Revisionist history in the case of Baby Jessica

March 21, 1994|By Mona Charen

IT HAD to happen. The revisionist version of the Baby Jessica story is now making news. "Prime Time Live" did a segment portraying the blissful life Anna Schmidt (her parents changed her name) enjoys in Blairstown, Iowa, and Newsweek put a photo of the grinning 3-year-old on its cover, with the tag line inside "Happy at Last?" The story implies that the answer is an adamant yes.

History, someone once said, is the polemic of the victor. Now that the courts have spoken, both Newsweek and "Prime Time Live" are presenting exclusively the Schmidt version of the story.

Nightmares? Crying? Difficulty eating? Nothing of the kind, the Schmidts tell credulous reporters. Why, the very second the child saw Cara on the day of the transfer, she was calmed. As for missing her adoptive parents, Jan and Robby DeBoer, Newsweek reports that with the exception of one crying episode in which the child said that the DeBoers "were nice to me," there has been no sign of grief or homesickness.

Anyone who has been following this story from the beginning knows that Dan and Cara Schmidt always took the position that the transfer wouldn't traumatize the child. Cara said she felt that Jessi (now Anna) would know her -- through some mystical bond of biology, one supposes. (Anna did meet her biological parents several times before the transfer.) Is it surprising that after the most bitterly fought custody battle of recent memory -- a battle in which most Americans sided with the DeBoers -- that the Schmidts would now tell reporters that all is going swimmingly?

The "investigative reporter" stance of Diane Sawyer on "Prime Time Live" was laughable. Taking her cameras into Anna's bedroom, she questioned the child about her possessions and (a miracle!) got chatty, 3-year-old responses. When she raised the subject of the DeBoers, the child fell silent. Sawyer called this "reserve." I have some other ideas: massive confusion, hurt, longing, denial.

"Prime Time Live" juxtaposed pictures of a smiling Anna with what it presented as experts' predictions of gloom. That was misleading. Those experts testified at the Michigan "best interests" hearing, and they did not categorically predict crying jags or hunger strikes. They said any or all of those symptoms, or none, were possible responses of a 2 1/2 -year-old.

But anyone who reads too much into the momentary responses of a toddler is obviously unfamiliar with children. My 2 1/2 -year-old sometimes cries piteously for a minute when I pick him up from preschool, clinging to his teacher. Does this mean he loves the teacher more than he loves me? No, it means he was enjoying school and doesn't want to go home at that moment.

Does the fact that Anna chats equably with reporters mean she is happy in her new surroundings? Not necessarily. Does it mean that she bears no scars from the wrenching dislocation she has suffered? Hardly. This child has "learned" that people you love and depend on will suddenly abandon you, never to be seen again. Ironically, it is the Schmidts who will probably suffer from Anna's inability to trust.

What is the point "Prime Time Live" is trying to make? That children can be taken from their parents without harm? That people were wrong to side with the DeBoers because the little girl isn't in obvious throes of depression?

Newsweek has other fish to fry. It is at pains to present the Schmidts sympathetically. Dan is portrayed as having "lost" both of his other children to their mothers. Tell that to the judges who required him to pay child support and to daughter Amanda, whom he has never seen. Unmarried Cara, we are told, became pregnant in Blairstown "where the moral code is as stark as the silos." Yes, those strict moral codes about unwed mothers are the true culprit here.

I hope, for Anna's sake, that she will be happy in her new home. But the words of one expert, Sally Rutzky, ring true. "You really don't know what will happen with a crack in the foundation," she told Newsweek, "until it's asked to weather some external force."

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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