Beth
Spencer



Who's Watching
the Children?:

The Beaumont Case Revisited

 



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click here for
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This piece was originally commissioned by
Matthew Leonard
as a companion piece

to his radio feature
"101 Degrees",
first broadcast on
ABC Radio National's
Radio Eye, 27/1/1997.

This text version was also published in Southerly
special issue: "Close Up", 2001, edited by Kate Lilley,

and was reprinted as

‘40 Years Lost:
The Missing Lives of the Beaumont Children’
in The Age, A2,
Saturday 21st January 2006
.



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Who's Watching the Children?:
The Beaumont Case Revisited


Beth Spencer


On Australia Day in 1966, three children, Jane, Arnna and Grant Beaumont, disappeared after spending the morning playing at a suburban beach in Adelaide. Despite a protracted search involving hundreds of police, media reporters and volunteers, and including a renowned clairvoyant flown out from Holland, the children were never found.

When I was five, my favourite game in all the world was ‘Kidnap’ -- a game invented by my sister and her best friend, Vicki Tatchett, who lived across the road.
    ‘Please, please can we play Kidnap?!’
    ‘Well...o-kay...just this once.’
    Kidnap was always pretty much the same. I'd be strolling nonchalantly through the garden, minding my own business, humming a little, smelling the flowers, when suddenly two Great Burly Brutal Men would leap out from behind the camellia bushes and grab me. They'd clamp their hands over my mouth and drag me kicking and screaming (‘Shh... not too loud...’) into the house and down the hall to Vicki's pink and white bedroom, where they'd throw me against the wall and onto the bed. Then they'd slap me around a little, or tie me up, in between discussing what they were going to do if my parents failed to come through with the ransom.
    Sometimes I'd whimper and be pathetic; sometimes I'd try to escape, only to be grabbed viciously and tossed back onto the bed again.
    I loved this game. I had no idea that there was anything... well... unwholesome about it... until one day our game was interrupted by Vicki's mother coming unexpectedly into the room. My assailants leapt away from where one had been pinning me down by the arms and the other slapping me lightly on the face, and I was left lying flushed on the bed in a slight state of deshabille, looking up into Mrs Tatchett's surprised face. She stared for a moment (my dress up around my thighs, one shoe off), then looked over at Vicki, sitting quietly at her desk, casually flicking over the pages of a book, and at my sister, standing at the other end of the room, busy studying a picture of Jesus holding a lamb and surrounded by lots of little children.
    ‘What's going on? What are you girls doing?’ she asked suspiciously.
    Vicki looked up innocently from her book. I was about to blurt out ‘We're playing Kidnap!’ when I caught a look from my sister, and heard Vicki say ‘Oh, nothing. Just... you know... reading.’
    We waited silently, while Mrs Tatchett packed clean socks and singlets into the chest of drawers. Finally she examined us again, one at a time, then said, ‘Well, just keep the noise down a bit, ok?’ and left.
    We stopped playing Kidnap some time after that. I think the extra spice of guilt on top of the already dizzying pleasures of the game perhaps became too much; or maybe the older girls grew out of it. Or maybe the Beaumont case occurred.

 *

The Beaumonts are the lost children who never grow up: disappearing off the map one day, into a kind of Neverland. Still (presumably) within Australia but unable to be located by the usual means -- by parents, police, journalists; even the clairvoyants couldn't find them. So now they are permanently locked in a kind of Louisa Alcott world of notes left on kitchen tables, playing forever in the shadows at the back of old amusement park rides; trapped in a nation's memory vault and desire for an innocent past.
    What is the cultural space occupied by these children (or by any children)?
    And how do such children ‘come back’?
    In Peter Pan, of course, the children come back essentially the same; the only person really changed by the experience is the father.

 *

‘Don't talk to strangers.’
    Sociologists have calculated (don't ask me how) that fathers in the sixties spent an average of eleven minutes a day with their children.
    Someone else said they'd heard it was six minutes.
    ‘Is that 6 minutes with each child?’ I asked (youngest of six), ‘Or six minutes altogether?’ And did that six minutes include the time spent at the dinner table and in front of the television, or did it mean six minutes actually talking or playing with their children?
    In my family I think it meant six minutes with each child but it included meal times and time spent in front of the television. That is, for about thirty-six minutes per day, on average, my father was in the same room. I guess if I had two minutes a day where he directly talked to me, I'd be doing extremely well.
    There was nothing strange about this: we were just your normal everyday family...
    (What separates the strange from the familiar? Who decides which is which?)

In those days we were always warned about strangers offering us lollies. This seemed terribly foolish of those children to be snared by something as transparent as sweets. (Hadn't they read the story of Hansel and Gretel?)
No-body warned us that the lure might be something more subtle. That perhaps the stranger seduced because what he offered was something even more rare and precious to a child than lollies.

(You catch more flies with honey.)
    Perhaps the ‘lolly’ part was always just a metaphor.
    But who was it protecting?

 *

The figure of Peter Pan and the Neverland troubles the sleep of both children and their parents, but it troubles it in different ways.
    The Beaumonts represent a nightmare for parents, but what do they represent for children?
    In particular, for those children for whom the opposite of innocence is not guilt, but knowledge. Those ‘wise’ before their time; living with physical or emotional violence as an everyday occurrence; and for whom the line between kidnap and rescue is a fine one.
    Who's watching these children?
    Who's making sure they too don't drift off the map and become lost?

 *

From a newspaper report, January, 1966:
 

‘The woman said she was sitting on a seat on the sea side of the sailing club when she saw two girls and a boy come up from the sea after a swim.
    ‘They went to a sprinkler on the lawns on the northern side of the sailing club, laid out their towels near two trees, and began playing under the sprinkler.
    ‘ The woman said she did not notice anyone else at the spot at this time. What attracted her attention later was a tall, blond-haired man who had started talking to the children.
    ‘The woman had to turn on her seat to see the man, lying on a towel on the lawn about ten feet from her and wearing brief navy blue bathers.’

JUMPING
    ‘The three children had gone over to him and he was laughing and encouraging them as they played, the boy jumping over him, the younger girl jumping too, and the older girl flicking him with a towel.
    ‘It was about half an hour later when the woman got up to walk home and cook dinner, leaving the children and the man they appeared to have made friends with still playing on the lawn.’


Under a heading ‘How they were dressed’ there is a description of the three children. Jane Nartare Beaumont is described as -- ‘aged 9, 4 ft 6 inches tall, thin build, sun-bleached hair pushed back with fringe in front, probably wearing tortoise shell hairband with yellow ribbon, hazel eyes and thin freckled face. Two front teeth prominent. She was wearing green shorts over pink bathers, canvas tartan sandshoes with white soles... Well spoken but stutters when excited.’

Mrs Beaumont said: ‘They never would have gone with a stranger.’ And in a newspaper article titled ‘Hopes, Fears of Mrs Beaumont’ it was said that ‘she cannot understand why Jane, a shy girl, much more so than Arnna and Grant, would allow a man to put her shorts on, even over her bathers -- as people who have told police that they saw a man and three children at Glenelg say she did.’

*

Mothers think they know their daughters at this age, but often it's their fantasy of who their daughters are.
(Mrs Tatchett unable to take in what was before her eyes in the pink and white bedroom back when I was five...)

 *

I am caught, again and again, by the image of the children playing on the grass with the man, and the woman in the park watching them.
    The way the man might have looked at Jane.
    Mr and Mrs Beaumont gazing painfully at my parents watching them on television.
    The way our parents look at us.
    And the children, staring out from the photographs in newspapers...

How did Australians look at children in the sixties?

And what of the historian's gaze?

And my gaze -- where does it intersect? As a seven year old living in a country town in Victoria what is the worth of my testimony? In what sense was I ‘there’?
    Or to put it another way: what was my desire (then) for the Beaumonts, and what is my desire (now)? For Jane? For that moment of apparent (but obviously untrustworthy) happiness on the lawn..?

What I want for the little girl that was Jane was for her to be able to trust those who made her feel good, and what made her feel good.
    For her to be able to say ‘no’ effectively to what felt wrong, because she was also sometimes allowed to say ‘yes’ to what felt good; and thus to learn to trust her ability to tell the difference.

 *

The day before the Beaumont children went missing, on the 25th of January 1966, Robert Menzies resigned. The new Prime Minister, Harold Holt (himself to disappear without trace a few years later) emphasised, in his Australia Day speech, ours as a country of hope and security.
    It could be said that, as a ‘new’ country, white Australia lacks a cultural memory of generations of dynastic feuds and wars -- the violence, murder, incest and rivalries that give meaning to the term ‘blood ties’. So for us the family has always been more easily imaged as pure and safe, with fear projected onto the stranger -- the perpetual  Other (the Asian immigrant, for instance; or onto indigenous Australians).
    In this sense, the Beaumont case ‘captured the imagination’ because it tapped into already deep-seated fears and hostilities and insecurities.
    Even the brainwash theory, that the children are still alive but have been brainwashed to think they're someone else (and belong to someone else), has a cold war paranoia -- an iron curtain -- feel to it. (Brainwashing, of course, being something ‘they’ do.)
    But the Beaumonts are not the only ones who explored a little way off the cultural map and disappeared into thin air: Harold Holt, Ludwig Leichhardt, Azaria Chamberlain, the girls from Miss Appleby's school... All inhabiting now this Other space in Australian memory: the Mad Max territory where the rules are alien or not clear, and the horror subtle, understated, laconic: peculiarly Australian. Left to the imagination.
    An open-ended horror in a country where it's impossible to fence anything in completely, or to know the exact boundaries of things. A landscape good at keeping secrets. And where feeling at home is sometimes difficult.

 *

One of the tropes of therapy is that memories -- insofar as they are cathected with so many emotions and have travelled back and forth in time collecting meaning -- are in fact fantasies of what happened.
    This is not to say that memories (and fantasies) don't bear a relationship to ‘reality’, simply that this relationship is heavily mediated and complex. And that to recognise memory as a projection as well as a looking back, is often useful in working out strategies for healing.
    And if it is useful to look at memory as a kind of fantasy, then perhaps it is useful sometimes to look at history this way too. (A collective fantasy.)
    And sometimes it is also useful to switch the questions.
    Instead of the (probably now unanswerable) ‘What happened to the Beaumonts?’  we could ask a broader question: ‘How do we best go about keeping children safe?’

    Or lots of smaller questions:
    --What is the cultural place occupied by children?
    --What is the cultural space occupied by these particular children?
    ...Two girls and a boy who wandered off the map... out of the safety of the Menzies world...

With history, it's easy to become fixated on an event or a fact and keep digging in and around it for truth. But it's impossible to dig everywhere. And there are all sorts of forces (accidental and structural) determining where a culture digs, and where it doesn't.
    (For instance: the ease or otherwise of access to a particular spot or type of material; whether it's publicly or privately owned; how comfortable or acceptable it is to return to it again, and how-well marked by other feet, or hands.)
    Sometimes, the more we dig, the more we obscure something else -- perhaps just as important.
    Sometimes what's needed is to step back and look at what's around the trail, what's marking it, and to look at ourselves: examine the search itself rather than just keep on repeating its moves.
    And look at why we ask the questions we do. Why they matter so much to us.

 *

Another question: how does a child's desire for family and safety differ from what an adult desires?
    The enormous amounts of money poured into searches such as the nation-wide search for the Beaumont children (or the police search for Jayden Leskie to use a more contemporary example) is deeply at odds with the always-uncertain levels of funding and frequent cutbacks to things like child protection services, refuges, education, social welfare and other preventive agencies.
    Another ‘irony’ is that we designate adults as the principle and most effective protectors of children, even though we know that they are also the principle abusers of children; especially when they are given a large amount of authority over the child, as for instance when they are part of the child's family.
    What I find striking about the descriptions of the community in which the Beaumont children lived and played, is that the children were their own best protectors; they formed their own social units and a range of alliances and relationships, overseen by a variety of adults, that extended way beyond their own families. They looked after and out for each other and were encouraged to be resourceful and independent.
    Which means that the wider tragedy of the Beaumont case may be the extent to which Australians have lost faith in the relatively open and free atmosphere in which these children lived. For it could be argued that the further people retreat away from community and into isolated nuclear families and behind picket fences and locked doors, the less safe, on average, children become.
 

    In our desire to keep children ‘innocent’, we disrupt their freedoms, warn them against strangers, and incite adults to watch them more carefully...
    But who's watching the watchers?
 

*
 

c. Beth Spencer, 1997
www.bethspencer.com/beaumonts.html
email: beth at bethspencer dot com
 

This piece was originally commissioned by Matthew Leonard
as a companion piece
to his radio feature
"101 Degrees", first broadcast on ABC Radio National's
Radio Eye, 27/1/1997.

This text version was also published in Southerly special issue:
"Close Up", 2001, edited by Kate Lilley, and was reprinted as

‘40 Years Lost: The Missing Lives of the Beaumont Children’ in
The Age
, A2, Saturday 21st January 2006
.


*

 

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