Profile: The Eappens; A dream lies shattered

Their baby is dead and half the world hates them. John Carlin on the 'perfect' couple's nightmare
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The Independent Online
Until the baby died, they were the couple of the modern American Dream. Good-looking, bright, going places, in marrying each other they had overcome the prejudices of earlier generations and contributed eloquently to America's idealised vision of itself as the world's racial melting pot.

He was the son of Indian immigrants, she the blonde daughter of Middle America. They met at a Christmas party in Chicago during their first year at university and fell in love. Medical students both, bonded by their shared Roman Catholicism and a common ambition to excel at their profession, they stayed together for seven years before they married. They might have wedded earlier had they not waited until they were financially independent of their parents, who had misgivings about the success of a mixed-race match.

They graduated as doctors and moved to Boston, where he excelled in his first year of residency at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, one of the 10 most prestigious medical centres in the US, and she found her niche in the field of opthalmology. They bought a small house in an affluent suburb, and their liberal Bostonian neighbours welcomed them with open arms. "Such a lovely couple," they said. With the arrival three years ago of their first baby boy, their happiness was complete. In what might have been a gesture of appreciation for this most Irish of American cities, they named the child Brendan. Two years later, the second child was born. He was called Matthew. Little Matty.

After so many years of grinding study, having accumulated large - and still unpaid - debts to get through medical school, she did not wish to abandon her career. They thought about a day-care centre, they thought about a nanny, but they decided on an au pair. The first, from Denmark, was a delight, as was the second one, who arrived 12 months later from Sweden. The third au pair, also from Sweden, turned out not to be ideal so they replaced her, in November last year, with an English girl who was mature for her 18 years and came well recommended. A few days before the tragedy, in February this year, the proud working mother told friends, "It's just amazing that we have been so blessed. Everything is so perfect for us."

Ever since, everything has been a nightmare for Deborah and Sunil Eappen. Matty died in their arms in a Boston hospital, murdered, according to a local jury, by Louise Woodward, the English au pair. "This has been nine months of hell," Mrs Eappen told the Boston Herald last week. "We lost our child in these circumstances and now there's been added layers and layers and layers of abuse ... I trusted Louise and she turned out to be a monster."

MRS EAPPEN's is, by all accounts, a minority opinion. In America and, especially, in Britain Louise Woodward has been portrayed as the victim of a flawed judicial system, the Eappens as a couple desperate to taste vengeance for their baby's death. Louise Woodward has become Joan of Arc, Deborah Eappen, the Wicked Witch of the West - an opinion that received evidential support on Friday when she released a photograph of Matthew lying in a coma in hospital.

The whole truth about Louise Woodward only Louise Woodward knows. Her fate, which may or may not bear any relation to the truth, will be announced in the next day or two by Judge Hiller Zobel, who must decide whether to uphold the jury's guilty verdict, condemning her to at least 15 years in jail, or to reduce the charge to manslaughter, and to order her early release.

Deborah and Sunil Eappen have found themselves enduring a public trial of their own, and the verdict on them differs from the one on Louise Woodward. It is not susceptible to the opinion of a judge. Also, the evidence available is more scant. Infuriated by what they perceive to be the caricature portrait of them painted in Britain, hurt by the poison they feel has been hurled at them from across the Atlantic, they have imposed a boycott on communications with the British news media. So have their close friends. So indeed, has Fr Paul O'Brien, their parish priest, who officiated at the funeral ceremony for their baby.

But they have been talking energetically to the American newspapers and TV, from the day the prosecution and defence rested their cases, In so doing, they have hardened the prejudices against them, convincing those who want to be convinced that they are more concerned with milking their 15 minutes of fame than grieving for their child in the properly discreet manner that Louise Woodward's parents are grieving for theirs.

Those persuaded that a monstrous injustice has been perpetrated on the young au pair are taking out their rage on the Eappens. Those who refuse to accept that Matty's death might have been a cruel accident of fate, whose faith abhors the notion that his passing bears testimony to life's absurdity, seek mitigation of their pain in the belief that the calamity was caused by an act of individual will.

The two responses are mirror images of each other. In psychology, as in physics, every action provokes a reaction. "They need to blame someone," Mrs Eappen told an interviewer last week. "They need to make someone the villain." She was talking about her detractors, many of whom have been bombarding her with hate-mail. But she might as well have been talking about herself.

That is why she and her husband have been so brutally frank in their public condemnation of Louise Woodward. It would be a mistake, however, to attribute their uncompromising judgement entirely to emotion, for they do have the backing, seemingly, of a great many of their colleagues. "The medical community in Boston is united in the belief that the defendant performed this act," said Dr Joseph Garfield of Brigham and Women's Hospital, a veteran associate of Sunil Eappen in the department of anaesthesia. "We think the medical testimony is essentially incontrovertible. This is why we are so devastated that a mob mentality should prevail here, that Louise Woodward has been made into a folk hero and wonderful people like the Eappens have twice been made the victims of all this."

Dr Garfield, who has practised medicine for more than 30 years, works closely with Dr Eappen and has met his wife socially. He described both as people of "the highest values, intelligence and integrity". Dr Eappen, says his colleague, is a young doctor who has shone among his peers, and is destined to be a future leader in his field. "We think extremely highly of him, clinically and as a person. He is a charming man with a sunny disposition who exhibits the highest morals and ethics." He and his colleagues at the hospital, he said, were "puzzled, bewildered, upset, disillusioned and, frankly, devastated that these kind, moral people who were victims of a terrible tragedy should have generated so much negative public sentiment."

ARE THEY really as kind and moral as all that? In the case of Sunil Eappen, the worst vices that have been attributed to him are an inability to restrain the impulse to weep when recalling his son's death; and, according to a report in a New York tabloid, a propensity to ogle the attractive Swedish au pair who preceded Louise Woodward as she disported herself "scantily clad" about the house.

Deborah Eappen, in contrast, has been accused of excessive coldness in her public appearances. The impression that she has somehow remained unmoved by her baby's death has generated vague suspicions about her potential for evil-doing, suspicions amply confirmed in some people's minds by unconfirmed reports of a videotape that shows her instructing a reluctant young Brendan to incriminate Louise Woodward.

Against all that, the picture of a hard-working, driven young American couple who had the courage to battle for their love in the face of parental pressure is no less plausible. When CNN's Larry King asked them on Wednesday why they had taken seven years to get married, her careful reply intimated that the couple had suffered to stay together. "When we got married we wanted to be independent of our parents and not rely on them for support ... It's not really the family itself, it's really more of a cultural phenomenon. Sunil was first-generation here. So he was still expected to live the way he would have been expected to live in India, which would have been arranged marriage."

As for the argument that, instead of working three days a week at a Harvard clinic, she should have stayed at home full time to look after the children, it could equally be said that she had gone some way to resolving the classic modern dilemma of the working mother by paying, within the family's means, for a nice English au pair with impeccable child-care credentials.

One day the Eappens will be well-off, but for the moment they must remain content with inhabiting a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home built next to a busy highway that, by the standards of the leafy and costly suburb of Newton, almost qualifies as a shack. But they are proud of what they have achieved together and are resisting the temptation to flee the scene of the trauma and start their lives again somewhere else. "We don't want to make any moves that would look like we've been defeated," Mrs Eappen said last week. "We spent our whole lives becoming us, building who we are, making a family."

Her resolve might be tested, however, if she endures the most painful defeat of all and Judge Zobel decides this week to set Louise Woodward free. "All I want is for her to pay the consequences of her actions," she said, before adding, in a chilling vision of her nightmare and other people's dreams: "I would like her not to go back home a hero."