Girls should not have to fear the world outside
The cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard and Laura Dekker will only reinforce the view that we should lock up our daughters
Why didn’t she run away? Did she love him? Was she brainwashed? Can it possibly be true that, over 18 years, she never had the opportunity to escape? What role did the wife play?
Such questions will dominate the world media for weeks, as the story of Jaycee Lee Dugard is sensational and compelling. A blue-eyed, blonde child, snatched by a convicted child rapist and his wife from a bus stop nearly two decades ago, turns up alive, aged 29. And the reason it’s so compelling is that this appears to be the darkest possible fairytale, a distorted parable of child abuse and sexual slavery.
Of course we react. Of course this story tugs our chain, just as the mystery of Madeleine McCann does, because it preys upon our parental fears. It is the perfect strike; the Exocet to the heart. Deep down, we’re desperate for Little Red Riding Hood to be devoured by the wolf.
For, having created the bogeyman of “stranger danger” to terrify and control its young, Western society loves nothing better than the proof that it exists. We may live in the light, never healthier nor more materially affluent, but how obsessively we need to dwell on the darkness.
Two immense tragedies, one can predict with some certainty, will emerge from this astonishing tale of a lost girl and her lost innocence. One is Jaycee’s personal one — a life profoundly damaged — and it is inseparable from the distress inflicted on her family. Her children, her mother and, especially, her stepfather, who was suspected of the abduction all this time, have all suffered immeasurably.
But a far greater tragedy is the impact her story will have on the lives of young people everywhere, and in particular on girls — every time an abduction as dreadful and as high profile as this happens the freedom of children is curtailed as a result. The outside world recedes even farther, curfews lengthen, toddlers’ reins are shortened, the front door opens a little less often; and endemic parental neurosis heightens.
It doesn’t matter how vast the odds are against such incidents, or how randomly they occur, this response is as inevitable as it is irrational.
Fifteen years ago I heard mothers boast, as if it were a badge of righteousness, that they never let their children out of their sight. What will they do now, these maternal police officers, post Madeleine, post Jaycee? Implant electronic chips in their offspring? Hire private detectives? Put up drones to check the safety of the school playground?
To do anything less, in some circles, is tantamount to admitting that you are the Karen Matthews of your community.
Particularly sad is how Jaycee’s story will affect little girls. For them, the message can only be reinforced — you’re a woman, you’re especially at risk. You’re vulnerable and powerless against dark unseen forces. The world is full of threats, rapists and child abusers. Stay inside, stay pretty and be safe.
Any way you look at it, this is a regressive and disempowering way to bring up young women. It’s also totally misleading, because woman, as we all know, are most at risk in the home and from people they know.
How ironic that even as we thrill and rubbberneck at Jaycee’s experiences — and even as the misery-literature publishers e-mail offers of a book deal and Hollywood discusses who will play Jaycee — a 13-year-old Dutch girl was yesterday stopped from an attempt to sail singlehanded around the world.
Surely there are unfortunate parallels here? A risk-averse society is proclaiming that young women must be protected at all costs, not just from the omnipresence of wicked child-abusers but also from adventure and the risks of the sea. A court in Utrecht ruled that instead of setting sail on a two-year solo circumnavigation with her parents’ blessing, Laura Dekker must stay on dry land under state guardianship for two months. Taken into care, in effect, for being bolder and more talented than her peers.
What troubles me about Laura’s case is not so much the decision — it’s probably correct in the short term, although I note that the British sailor Mike Perham, who has just completed his own circumnavigation at 17, was only 14 when he crossed the Atlantic singlehanded. No, it’s that the authorities felt they had to intervene. Had Laura and her family been left to themselves, you can’t help feeling they would have worked things out, even if it meant trying and failing. Far from the court’s “serious concerns” about Laura’s mental and physical development on the boat, it is likely that she would not just have survived but would have emerged as preternaturally cool-headed as Dame Ellen MacArthur. She probably still will.
What the heavy-handed court ruling does, in effect, is make it official — the world is too dangerous for young women to be let out on their own and the State has to act to protect them.
The implication is that the authorities regard Laura’s parents as neglectful — a view probably shared by many mothers and fathers. But just as many, I suspect, would regard it as neglectful to allow little girls to walk home from school on their own, or negotiate public transport by themselves. Between these two extremes, other parents struggle to carve out some kind of balance, fretting all the while.
Laura’s is a complicated issue, because it asks us to judge risks against parental and institutional responsibilities; and also to take into account the unusual personal circumstances of a child born and raised on a yacht. As we’re rubbish at judging risk, that makes it difficult.
Put alongside Jaycee’s fate, Laura’s ambitions highlight the stark contrast between the largely unrealistic fears with which parents infect their children and the extremely real dangers of the sea. The bottom line, surely, is that young women desperately need role models such as Laura Dekker to show them not to be afraid.
Just how much liberty can we safely give to girls? The answer must be as much as they need to be empowered. As much as they need to succeed. As much as they need to be bold and brave, and to rise above groundless, crippling fears.
From what we know, Jaycee appears to have remained in captivity passively, like so many women in violent or oppressive relationships. Instead of escaping, she was caught in the psychological trap that tells women they deserve to remain. That, above all, is the real horror.
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