A Madeleine McCann shrine in Praia da Luz, Lagos. Credit AFP / Getty

June 5, 2020   4 mins

Madeleine McCann is likely dead, say German prosecutors. They think she was killed by a man now in prison for rape, who was living in the Algarve when he took her. His name is Christian Brueckner and his face is as empty as you can imagine.

This may be, at last, an ending — or at least a beginning of an ending — to one of the saddest crimes in recent history. It is sad not just because a child is missing — a missing child is always a tragedy — but because, in its scope and its hysteria, the story of the loss of Madeleine McCann changed from a crime into a fairy tale: a cautionary story to be passed down the ages. It is a warning to unwary parents, stripped of empathy, because archetypes have no humanity. We do not think they need it. It became something for strangers to obsess on, analyse and, eventually, possess. This is not sympathy at all, but theft, and there is something ugly in it.

But, predictably, it rolled out. Yesterday, over 13 years after she was reported missing, her face was back on the front page of seven British national newspapers, pushing pandemic — and faceless tragedies — away. The photographs allow us to imagine an intimacy with Madeleine McCann. There are computer-generated photographs of her at every age, created to assist in her recovery: an eerie physical embodiment of the hope that she is alive. So, there were pictures and timelines and recaps and analyses; photographs of the apartment, the unlucky parents and the alleged abductor’s van.

I know too much about this crime. I know more than I want to. “The latest on Madeleine McCann,” says an email in my inbox, with appalling urgency. I don’t need the final part of this story. I do not feel, after everything that has happened, entitled to it. The only people who deserve an ending are her family. This story is not, I feel compelled to remind you, fictional. It has just been treated that way.

Gerry and Kate McCann paid private investigators to solve the crime after the Portuguese police botched it and gave up on it. (There was something to learn from this story, but it was prosaic, and for the Portuguese police to learn). Then they begged the Home Secretaries Alan Johnson and Theresa May to instruct the British police to solve it. Politicians have acknowledged, with resources, the importance of the story to national life. So have newspaper executives, who supported the involvement of the British police, presumably so they could write about it. Sentimentality and self-interest, here, are twins. Now this, £12 million later, is the result: a prime suspect in custody, who boasted of the crime to a friend. I don’t begrudge the McCanns this investigation. I would have done the same.

But there is something gruesome about the public response to this case; about the media coverage, which segued from hysterical to indecent to insane. Eleven years after the abduction, more than 100 tweets an hour were still attached to the hashtag #McCann. It’s for the parents, some say, even as they were considered suspects due to the incompetence of the Portuguese police, and successfully sued newspapers for naming them responsible for her death. I wonder if infamy was a price they were willing to pay to find their daughter, and if that compounds their tragedy.

The media obsession wasn’t to console the McCanns, who were, for a mistake – leaving Madeleine and her siblings alone in an unlocked apartment – condemned to private and public hell. I think it was to damn them, and soothe the rest, because our children have not been stolen. We imagine we would not be so stupid, or so careless.

How many idle and malicious words have been written on Kate McCann’s mistakes, morals and manners? Of her coldness and her beauty, which render her an unfriendly cliché? The father was considered “too corporate” – I think people wanted grief, they wanted “closure”– but the woman always gets it worse. There are no good mothers of lost children. She was damned for hiring PR consultants; for not crying on camera, on the advice of professionals, who thought an abductor might feast on her pain; for, in the end, I suspect, surviving. She was not the victim we sought; she was not pliant, or vulnerable, or broken enough.

And so, she was punished. Seventeen thousand people signed a petition requesting that Leicester Social Services investigate why the children were left alone; did they want her to lose her remaining children? Did they, in the thrill of mystery, forget that someone else — and not she — had taken the child? No, it was never condolence. It was a public expiation of shared fears, and a judgement of the parents. People read about Madeleine McCann for a jolt of terror, and to feel comforted. Because the children we love are here, and she is not. Our children are not safer because we judge Kate and Gerry McCann. It just feels that way.

There is an entire crime fiction genre dedicated to tales of missing children. I understand why people read them: not being the parent of a missing child will give you a happy day. People are entitled to read fiction, and to process their fears, but I cannot read them. I do not need them because I can imagine them. But they are not entitled to steal real children into fairy tales and parlour games and puzzles. This one — What happened to Madeleine McCann? — should not be played. But it will be when the next tragedy rolls along. Our fears for our children, and our capacity to judge those that expose them, are infinite.

If the suffering of little children interests people, I wish they would also read child poverty statistics. I wish that they would campaign, too, to reverse them, and pray for the return of all lost children. But that is too much to hope for. Reading about Madeleine McCann is easy; caring about children you have not been forced into imagined intimacy with by media cynicism and parental despair is something harder.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.