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The ‘lost child’ is a white Australian anxiety about innocence

What happens when the enablers of our future vanish? Ben Leto

The lost child isn’t a specifically Australian figure, but it’s certainly had an important history in this country. For more than a century, we have watched and read narratives about girls and boys who’ve gone missing in the bush, sometimes never to be found.

I first noticed the prevalence of the lost child in Australian history while researching Australian true-crime writing.

My interest in this figure led me to critic Peter Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children: An Australia Anxiety (1999), which prompted me to ask: what sort of “anxiety” or “anxieties” does the lost child embody?

It’s not just true-crime narratives that deal with lost children. Think of films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay – and novels such as Suzanne McCourt’s The Lost Child (2014). Think, too, of the many real-life lost child cases.

The best-known Australian lost children are the Beaumont siblings, who disappeared from Glenelg Beach in 1966, apparently into thin air, and Azaria Chamberlain, who went missing in Central Australia in 1980, and was the subject of John Bryson’s Evil Angels (1988), and the Hollywood film.

These children have been the subjects of countless media articles, books and television programs.

In 2014, there has been considerable media coverage given to three-year-old William Tyrell, who disappeared from his grandmother’s New South Wales home in September. Tyrrell’s whereabouts are unknown at the time of writing.

Last month, 11-year-old Michelle Levy made headlines when she ran away from her North Bondi home. Michelle was found a short time later, staying with a middle-aged man. This more recent case doesn’t quite fit the mould because she disappeared, unlike those other still-lost children, from the middle of a big city.

So, can any missing child be a “lost child”?

In his book, Pierce focused on representations of the lost child in 19th-century literature and art. These works played on an Anglo-Australian anxiety about “children of wandering away from settled areas into the trackless bush”. The 19th-century Australian lost child stood:

in part for the apprehensions of [Anglo-European settlers] about having sought to settle in a place where they might never be at peace.

Those concerns about the Australian landscape are echoed in coverage of William Tyrell’s disappearance. In a recent article in the Newcastle Herald, reporter Dan Proudman wrote:

Three-year-old boys don’t tend to walk up steep hills. They run down them. They don’t tend to bolt into thick scrub and have it rip through their tender skin, either … And that is what is frightening the hell out of the people of Kendall [the town where Tyrell disappeared].

In recent times, the lost child has reflected an anxiety about innocence lost.

In Western culture, childhood has commonly been associated with “innocence”. So, too, has that mythical world we call “the past”. The association between “innocent” childhood and an “innocent” past has been particularly evident in writings about the Beaumont children.

Australian author Alan J. Whiticker, who has written a book about the Beaumont children, described the day the siblings went missing as “the day Australia lost its national innocence”.

I think the lost child also reflects an anxiety about an uncertain future. We’ve all heard that old chestnut, “children are our future”. The children of today will carry on our names, keep our country ticking along after we die. What happens when these enablers of futurity vanish?

I also think anxieties about a quintessentially Australian “lost child” figure are a bit problematic. For one, children are reduced to symbols – symbols of a ridiculously idealised past or a scarily uncertain future. There’s no sense that the lost child is a flesh-and-blood human being, with thoughts and feelings, with loved ones who miss them.

I’m reminded of a wonderfully eloquent statement made by Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton on the 25th anniversary of her daughter Azaria’s disappearance:

Please do not lose sight that this is a real-life case, with a real child, and real family behind all the court cases and media attention.

Also, it’s significant that most of this country’s best-known lost children have been Anglo-Australian. Rahma El-Dennaoui and Siriyakorn Siriboon – from Lebanese and Thai backgrounds respectively – are exceptions, but even then, neither child has attained the notoriety that the missing children mentioned above have.

There are few well-known Indigenous “lost children”, though there has been much written on the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families during the 19th and 20th centuries.

With that in mind, we could say that the Australian lost child has reflected a particular colonialist anxiety: an anxiety about white children.

Should we avoid giving media coverage to children who go missing, and regard any representation of such children with suspicion? No. But we should look critically at how exactly the lost child functions in its many representations, and be alert to the connections suggested between childhood, innocence and whiteness.

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