7 Nov 2005, Comments (0)

Imaginable horror

Author: Helen


There’s been a lot of human misery about lately and too much of it has happened to children. There’s the horrific large scale misery, like the Pakistani earthquakes, New Orleans, Iraq. Then there’s the little domestic miseries, like the little fellow who spent two weeks in a flat with his dead mum, or the toddler attacked with an axe, or Jaidyn Leskie.

If the domestic horrors can make us cry, why aren’t we heading for the trauma ward when we read about the mass scale deaths? The clue is in the words journalists use– “unimaginable horror”. To put it another way, most of us are in denial for most of the day about what happens in the rest of the world, otherwise we’d go crazy. To put it another way: “It is so unreal, that one just dissociates, much like the victim of abuse or torture does during the event. It’s a kind of survival mechanism.” (Quote discovered serendipitously while googling something quite different.)

So if my mind can play this trick, why does an evening news item of an Australian toddler lost in the vastness of a national park, wandering off from his campsite, punch me right in the gut? Is it just my racist bias because I, too, have a curly haired, caucasian little boy? Or is it because of the sheer banality, the relative smallness of the event…because it is so close to home and so imaginable, it gets in under the steel disassociation barrier? A twenty-two-month old, still a baby in so many ways, coming to the slow realisation of intolerable hunger, thirst and aloneness (although I also suspected the lake nearby– water, the number one killer of boys under the age of nine.)

I think one thing that upsets us, too, is that they have such perfect trust and you wonder if they die in the new belief that their grownups have utterly failed them, that love and security is a sham. They’re unable to know how frantically their parents have searched for them, or that they have been crushed by a non-human environment incapable of anger or mercy.

After putting my own curly-haired boy to bed, I woke the next morning and cried with relief at the news.

Nicole Melrose and Gavin Morton, bless you and the horses you rode in on. None of that day’s Melbourne Cup carnival horses went home with anything so precious.

It reminded me of a peculiarity of our Australian culture. The image of the lost child has been a recurring image since settlement,in painting, literature, history books and theses.

After all, Australia is one of the few places left on earth where solitude and lost-ness are still possible — and we European settlers are heirs to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Andersen stories, where the Wild Woods are still a place of danger, of witches and black magic. I think the lost-child imagery of Australian culture owes a lot to those old storytellers. And Australia – the smells, the creatures, the distances – was so spookily different.

Yesterday, a friend came to visit and one of her twin toddlers disappeared. We separated and scattered through our little patch of bush towards that monster, the creek, and that other monster, the road.

We found him ten minutes later, in a neighbour’s driveway, unharmed.

That feeling in the gut.

Comments (0)

  • brownie says:

    Amen to all that. Today I was alone among isolated gum trees in the sun and all I could think of was that story from The Sixth Reader which gave me the horrors 45 years ago – ‘Lost In The Bush’.
    Which fear is greater? That of the small child who cannot find Mother, or that of the lost child’s mother.

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