Year End Review: When Children Don’t Come Home

discovering ways of moving onWith 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite posts from the past year!

Everyone reacts differently to the disappearance of a child. Some husbands and wives look straight into each other’s eyes without needing words, while others are like strangers lying side by side at night, still as corpses, staring at the ceiling.

There are men who want to beat someone so badly they can’t walk right for a month, while others drink themselves into oblivion or pretend nothing has changed. And there are women who can’t look at another child or family without remembering what they’ve lost.

As a journalist working in Australia and the UK, I reported on far too many stories that involved missing and/or murdered children. Right from the outset, I was thrown into the deep end by a grizzled old chief of staff, who decided to use my young, fresh-faced innocence to illicit photographs from grieving relatives. I was designated as the ‘death knock’ specialist and I once did twelve in a day after a mining disaster in Cobar in western NSW in 1979.

One of the things I discovered was that people react differently to tragedy. Some invited me into their homes, sobbed on my shoulder and took me through every photograph in the album, wanting to tell me about the loved one they had lost. Others showed no emotion at all and appeared almost detached and untouched, as though nobody had told them the news or they were in denial. Many shut the door in my face and once or twice I was threatened with violence, including have a gun pointed through a crack in the door.

Grief, I discovered, is an individual as a fingerprint.

I hated that part of the job and sometimes vomited in the flowerbed before reaching the font door. I had no right to intrude upon their grief, regardless of whether the deaths were in public interest or otherwise.

It was during this period of my career that I also covered the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain in the famous as the ‘Dingo Baby Case.’ Azaria was an 18-month-old baby who disappeared from a campground at Uluru (then known as Ayer’s Rock) in August 1980. Her mother, Lindy, told police she saw a dingo leaving the tent with something in its mouth.

Lindy Chamberlain was convicted in the court of public opinion long before she was ever tried in a courtroom. People didn’t like her. She was cold. Distant. She didn’t look like a mother whose baby had just been snatched. With her Beatle’s haircut and her saucer-sized sunglasses and her stony face, she failed to shed a tear through two inquests and a criminal trial. She blamed a dingo. The entire nation blamed her.

I didn’t believe Lindy either. I trusted the evidence of forensic experts (later discredited) and I thought there was something about her detachment and stoicism that came across as cold and calculating. I was wrong. I should have known better. I had seen how differently people grieve.

Lindy Chamberlain served three years in prison before doubts began to emerge about the forensic evidence against her. Then came a bizarre and tragic accident, which proved that what she’d been telling the truth all along. An English hiker, David Brett, slipped and fell to his death from Ayer’s Rock in January 1986. As police searched for him they discovered a baby’s matinee jacket at the entrance to a dingo’s lair. It was the jacket that Lindy always insisted that Azaria had been wearing on the night she disappeared.

A judicial inquest quashed the conviction, but it was not until June of this year, 32-years-later, that a coroner formally ruled that a dingo had taken and killed Azaria Chamberlain.

Missing children create a particular silence around them that is filled with a dreadful wondering. I remember being in Europe with my whole family in May 2007 when Madeleine McCann disappeared from a holiday apartment in Portugal. My three daughters were fascinated and appalled by the case. We were driving through Spain and Italy and they would look at vans, or study little girls to see if they bore a resemblance.

Since then, Maddie’s parents, Gerry and Kate McCann have devoted themselves completely to the pursuit of the truth, campaigning fiercely to keep the story in the news. They have grieved in public, written books, made documentaries and lobbied police and politicians.

I have no insight into Madeleine’s whereabouts or what might have happened to her that night, but whenever I watch her parents being interviewed, I think of the other children in the family, the twins Sean and Amelie, who were sleeping only a few feet away when Maddie disappeared.

Kate McCann has admitted that the twins are ‘haunted by the tragedy’, which worries me. They were two at the time – too young to comprehend what happened. I fear for the twins and I feel for them, particularly when the parents admit ‘the twins comfort them’ when they are grieving. Am I the only one who thinks that the twins deserve to grow up without living in Maddie’s shadow?

Does there come a point when the family must accept what’s happened and say goodbye, or should they fight to keep hope alive, regardless of the cost?

These are some of the questions that are touched upon in my new novel, SAY YOU’RE SORRY, a psychological thriller centred upon the disappearance of two teenage girls, Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, who go missing on the last Saturday of their summer holidays. The mystery of their whereabouts captivates the nation. There are prayer vigils, church services, makeshift memories and messages of support. In a sense the missing girls become public property, belonging to everyone, as their fate is discussed over garden fences, water coolers and in post office queues.

This phenomenon of public mourning has been labelled ‘mourning sickness’ by psychologists who believe that it is partly a product of mass media and the 24-hour news cycle. Witness the worldwide outpouring of emotion when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. There were makeshift memorials, condolence books, sympathy cards and flowers that covered the front of Kensington Palace and filled embassies around the globe. Ian Jack, writing for The Guardian, argued that people were no longer simply observers of a news story, but had become active participants.

This is the emotional landscape of SAY YOU’RE SORRY. The families of the missing girls each react very differently. The Hadley’s are drawn closer together, campaigning tirelessly to keep Piper’s memory alive, while the McBains are torn apart, unable to look at each other without being reminded of what they’ve lost.

There is a mystery to be solved, of course, and the trail is dark and twisted, but it is the characters and psychology that fascinated me most.

I will leave the last words to Piper:

We disappeared together, Tash and me. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the colored lights had been turned off.

They didn’t realize we were gone until the next morning. At first it was just our families who searched, then neighbors and friends, calling our names across playgrounds, down streets, over hedges and across the fields. As the hours mounted they phoned the police and a proper search was organized. Hundreds of people gathered on the cricket field, dividing up into teams to search the farms, forests and along the river.

By the second day there were five hundred people, police helicopters, sniffer dogs and soldiers from RAF Brize Norton. Then came the journalists with their satellite dishes and broadcast vans, parking on Bingham Green and paying locals to use their toilets. They did their reports from in front of the town clock, telling people there was nothing to report, but saying it anyway. This went on for days on every channel, every hour, because the public wanted to be kept up to date on the nothingness.

They called us “the Bingham Girls” and people made shrines of flowers and tied yellow ribbons to lampposts. There were balloons and soft toys and candles just like when Princess Diana died. Complete strangers were praying for us, weeping as though we belonged to them, as though we summed up the tragedies in their own lives.

Michael Robotham has been an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia and the US. One of world’s most acclaimed authors of thriller fiction, he lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters.

Say You’re Sorry, picked by Stephen King as a Best Book of 2012 and praised as “suspenseful and intriguing” by People and “chilling” by Entertainment Weekly, is now available in bookstores everywhere.