The victims of our fantasies

Grief and disbelief met the discovery of Sarah Payne's body. Somehow we kidded ourselves that innocence would survive
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The Independent Online

Last summer, an Englishwoman who lived in Majorca was murdered in particularly horrible circumstances. Graphic details of the mutilations inflicted upon her were made available to the British media, some of whom went on to mutilate her reputation. Yvonne O'Brien was quickly forgotten but I thought of her again last week as journalists and the police watched their joint fantasy about Sarah Payne, the missing eight-year-old whose body was discovered on Monday, fall apart before their eyes. In Sarah's case, the illusion was, on the surface at least, well-meaning; faced with the devastation of her family, including her brothers and sister, everyone wanted to believe she was still alive. But the cruel fact, which was hard to speak aloud during the increasingly desperate search, was that she was almost certainly dead and far beyond the reach of any appeals from her distraught family.

Last summer, an Englishwoman who lived in Majorca was murdered in particularly horrible circumstances. Graphic details of the mutilations inflicted upon her were made available to the British media, some of whom went on to mutilate her reputation. Yvonne O'Brien was quickly forgotten but I thought of her again last week as journalists and the police watched their joint fantasy about Sarah Payne, the missing eight-year-old whose body was discovered on Monday, fall apart before their eyes. In Sarah's case, the illusion was, on the surface at least, well-meaning; faced with the devastation of her family, including her brothers and sister, everyone wanted to believe she was still alive. But the cruel fact, which was hard to speak aloud during the increasingly desperate search, was that she was almost certainly dead and far beyond the reach of any appeals from her distraught family.

The death of Ms O'Brien also created fantasies, although in her case they were much more malign. Where Sarah was characterised as a little angel, snatched from her family by a monster, Ms O'Brien was depicted as a lonely, hard-drinking divorcee, so hungry for affection and sex that she took terrible risks which almost certainly contributed to her death. In both cases the motive for creating so much publicity was the same, the need of detectives to jog the memory of witnesses who might not appreciate the importance of what they had seen. The problem, as has just been horribly demonstrated, is that a decision to use the personality of the victim sets in motion unconscious processes which quickly run out of control. In the absence of other developments - and in Sarah's case there were few until the grim discovery of a body - she and her family became the story.

This was an instance in which, for just over two weeks, there was very little for the police to reveal. Instead, we were offered insights into the life of Sarah's family, and photo opportunities in which her siblings sent thank-you notes to the police. This created the illusion of activity, of the inquiry moving on, although it actually confirmed how scarce was the information that detectives had to go on. And into that gap rushed a picture of childhood innocence, rudely violated, in which Sarah could not be dead because she did not deserve to be.

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This is the obverse of the suggestion made in the O'Brien case: that the victim was somehow asking for whatever happened to her. In a post-Freudian age, it seems clear that these narratives are a kind of morality play which speaks powerfully to the human unconscious but has little to do with reality. On the contrary, they have the potential to be hugely damaging, leading the public to visualise a child being held against her will - with all the dreadful images which accompany that thought - when the police must have known they were more likely to find a body. Readers and viewers were invited to participate in a rescue fantasy, almost certainly doomed to disappointment, and the parents encouraged in false hopes whose effect was vividly illustrated by their reaction of stunned disbelief when they realised their daughter had been dead for two weeks.

The police seem, to judge by their remarks and behaviour, to have become as emotionally involved as the Payne family. This is not always the case; during the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry, a decision was taken to present a murdered 16-year-old girl as the first "innocent" victim even though detectives privately believed she had what were quaintly called in those days "loose" morals. They needed a pretty, presentable victim to get assistance from a public which, they judged, was not overly concerned about the murder of a few prostitutes. I don't think it is possible to separate the intense media interest in the Payne case from the fact that they are, in so many ways, an ideal family: devoted parents, polite children, the embodiment of old-fashioned family values.

In stark contrast, Fred West's seven-year-old step-daughter, Charmaine, disappeared in unexplained circumstances in 1971, while his own daughter Heather went missing in 1987 when she was 16. Neither girl became the subject of a major criminal inquiry until bodies started turning up in the cellar of the Wests' house in 1994. What I am suggesting is not that the police or the tabloids cynically manipulated events in the Payne case, as the psychologist Oliver James accused the Daily Mail of doing last week. My guess is that they themselves would find it hard to explain why they were so obsessed with Sarah's disappearance, other than obvious explanations about the emotional impact of crimes involving a young child.

But that, in a sense, is my point. What this case tells us is not about the threat from strangers to young children - every reporter who has bothered to call the Home Office knows these are very rare events - or even a sinister plot to sell more newspapers. Last week, people began leaving flowers near the spot where Sarah's body was found. They were expressing a kind of collective grief, no doubt from the best of motives, which spoke volumes about the resonance of this crime, this child, this family. But I think it is all the more important to recognise that these are not straightforward manifestations of anguish but a complex set of messages about idealisation and identification. Some victims get flowers, some are vilified, some vanish without trace. But they were all human, they loved and were loved in turn, and they all deserved something better than these dreadful fates.

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Arriving at Westminster Underground station on Wednesday evening, shortly after the end of the pageant to celebrate (again) the Queen Mother's centenary, I was struck by the age of the crowds. There were lots of retired people and schoolchildren, but almost no one in between. Descriptions of the parade in Thursday's papers prove that this is categorically not the kind of thing we British do so well; the suffragettes were represented by Hinge and Bracket who, when I last checked, were not actually women but female impersonators. The mystifying list of participants also included corgis, Wombles, a camel, a sign celebrating the birth of the hairdryer, someone dressed as the Dome, and a group of punks.

Yes, punks: those rebels who scandalised their parents by gelling their hair into strange shapes and wearing safety pins years before Liz Hurley. This just goes to show that no youth cult is too extreme to be absorbed into the mainstream, although you could tell they weren't the genuine article by the fact that they didn't gob at the Queen Mother. I can't help thinking there's some confusion here, which should be cleared up as soon as possible. When the Sex Pistols sang "God Save the Queen", they didn't actually mean it - it was, you know, ironic. But now it's started I don't suppose anyone can halt the process by which punks become the new pearly kings and queens.

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