Who cares who killed Baby Matty?
I am still trying to work out at what point, in the trial of Louise Woodward, everybody lost interest in what really happened to eight-month-old Matthew Eappen. It is extraordinary how quickly the death of an infant can be pushed aside in the clamour to cast judgement on the way adults live.
One of the most notable things in the trial was the battle for image and respectability, first in relation to the British au pair, next in respect of her employers.
The case for the prosecution started it. Woodward, if you remember, was first cast as some kind of cold-hearted exploitative delinquent. She was castigated for doing all the things that are typical of any 19 year old. We were told how she stayed out late and found it hard to get up in the morning. She spent time on the phone gossiping with her friends. She lied about her age to buy alcohol and went to unsuitable gigs. She even - horror of horrors - referred to her charge as a 'brat'.
The case for the defence continued it. The Eappens were pilloried for their middle class lifestyle and expectations. They were criticised for engaging an au pair when they could easily have afforded a qualified nanny. It was suggested that Deborah Eappen 'in her eagerness to get back to the controllable, ordered and relatively respectful adult world of work' was cavalier about the qualities required of a childcarer. She was then castigated for her attempts to use all the public relations skills at their disposal to ensure that the media took up her vindictive message: that Woodward should be locked away for good.
The case was a trial of lifestyles and inevitably many people lined up according to which of the actors they sympathised with the most. Life in contemporary Britain and America is infected with this approach to issues. All too often opinions are shaped by whether they justify the lives of those who hold them. So middle class professional women columnists in the broadsheet papers with nannies, au pairs and a sense of 'there but for the grace of God...' railed against unscrupulous agencies which recruit unskilled naive teenagers. An implicit identification with the Eappens emerged from their confessions of 'me too' working-mother-guilt. The ordinary people of Elton lined up behind 'their Louise' whom, it was said, was 'incapable of cruelly treating a child she loved'. The Evening Standard reported the views of a British nanny who had previously turned down a job with the Eappen family because 'she felt things weren't quite right there' as though it had a direct bearing on the guilt or otherwise of 'our Louise'.
Elton residents - none of whom presumably has any more idea of what really happened to Matty Eappen than you or I - felt able confidently to brandish yellow ribbons while protesting Woodward's innocence. Former school-friends tripped over each other, in their hurry to insist that the girl they know could never have committed any such atrocity. Woodward we were told time and time again, being cut from the cloth of these other young Britons, was not capable of mistreating a child.
Personality profiles and lifestyle critiques were everything to this case - and, paradoxically, nothing to the action from which it resulted. Women with young children in their care sometimes snap - whether they are good mothers or bad, trained and experienced, or young and clueless. The small number of young children admitted to hospitals with life-threatening injuries is more of a testimony to the resilience of children than to the restraint of those who look after them. There is no personality-type, or nationality, or social class, or age of woman that is not capable of injuring a child in a moment of frustrated despair. In the occasional injury - as distinct from systematic abuse - of children previous good character means nothing.
Career women can care for children lovingly and well - as can 19-year-old normal rebellious teenage girls. Career women can also inflict serious injuries on children, as can rebellious teenage girls.
The jury were able to convict on the evidence; the rest of us have only conjecture fuelled by spurious subjective inclinations. Louise Woodward startlingly missed the point when, after the jury had convicted her, she cried out in court: 'Why did they do this to me? Why? I'm only 19.' Presumably they did this to her because they thought, after hearing all the evidence the court could muster, that she killed Matthew Eappen. Being 19, British and nice provides no mitigation.
Or does it? The subsequent decision of Judge Zobel to reduce the charge to manslaughter and to release her is without doubt humane. It's hard to see what could be served by decades of imprisonment. But, whether you line up behind the Eappens or Woodward, you have to admit that Deborah Eappen has a point in her claim that such a move would have been unlikely if Woodward had been a poor black or Hispanic.
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998