Thinking about Zeena and Zainab al-Hilli

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about murdered children and children consigned to oblivion. It’s a heavy topic for a Saturday morning or whatever morning it is where you are. But what the hell, you can deal with it.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about four-year-old Zeena al-Hilli, who was found in a car in the French Alps, hiding under the bodies of her murdered family, where she had apparently been for about eight hours, and her seven-year-old sister, Zainab, who was shot and left for dead. But Zeena and Zainab’s story also brought to mind the history of Australian abandoned and traumatised children – of whom there are very large numbers.

The media has been full of ‘expert’ comment, particularly about Zeena’s experience and what might happen to her as a result. Weirdest Comment Award probably goes to Julie Stokes, a clinical psychologist, OBE recipient and founder of the childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, who informed the British public that young children’s brains ‘have a natural defence mechanism that protects them from quite a lot of horror’. As someone who has worked with numerous abused and traumatised children and adults abused as infants, that’s news to me. But it can be an idea that makes adults feel better: ‘A terrible thing happened to a child, but they didn’t really feel it.’ But let’s not go there. I’m more of a mind with the French police investigator who said of Zeena, ‘A child of four knows very well what she has heard and experienced.’ Perhaps the most insightful comment came form Anouchka Grose who wrote in the Guardian:

To be so young and to have witnessed at first hand such brutality is to be robbed of all the comforting ideas that we build around ourselves and our children – that if you’re good then no harm will come to you and that your family will be there to protect you. To try to re-instil such soothing fictions in a human being who’s had them ripped away so forcibly may be to try to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted …

What exactly is a ‘normal life’? One where the person feels able to love and be loved, while also making a living? If so, there are enough abnormal lives being lived to make a mockery of the distinction. Perhaps, rather than betting everything on a return to normality, it can be far more helpful to think about ways in which people might somehow be able to give a place to experiences that can’t be integrated into everyday life. Rather than trying to sew everything up – either by forgetting it or by attempting to rationalise it – it may be more true to the experience to acknowledge that certain aspects of it might never be synthesised or accepted, and to try to find ways to live with that.

The public anxiety about children is always adult anxiety. Australia has a long, long history of imprisoning and torturing children. In fact when you look at twentieth-century Australia, it’s hard to avoid encountering an image of it as a gulag for children. Look at the numbers: 50,000 children who became the Stolen Generations, the 500 000 other children from Australia and overseas who experienced institutional care, the 150 000 who were taken from their unmarried mothers. Imprisoning children has been a major Australian industry, one constructed with the complicity of several governments and a whole raft of religious institutions.

Welcome to sunny Australia – major industries, mining, sheep farming and stealing children. I always found it both intriguing and sinister that John Howard was able to nail the centrality of Australian anxiety about children. It’s as if he felt himself especially persecuted by unbearable childhood anxieties. Think about his obsessions and denials:

  • The children overboard tragedy
  • The Northern Territory Intervention
  • The attempts to get inside the minds of children via schools, and the rewriting of school curriculum and Australian history
  • The various ‘solutions’ to the arrival of asylum seekers, which all resulted in children being indefinitely imprisoned
  • The refusal to say sorry to the Stolen Generations
  • The stripping of funds from women’s services responding to family violence

For John Howard, childhood was, as a colleague of mine remarked to me, a place where ‘everyone will learn to spell and wear a tie’.

Thinking about children causes unbearable anxiety in Australian adults. So we don’t think about them. Children are largely invisible, usually hidden away in schools and spoken of only in commodified terms of value – investments in the future – or terms of mediaeval morality – as angels or demons.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post at Overland where I questioned the Left’s complete abandonment of any engagement in a debate about the education of children. Then, I saw that failure as a structural failure of the Left’s limited political priorities. Now, after further reflection, I’d see it as something symptomatic. These days I tend to see nearly everything as a symptom, but when one looks at the Left’s total incapacity to develop a political agenda that includes children as political agents, one has to wonder if there is something almost pathological in the Left’s failures in this regard.

If the Left were a person, who didn’t seem to have the capacity to talk about childhood, to think of children as having coherent interior mental states, as having political agency and political lives, one would be very seriously concerned about that person’s psychological health. In this sense, the Left is not much different from the Right. There’s still an assumption that children just need to be given different ideological instruction to be human beings. For example, instead of competitive, gruelling pedagogies of success and failure, perhaps we could develop methodologies of Critical Pedagogy.

This makes no sense within a context where children have no agency. Schools are largely broken institutions and our methods of relating to ourselves-as-children are seriously weird. As an adult one can go for years without having a conversation with a child. That is a seriously screwed way to live a life. But it allows childhood to be marginalised, commodified, reified and governed in punitive ways by institutional structures and sovereign practices of power.

It also allows children who are asylum seekers, for example, to be imprisoned without anyone giving it much thought. If we have no coherent way of thinking about children, if we don’t even see them around very much, they become abstract entities, and coercive and cruel government policies can be implemented without much opposition.

In her book Confronting Postmaternal Thinking, a book I’m hoping to review for Overland in the near future, Victoria University’s Julie Stephens makes a lot of powerful arguments that the marginalisation of childhood is also the marginalisation and depoliticisation of motherhood and the contemptuous dismissal of practices of care. The dismissal of children’s experience is also the dismissal of women’s experience. The Left’s ignorance about childhood, one could argue, is a practice of misogyny, but one that isn’t conceived as a problem at all.

Whatever life Zeena and Zainab al-Hilli live, blind Freddy can see they are going to be very very fraught. For the rest of us, who can do nothing to help them, the image of a traumatised, probably catatonic child huddled under the murdered bodies of her parents is one we would do well to think on, as Australia’s bizarre and cruel practices toward children continue to be enacted in our government’s treatment of asylum seekers and placement of huge numbers of Indigenous children in foster care. We are nowhere near coming to terms with the Australian history of child imprisonment and kidnapping. For me, it’s the central discourse of twentieth-century Australian history. Children don’t forget and they’re not ‘protected’ by their brain’s biology. It’s the adults who have forgotten, who don’t wish to know.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by


  1. In Yarraville, Melbourne this week, a 25 year old woman was found dead. Her toddler was found in the flat, and it’s estimated he was in the flat with his mother’s body for at least two days. Significant press there.

  2. Yes exactly. Interesting though because the Fairfax papers, Age and SMH are usually very big on dead toddler stories and like to prominently feature them on their websites. The al-Hilli girls were of media interest because of the allegation their parents murder may have been a professional job. The debate has also been around whether or not Zeena has been cared for appropriately by the French, hence the reams of ‘expert’ comment.
    I have no idea how the media rate their dead children stories, but the logic probably has a parallel with stories on family violence related killings, where the 140 or so women murdered each year in Australia by their partners gets little press, but a gangland killing in Melbourne gets huge press.
    There’s a also a strong argument that drug-related deaths due to women and children living in situations of family violence, and suicide, should be treated as family violence stats. Currently this doesn’t happen. Violence against women and children is still massively underreported. As I say, it’s still the big secret of Australian history.

  3. It’s difficult to subtract from or add to what you have expressed so necessarily well here. So yes, care of the self, care of children is getting worse by the day in Australia (I can’t comment on the elsewhere) where conditions are affected by a now almost non-existent working class and a burgeoning, materially wealthy but ethically and spiritually impoverished middle class, leaving children not born into wealth or those middle classes trapped in generational poverty, where such monetary hooks as the baby bonus become a means to survival. Governments running micro-economic platforms and policies haven’t a clue how to handle social problems, and as for education, a lot of money has been, and is about to be thrown in that direction, to ever deteriorating affects which surely demand a reckoning.

    • That’s a fair summary. There’s a massive hole in the Left’s thinking on children, and it extends across so many issues. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me related to misogyny.

        • Wherever you are and whoever you are with I suppose.
          It’s not an issue that has great interest for the Left, so any dialogue is always a good thing, wherever it’s happening.

  4. Stephen – can you unpack your idea of the link between a lack of thinking about children and misogyny; I’m very interested in this….

  5. The dismissal of women’s experiences, or the pathologisation of that experience, always includes the dismissing of children’s too, as it is women who bear children. If there is a governance of a woman’s uterus that governance will also extend to its products. One can see this in the US, with the rabid pro-life ‘debates.’ if a woman’s uterus is deemed to be a certain kind of place, then the child who is given birth too is also going to arrive already placed within specific parameters.
    Babyhood is a politically very interesting location, even an acute one. Babies bring out massive anxieties in people, both men and women and in different ways. Just observe a baby in a public or social setting, and watch how strange things become.

  6. Is part of this not knowing how to let others be others, and babies are so intensely other (can’t talk, don’t have adult mores etc) ??

    • I don’t think it’s that straightforward. Babies have a very rich language. I’m getting fairly fluent in Baby myself, though a bit out of practice. It’s more that when I was learning to speak Baby, I had to rethink a lot of my assumptions about adult personality and adult actions. I had to rethink the idea that words just mean what we say they mean, and that the way I am is the way I always am, and that I’m the same for everyone.

  7. Sure, I’m not saying babies don’t have a whole range of ways of acting, thinking, communicating etc – by ‘can’t talk’ I meant ‘can’t talk in adult-speak’. They aren’t blank slates or pure beings; they’re fully un-formed as all of us. But babies – and really anyone that is not-adopting, or co-adopting various (adult) norms – are going to show up the norms as just that.

    • Sure. And Babyhood occupies a different place than a lot of other non-norm identities. Its fairly unique in its character and its marginalisation.

  8. I’m no linguist, but to clarify previous points, I’d question whether there is a language spoken by all babies. Each child I’ve known has its own idiosyncratic language, rich as it is, as a simple relationship between word and meaning. (Babies can’t communicate with each other through baby language, unless twins etc.) Between 18-24 months or so (or even earlier; sometimes later) babies enter the adult language system by taking on the abstract lexico-grammatical component that intercedes between word and meaning and underpins the whole adult language system, with all its strengths and failings when it comes to adult identity formed through language and culture.

    • Language is not just a verbal linguistic ability. And babies do communicate with each other. Babies communicate via gaze very expressively. Combining that with movement and facial expressiveness and how those are connected gives us a very rich way of understanding, listening and speaking.

  9. Of course everyting is outside language, where a whole semiotic universe of communication takes place: I was picking up on the expression “learning to speak baby”, which perhaps was a metaphor for the previously expressed?

  10. I thought the French were very careful, but the difficulties for Zeena will deepen whilst she is ‘held’ in care by the UK authorities, without at least being with relatives she knows, her own belongings, clothes, at a familiar school etc and her bike returned to her… presumably all these things are absent as she has to adjust to temporary circumstances. Meanwhile why aren’t any relatives at the hospitable bedside of Zainab, now that she is conscious?

    • Some familiarity would be all well and good, but as Grose points out there isn’t any normal for the al-Hilli girls any more. The British press have gone ape over the story and as usual trundle out piles of child experts to expound on what should happen. There is a kind of huge moral panic that will continue when and if the perpetrator/s of the murders are found.

  11. Just realised Julie Stokes’ comment that children “have a natural defence mechanism that protects them from quite a lot of horror’.” is very much like the recent Todd Akin comment that “f it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

    • Yeah, I thought that too in some ways but didn’t really want to go there in the post, as it would have been a distraction. Akin is encased in prehistoric misigyny, Stokes trying to do difficult work with a very vulnerable group. Akin’s comment is an attack on women, Stokes’ comment a defence against considering the possible full import of attacks on children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.