Who's Watching the Children?:
The Beaumont Case Revisited
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
‘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.
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.
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
(What separates the strange from the familiar? Who decides which is
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?)
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.
more flies with honey.)
Perhaps the ‘lolly’ part was always just a metaphor.
But who was it protecting?
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
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:
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.’
‘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.’
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.’
they know their daughters at this age, but often it's their fantasy
of who their daughters are.
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
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
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
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
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...
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
how does a child's desire for family and safety differ from what an
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,
email: beth at bethspencer dot com
was originally commissioned by Matthew Leonard
as a companion piece to
his radio feature
"101 Degrees", first broadcast on ABC Radio National's
version was also published in Southerly special issue:
"Close Up", 2001, edited by Kate Lilley, and was reprinted as
Lost: The Missing Lives of the Beaumont Children’ in
A2, Saturday 21st January 2006.
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