Mothers To Blame

Kate McCann rarely cries in public, even when talking about her missing daughter, Madeleine. McCann has been described as cold and composed. She left her 3-year-old child and young twins unattended in a resort hotel room even though the hotel offered baby-sitting services. While her children slept alone, she ate a meal that according to Portuguese media reports included 14 bottles of wine shared among eight people. (Kate and her husband, Gerry McCann, dispute this detail.) Do her actions and apparent lack of grief make her a bad mother? And if so, does our fascination with less-than-perfect mothers make it all too easy for us to imagine her a murderer?

A mother murdering her child seems almost beyond comprehension. But when a child disappears, the suggestion of something amiss can often transform the mother from victim to suspect in the public imagination. If the mother fails to exhibit the expected signs of grief, or if the details of the case imply lack of caring, she can find herself at the vortex of outrage and media frenzy, where rumor and speculation regularly trump evidence, especially when no other suspect has been found. Two weeks ago, the McCanns were declared arguidos, the Portuguese word for official suspects who have not been charged with any crime. The police have found no further evidence. McCann joins JonBenet Ramsey's mother, Patsy, and Australian Lindy Chamberlain as a mother of a missing child who, because she doesn't act exactly the way we think she should in the face of tragedy, conforms to a deep suspicion that behind the façade of the perfect mother lies a murderess.

We know that sometimes mothers do kill. Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a tub. Susan Smith pushed a car containing her two sons into a lake. But the trope of the murderous mom, although lacking conclusive evidence, can be so compelling, it overshadows gaps in logic in the cases themselves. It also provides a convenient scenario for police under pressure to produce a suspect.

For Lindy Chamberlain, the rush to judgment is sadly familiar. "Here we have a mother and there's talk about her being charged for murder, and once again they haven't got a body; they've got no facts," Chamberlain told NEWSWEEK. When 2-month-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared in the Australian Outback in 1980, Chamberlain claimed a dingo had taken her daughter. She served four years of a life sentence for murder before being acquitted after flaws were found in the blood-based forensic evidence. (What prosecutors claimed was a bloody handprint turned out to be residue from a milkshake and copper dust from the mining town where the Chamberlains lived.) Similarly, much of the case against the McCanns hangs on the presence of Madeleine's DNA in the trunk of a rental car, but forensics experts warn DNA evidence is not as incontrovertible as TV crime shows suggest. "The big crime of all this is that while people are going, 'Oh, the mother did it,' the authorities and the public will stop looking," says Chamberlain.

Our fascination with Kate McCann is an extreme example of the scrutiny all mothers are subjected to, says Molly Ladd-Taylor, co-editor of " 'Bad' Mothers: The Politics of Blame in 20th-Century America." "The idealization of the mother leads to this sort of mother-blame," she says. In tallying everything Kate McCann did wrong, we reassure ourselves our children will be safe as long as we do everything right.

Like Kate McCann, Chamberlain was criticized after Azaria's disappearance for appearing insufficiently distraught. "You can't react normally; your facial muscles just won't obey you, so people think you are hard. If you happen to smile in the wrong place or in front of the wrong person, well, then you don't care. You're supposed to live a normal life for your remaining children, but if you do the public say, 'Oh, look, they've forgotten her already'," Chamberlain says. But at the same time, Patsy Ramsey, who became a suspect in the murder of her daughter, JonBenet, was criticized for appearing too emotional, with reporters speculating her tears were an act. "It doesn't matter what you do," Chamberlain says. "You can't win."