Magazine article The Spectator

Child Abuse

Magazine article The Spectator

Child Abuse

Article excerpt

The plan was that in the morning we'd gather our wild foods from the woods and hedgerows, and in the afternoon we'd light a fire and cook and eat a communal meal. But if our survival had really depended on it, the first thing I would have done was to butcher and eat the little boy Zac.

He was about five years old, and he arrived at our base camp in the redwood plantation with his mother, two older sisters and older brother. His mother was a careworn, ethereal, still beautiful middle-class woman and one saw immediately that she was a woman of new-age beliefs and sensitivities. You heard it first in her high, thin voice, which avoided assertive cadences.

Then you recognised that her every utterance, from her 'Sorry we're late, everybody!' to her 'Wow! One . . . Two . . . Three buzzards!', was a restatement of her helplessness before the unfathomable wisdom of the cosmos, which might have been admirable except that here it seemed tired and habitual rather than truly felt. And then you saw it confirmed in her refusal to exercise any authority over Zac, who demanded undivided attention from an audience every second of the day. This meant that when the teacher asked us to gather around a woodland plant and began to explain its uses, Zac thought he was being upstaged and would somehow contrive to step or fall on the plant in question, or to divert attention by falling down and crying, or by running a short distance away and making his mother anxious about his safety.

His repertoire was inexhaustible and his mother seemed awestruck by it, as though she was a particular admirer of monstrous egotism. Which was odd, because the three other children were silent and well behaved to an almost sinister extent, as though somewhere along the line they'd been traumatised or broken in some way. I was not the only one present who, instead of listening to the teacher explaining the uses of the hazelnut tree or the stinging nettle, tried to guess at the dynamics of this irritating family. Was Zac perhaps mentally disturbed?

Adopted? Terminally ill? And the mother - she seemed drained of personality and vitality. Was she on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Lacking in normal intelligence? Extremely wealthy? Married to a violent criminal?

The teacher was a patient and kindly man, and underneath the wily bushman's pragmatism was also, I suspected, a newage believer in the inviolable sanctity and equality of all living things, and in the oneness and the wisdom of the universe. …

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