Friday 23 August 2019

Anne, you made apologies, now you make amends

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Anne Enright, the Dublin Booker prizewinner, has apologised for attacking Kate and Gerry McCann in an article that she wrote about them for the 'London Review of Books'. But she should do more than apologise. She should, in my view, make a substantial donation to the Madeleine McCann fund -- perhaps half her Booker prizewinnings of €70,000: she will be a rich woman, in any case, from worldwide increased sales of the winning novel 'The Gathering'.

But I doubt she will make any such gesture, because I don't think she quite understands how much damage she has done, not just to Mr and Mrs McCann, but to the vital principle that every individual in a properly-run democracy is innocent until proved guilty. She seems to think that the unfortunate aspect was the "timing" of the piece. No, it was not. It was the substance -- and the effect.

Ms Enright wrote that she disliked the McCanns instinctively: she suspected Kate's "flat sadness" and "wounded narcissism". She especially disliked Gerry McCann because he looks like a "corporate executive". She wondered how much those bunch of doctors drank in Portugal. And, using measuring tapes and pictures from the site of Madeleine's disappearance, she tried to gauge, again and again, whether the parents had done away with their own child.

Anne Enright is a good writer. The article was well-written, with a probing self-questioning note. But you can be a good writer, and still have bad judgment.

And you can be a good writer, and still be irrationally prejudiced. Because that was what the attack on the McCanns added up to. Prejudice.

It is rank prejudice to judge a person, or persons, on the way they look, or on the way you "feel" about their appearance, when those persons are suspects in a police case, as the McCanns are in the eyes of the Portuguese police.

It is not only prejudice: it is dangerous prejudice. It encourages a mob feeling -- which exists and always will exist -- that "there is no smoke without fire", and "a nod is as good as a wink", and all the rest of that ignorant farrago.

These were the grounds on which Alfred Dreyfus, in the notorious case which broke France in the 1890s, was wrongly convicted of treason. Dreyfus was accused of passing military secrets to Germany, basically on the grounds that people didn't like the look of him. That is to say, he was Jewish, and he looked it, and if you added up two and two, wasn't a Jew the more likely to betray France? Thus was the infamous miscarriage of justice mounted on prejudice, on hearsay, on malign gossip, and above all, encouraging the mob to find a scapegoat they could hate.

This feeling exists with the McCanns -- that people "don't like the look of them". I have had e-mails myself in this vein. Women, particularly, saying they hate the preeney way Kate McCann looks, and that she is only given all this publicity because she is good-looking. Unbelievably, people are jealous of the McCann's fame, which is consequent upon the loss of their daughter.

Human nature is full of prejudices and such prejudices will always find expression. But a writer of world prestige should not be fanning the flames of prejudice. It is odious and it does actual material damage to the principles of justice, which are that you are not allowed to hint, suppose, or wonder if someone might be guilty of a heinous crime without evidence being produced in a court of law, and that court of law convicting the accused.

It is also, of course, personally graceless, given the context. Anne Enright is a very successful woman, married with two healthy children, with whom she has happily and proudly posed for photographs: she has even written a book about motherhood. For a lady in this position, cruelly to turn on a mother who has lost a child and has been through a living nightmare on that account since last May, is deeply mean-spirited.

She may not have intended it to be seen like that, but that is the way it looks.

Anne Enright is a novelist. The purpose of the novel is to tell a story -- to make things up -- but the novel also allows the author to enter into the world of speculation, ambiguity, paradoxical reflection, and "what-if".

The journalistic essay is a different genre: feelings can of course be expressed, and a mistress of the genre, such as Virginia Woolf, would do so in such a work. But you must be much more careful -- much more responsible -- about the effect of your words, and your perhaps prejudicial judgments, on named, living people, who are -- to reiterate this once more -- innocent until proven guilty.

Ms Enright has apologised and expressed her regrets but she should take a leaf from a fellow author's book by now showing atonement. And she should also make clear that she now understands just why it was wrong to speculate about Mr and Mrs McCann in the way that she did.

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