Modern times: Tracking her tears

Few of us can understand or even imagine what it's like to lose a child. So why do we judge how other women grieve?

Tara McDonald’s eight-year-old daughter, Victoria “Tori” Stafford, didn’t come home from school one afternoon this past spring. The sole trace of her was a ghostly, lurching image on a piece of surveillance tape: a little girl being led from her schoolyard by an unknown woman in a white jacket.

In the weeks that followed, Tori’s hometown of Woodstock, Ont., searched and waited, searched and waited. Like many pictures of missing children, Tori’s image became a kind of talisman for all the parents whose own children were safe and tightly held. She was everywhere for a while, a pretty girl with blond hair in a fashionable chop, a half-moon smile and sparkles on her clothes. Volunteers put pictures of her face inside purple balloons and sent them to scatter in the sky.

When McDonald appeared before the media, she often wore dark glasses, as if to place a small barrier between her own eyes and the eyes of the world upon her. It looked like self-preservation. From day one, you knew that everyone was going to be watching her eyes, scanning and judging, measuring the authenticity of her grief.

And so it went: A few weeks in, McDonald and her ex, Tori’s dad, clashed in front of journalists. Rodney Stafford berated McDonald for failing to display enough emotion: “This is your daughter!” Eventually, McDonald felt compelled to dispel internet rumours linking her to her daughter’s abduction.

Here we are again. At first, the mother of the missing child is a beatific image of unimaginable loss, a landing place for everyone else’s unmoored fear and sympathy. But quickly she can become a suspect, or worse.

Perhaps the most famous case of the vilified mother is Lindy Chamberlain, whose two-month-old daughter, Azaria, was stolen by dingoes during a camping trip in Australia in 1980. Since the Meryl Streep movie A Cry in the Dark dramatized Chamberlain’s story, the phrase “Dingoes ate my baby” has become a punchline: an Elaine riff on Seinfeld; the name of a band on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Chamberlain’s horrific reality has been buried under this strange collective decision to turn her into a pop-culture ephemeron.

The baby’s bloodied clothes were found next to a dingo lair, and authorities came to the obvious conclusion. But soon media reports noted there was something “off” about Chamberlain. (Did her homeliness hurt? It couldn’t have helped.) Public outrage grew strong enough that Chamberlain served three years in a labour camp before the verdict was overturned.

What grotesque arrogance it is to presume there is a right way to grieve for a missing or dead child. Women can be introverted, odd-looking – or just odd – and still love their children. There is no central casting for the mothers of the missing. And yet so often, the public scrutinizes them as if they’re seeking votes from Academy members: “She’s not hysterical enough. I didn’t believe the performance.”

What does a good mother look like? Ask Kate McCann, whose three-year-old daughter, Madeleine, went missing from her hotel room in Portugal two years ago. Blond and immaculately turned out, McCann, a doctor, may look the physical opposite of the swarthy, bowl-cut Chamberlain, but she spawned similar contempt. And three decades after Chamberlain, she had the whispering internet to usher her toward the gallows. McCann was too skinny; she had dyed her hair when she should have been grieving; she was too perfect – not “off” enough.

But, above all, she wasn’t convincing. She appeared on TV calmly asking the hypothetical kidnapper for Madeleine’s return, and the gobbling British media mocked her aloofness. The Aberdeen Press & Journal reported that McCann told her mother, “If I weighed another two stone, had a bigger bosom and looked more maternal, people would be more sympathetic.” For a time, she was an official suspect, along with her husband (fathers of missing children are rarely as condemned as mothers), but both have now been cleared.

We want the mothers of the missing to appear prostrate before us, broken and weeping, and they usually do. Almost always, these displays are sincere, except in the cases of master manipulators who know precisely how to meet the expectations that McCann could not. In 2008, Penny Boudreau sat in front of reporters in Bridgewater, N.S., and wept for her missing daughter, Karissa. It turned out she had taken a piece of twine to the 12-year-old’s neck, strangled her and dropped her body on the banks of the LaHave River. The notorious murderer Susan Smith, who drowned two of her children in their car seats, made a similar tear-stained public plea before confessing. Both nailed the part of motherly sacrifice; both committed filicide.

As long as a mother grieves “right,” she doesn’t upset the deeply held – and fallacious – belief that those who create life could never take it away. Consider the story of Mary Beth Tinning, one of many cases of female violence documented by the Canadian journalist Patricia Pearson in her seminal book, When She Was Bad. Over 14 years in the 1970s and ’80s, nine children died in Tinning’s care; each time she appeared hysterical before authorities, keening for the losses she had induced. A battalion of doctors, nurses and police officers signed off on the first eight dead children before a thorough investigation led to one murder conviction. So often, a blind eye is turned to women’s violence, as if confronting it would destroy the enduring historical image of the virtuous moral compass that is Mother.

And yet, when it comes to certain mothers of missing children, murder is the first place we go. It’s as if these women have become a receptacle for all that our culture can’t and won’t admit about female violence. A mother who “loses” her child can set off the worst kind of Freudian woman-hating imaginings, a subconscious fear that inside every angelic, birthing mom lurks a murdering Medea. Somehow, actual female violence is more of a taboo than the fantasy of it. We make entertainment out of a mother’s waking nightmare.

In May, a family acquaintance and her boyfriend were charged with the murder of young Victoria Stafford. Now the cameras are off the girl’s mother, who may, at last, be permitted to grieve without the audience’s gaze, sunglasses off.