’s. Her face was masked. She did not deserve to be in jail for life because she did not intend to harm the baby. On the other hand, she hardly deserves the cheers of her supporters. No reasonable person can believe that the baby shook himself right into a fatal hemorrhage.
Listening to Deborah Eappen on Larry King Live , I saw a young doctor, slightly tight (and why not), a little too precise and clean to win the public’s empathy, struggling to keep herself together after a great loss. Science as a field does not attract types who emote easily, who splash their feelings this way and that. Female doctors have learned control. In a male doctor, we admire this and give them our trust; in a woman, sometimes we interpret their control as coldness. Parts of the public confuse display of emotion with virtue, as if the loudest cry comes from the most truthful throat. Long ago, we determined guilt or innocence by the ability to survive torture. If you burned up, you were guilty. If you lasted through the drowning or whatever, then you were innocent. The public’s sympathy seems to be less sophisticated than we think.
That said, the attacks on the Eappen family occurred because of deep-rooted jealousy and hurt pride. The woman who chooses to stay at home with her child feels feels dissed by her successful counterpart, and the woman who goes to work fears she has hired the wrong person-a Louise Woodward, for example. This division in our country has split women into warring camps. Each fears the other has a better life, made better decisions.
What we have forgotten is that choice was always the point, that home or work could be had at different times in a woman’s life, that no decision is permanent. The right way to raise a child has not yet been found. Miserable kids with school phobias and eating problems come from mothers who stayed at home; stutterers and bed-wetters, shy ones and dumb ones, come from mothers who were out at work. Ax murderers and con artists were produced in the good old days when all mothers were at home; serial killers and kids who can’t read come out of day-care centers or were nanny-raised.
It all depends, and on what it all depends is still a great mystery. Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf and Franklin Roosevelt were all nanny-raised. Charles Dickens was sent to work at age 12. Adolf Hitler was not raised by an au pair.
The Woodward case, of course, sends shivers down the working woman’s spine. Paranoia seems a fair and suitable response to the headlines, first because everyone can see that in the sweet heart of the stay-at-home woman seethes hatred for her working sister. Also, each working woman must fear: Is the nanny cross? Is the day-care center changing diapers promptly? Is the nursery school sacrificing rabbits in bloody satanic rites? Fears, rational and otherwise, are keeping us up at night. Why don’t we have good, low-cost day care for everyone? Why haven’t we created strong political pressure for it? What made us focus on who hits on whom in the workplace rather than on who will take care of the children?
Even if we had good day care, every mother would still worry. Distrust and anxiety are part of the parental territory, and there is no remedy for it. Louise Woodward has reminded us of what we try to deny. Disaster is always one shake away. Little children can evoke big angers. If the children are not yours and you don’t love them as you love yourself, anything can happen. The miracle is that it mostly doesn’t.
The fact is, many children have always been taken care of by nannies, many of whom were saner or more careful or more loving than the mothers who hired them. Many children have now been raised in partial or full day care. In an economy such as ours, the workplace is jammed with parents who worry about the welfare of their kids while they are away. The truth is, children have long been taken care of by other, usually less fortunate, sometimes resentful, women. There seems to be no way around it. Every working woman depends on someone working at a lower wage who will take care of her kid in formal or informal groups.
If there is a utopia out there on some other star where child care isn’t a problem, please hear our distress call: Mayday, Mayday, over.
This nanny should have had a little jail time. Clever lawyers got her off. I wonder what kind of mother she will be. I wouldn’t want to be her child or her mother. As for the Eappens, I wish them more children, privacy, a good life. For the rest of us, we at least know what country we live in: one in which reason hangs by a thread, and justice is at the mercy of conjurers and held hostage to a furious public, fickle in its love, hysterical in its affections, dangerous in its moods.
Remember, Mary Poppins was the au pair from heaven.