Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Horror Within

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Shortly after my first child was born, nearly six years ago, I stopped reading Shakespeare and watching the news; I canceled the paper and turned off the radio as soon as All Things Considered came on. Before I became a mother, I took pride in being reasonably well informed about both great literature and current events, but after my first son was born I went into full retreat.

It wasn't that I didn't have time anymore to read or to keep up with the way the world was whirling frantically outside my still, cozy den. It wasn't that I was so besotted with the intense, intimate pleasures of a new baby that I no longer cared what happened outside. I had to stop reading serious literature and watching the news because too often they told me more than I wanted to know about the labyrinthine depths of depravity it was possible to discover within the human heart. Once I became a mother, I didn't want to know how wicked the world could be. I couldn't bear to think about the monsters looming outside the room where my innocent little baby was sleeping unaware.

Did I really need to know, I would wonder, that frantic parents were reporting their toddler had wandered off during a Fourth of July parade, only to admit later they had killed him in their own bathroom days before? Did I really need to know that a young mother in South Carolina had strapped her own two babies into their car seats and rolled the family car into a lake where they drowned? Why would anybody, especially any parent, want to read such stories, to pore over such intolerable images?

In time, of course, I started watching the news again. I began to feel a little less afraid for my own child, to consider how much more likely he was to grow up surrounded by love than by monsters. And I began to remember why people have such an appetite for consuming this bloody stuff night after night: It must appeal to something primitive in us, something that wants to tell stories about monsters hidden in caves, to map out the uncharted territory of the human heart, no matter how dark or deeply crevassed. People watch and read about these stories for the same reason they watch and read Shakespearean tragedy. Remember how O.J. Simpson began to look so thoroughly like Othello?

Of all the local stories that temporarily capture the national imagination, none are darker or bloodier than the stories of children in peril, and none are so far-reaching in their coverage. No 6-year-old beauty-pageant queen has been murdered with her mother's paintbrush in Nashville, but this news from Boulder consistently appears in the local papers and television reports. And though I don't know a single family whose child care is provided by a foreign teenager, every parent I know spent last week studying all those stories of a British au pair in Boston who was convicted of murdering an 8-month-old infant left in her care.

But we don't follow these stories because, as media commentators solemnly assure us, they raise issues of genuine political relevance. Sure, Susan Smith told police she was a victim of carjacking by a black man who had escaped with her children still inside the car, but her simpleminded lie didn't really turn the intense media scrutiny of that case into a national referendum on racism, any more than the year-long speculation about Jon Benet Ramsey's murder is really about the appalling habit of dressing little girls to look like fashion models.

This week most of the media are heaping huge helpings of anguish and despair on our plates and justifying it by telling us that the national obsession with the trial of Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old au pair from England convicted of murdering the infant boy in her care, stems from a fundamental dissatisfaction in this country with the nature and necessity of child care available to working parents. This case points out the need for more child-care options for working parents, they say. Or they print sidebar stories that once again call into question the wisdom of mothers leaving their children in the care of others while the mothers themselves go to work.

Given the facts of the case, though, these are absurd arguments. The grieving mother of that dead baby, Deborah Eappen, is an ophthalmologist who turned down a chief residency to spend more time with her children and who works only three days a week, coming home during the day to breast-feed. She's not exactly a driven professional who neglected her kids or ignored circumstances that any reasonable adult would have seen as dangerous. Nor by any stretch of the imagination can she and her husband, also a physician, be said to embody the dearth of affordable child care that so many working parents face--clearly a household headed by two physicians is not a household that lacks choices about child care. Most people watching the news understand these things.

Let's be honest about the real reasons these stories have captured so much print and airtime: They are stories about children who came to grievous harm at the hands of adults who should have been protecting their safety and happiness, adults who should have been trusted to love them as purely as no one else on earth would ever love them in their lives.

That the adults in question did not love those children as they should, that they did not offer them even the sort of instinctual protection virtually any stranger would have offered, is why people watch and read such "news" stories. This is an even more fundamental fascination than the one evidenced by the human tendency to slow down for a closer look at smash-ups on the interstate, to go to shoot-'em-up movies at the local cineplex. People are interested in crashes and conflagration, it's true; people are interested in looking at other people's blood. But mere interest does not explain why readers and viewers are absolutely obsessed by stories about the brutal murder of children.

We don't tune into these stories about parents who kill their children, or who fail to protect their children from killers, because we are interested in tangential issues of residual Southern racism or exploitative beauty pageants for little girls or insufficient child-care standards for working parents. We are obsessed by these stories because they, more than almost any other kind of human depravity, point out to us the evil that can hide in the deepest recesses of the seemingly normal human heart. Unfaithful wives, abusive husbands, insulting and degrading bosses--we can almost understand murderous rages against these people. But little babies? Innocent, perfectly pure, little children? What sort of monster could ever, ever harm a child?

We look at--we pore over--the pictures of Susan Smith, of Patsy Ramsey, of Louise Woodward. It's not so hard to imagine them saying, with Lady Macbeth: "I have given suck, and know/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me." But when we look at them we can hardly believe that anyone--even Lady Macbeth herself--could ever "while it was smiling in my face,/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out." When we look at their pictures, what we see are people who look an awful lot like the people we work with, the people we live near, the people we're related to. Maybe we read the stories and study the pictures so carefully because it shocks us to see that the monsters look, in fact, an awful lot like us.

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