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Paula Coston shudders at the child stealers

November 22, 2013
Faceless goblins steal the infant, replacing it with an ice baby, in Maurice Sendak's 'Outside Over There' (1989).

Faceless goblins steal the infant, replacing it with an ice baby, in Maurice Sendak’s ‘Outside Over There’ (1989).

A grim yet mesmerising subject, child stealing.The frisson of our something-more-than-outrage, the revulsion and anxiety triggered in us by any news or mention of yet another child abduction, seems to tap into a collective seam of myth and terror that most of us, shivering, can readily acknowledge and share.

In many biblical story versions, the young Benjamin is taken from his family to be a slave. Leaping on to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, research by Dr Bart van Es, an Oxford academic (Shakespeare in Company, 2013), has recently exposed the way that child catchers grabbed little boys on their way to school from the London streets. They were then forced to perform onstage on threat of a whipping, frequently in seedy, semi-dark theatres – venues quite different from, and in competition with, the public theatres such as Shakespeare’s – in order to titillate the generally male audiences. Shockingly, Elizabeth I signed warrants allowing the practice.

Dr van Es explains that ‘In at least one case, a father tried desperately to recover a child who had been snatched and taken to the Blackfriars playhouse.’ A gang ‘did haul, pull, drag and carry away’ 13-year-old Thomas Clifton on his way to school. ‘When his father attempted a rescue by turning up at the playhouse, he was contemptuously dismissed and told that if his son did not learn his lines he would be whipped.’

The whole sordid business throws a potentially murky light on any contemporary adulations of ‘beautiful boys’, and references to children’s theatres, in the literature of the time.

Meanwhile in the 17th century US, children were kidnapped to furnish the North American colonies with an ample supply of servants and labourers.

Jamila Gavin’s classic children’s historical novel Coram Boy, set in the 18th century, feeds into this same vein of revulsion. The venial Otis takes babies and money off desperate mothers, promising to deliver them to the Coram Foundling Hospital in London. Instead, he murders them and buries them by the roadside, to the helpless horror of his mentally ill son, Mish. As a central part of the plot, Otis takes Aaron, the illegitimate baby son of Melissa, then pretends he’s stillborn, and has had to be buried.

Our deep-rooted fear of child stealers is also fuelled by myths and stories about changelings, as explains.

‘People believed fairies, trolls, and elves snuck into the bedroom of sleeping infants to trade the new baby for their own offspring….

‘Sometimes the changeling was believed to be a … piece of wood which would appear to quickly grow sick and die. Creatures would use a changeling to exchange with human children so the children could be used as servants, or because the creature loved humans and wanted a human child.

‘Sometimes the changeling was used as a form of malice. The Church believed changelings were used to punish parents who did not baptize their children, claiming trolls could not touch blessed infants.

‘Changelings were a common theme in medieval literature, as they were used to explain misunderstood infant afflictions such as certain diseases, disorders, or mental retardation.

‘Sadly, the reality behind changelings stemmed from the birth of deformed or developmentally disabled children. Some modern day diseases which fit the description of changelings in various legends are spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, Hunter syndrome, regressive autism, and cerebral palsy. Changelings have found their place in autistic culture, as elven changelings were blamed for the inexplicably varying behavior of the autistic child.’

‘Changelings were identified with a number of qualities. First, the changeling infant often failed to thrive. Changelings were considered to have undesirable traits, such as voracious appetites, malicious attitudes, and difficulty moving. Changelings also had pale skin, and an amazing amount of intelligence.

‘Infant changelings could speak early, and Scottish changelings were believed to have a love of playing the bagpipes. The[y] … would play the instrument early, and with no prior teaching. This belief explains the strong link between elven changelings and autistic children.’ adds:

‘Human changeling legends are also a way of dealing with the fear and uncertainty around raising a creature as vulnerable as a human newborn. People believed if they turned their backs for even a second, their child would die or be swapped. Legends often cite a beggar woman who admires the child just before the mother notices a shift in its behavior or appearance. Constant vigilance, lights, an article of the father’s clothing, sharp instruments, spices, and even the Bible have all been used to ward off baby-swappers.’

Maurice Sendak, author of the widely-known children’s picture book (now film) Where the Wild Things Are, didn’t hold back on the scariness of such scenarios in his less well-known Outside Over There. Whether we give this to our children to study rather depends on whether we’re of the ‘We must protect our children from the awareness of all perils’ brigade or not.

In her book Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (1997), Professor Paula S. Fass tries to unpick our fears. She argues that kidnapping plays out society’s fear of sexuality and abandonment and of the dissolution of the family.

‘On one hand, [over the years] you have the loosening of sexual taboos. On the other, you have the fear that this opening will target your child. We have women liberated from the home, and the fear that a stranger in your house can kill your child when we’re out at work trying to make a living.’

Like Sendak, who used the case as his inspiration for Outside Over There, Fass is struck by the legendary abduction of the rich child Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., which exposed the vulnerability even of society’s elite.Then she narrates how by the 1950s, ‘increasing concern about gender roles and sexuality came about at the same time that the kidnapping threat turned into fear of the sexual predator’, rendering child abduction today a strange and nasty contradiction of anxiety and titillation.

I’m a childless woman; but I find that even the psyche of this particular non-mother has daubed the images of stolen children and the terrors of child thievery onto the gory paint palette of my fears. Somehow I’ve subconsciously appropriated it as yet one more metaphor for my loss of the chance of parenthood. Ironically you could say that in doing so I too have, in a sense, become a stealer of children.

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