AGONY THE SAME... ONLY DIFFERENT
It’s well past time for some uncomfortable questions while Christine Wood’s anguished parents wait for answers
PARENTS are always there, in the news. Often they are out of the frame, off to one side, implied by the shape of a story but not visible. An accident, a triumph, a crime: embedded in these are every hope and fear parents have for their children.
It’s harder to watch when they’re right there, in the middle of the picture. Often, that’s when something has gone terribly wrong. A parent’s tears describe nightmares most of us can’t bear to imagine: an absence and unanswered questions.
Nobody wants to have questions about their child they cannot answer. So as George and Melinda Wood sat in front of the cameras this week, holding up a picture of their daughter, their plea was one that every parent can feel in their gut. The plea does not need many words to fully express its depth. “Christine, if you can hear me, please come home,” Melinda Wood said, sobbing, shoulders shaking. “Come home, please, Christine... please, come home.” Before all else, here is what we need to know: Christine Wood is 21 years old. She stands about five-foot-six and has brown hair. In photos distributed to media, she has lively dark eyes and a wide smile that makes her cheeks glow. The last time her family saw her, on Aug. 19, she was carrying a white purse. She was wearing a green shirt with denim shorts, and a red Adidas jacket with stripes; her clothes may have changed since then. But that’s the last her parents know. Then Christine walked out of her family’s hotel room near Sargent Avenue and Berry Street on that Friday night, someone must have seen her. The hope is that one of those people will remember. When people vanish, time is critical. Memories fade quickly. If we happened to notice a young woman with a white purse on a Friday night, we might still remember that on Tuesday morning, especially if a news headline jogs our memory. But as the days pass that memory will probably be gone, discarded into the cognitive trash can where our minds regularly declutter.
It’s not just the mind’s eye, either. Security camera video is often erased over time.
At the time of this writing, Christine Wood has been missing for almost exactly three weeks. It is possible that by the time this story is printed, she will have been found, hopefully safe and sound. That ending does happen sometimes.
I tried to understand how her disappearance was reported. And under the humble instruction that we should first mind the plank in our own eye before pointing to the speck in our brother’s, we can identify in our own pages how this story unfolded.
The first story the Free Press ran about Christine’s disappearance was on Aug. 26, a week after she vanished. The second one came 11 days later, the same day that Melinda and George Wood sat down for that heartbreaking press conference.
A quick survey of other Winnipeg media outlet websites showed almost exactly the same pattern. One TV station also ran its first story on Aug. 26, and its second on Sept. 6. Another one ran its first story two weeks after Christine first went missing.
With an urgency generated by the tears of her parents, all these outlets have since ramped up coverage. This week, the efforts to find Christine were reported in detail; her name and photo began to spread further across social media.
Still, it’s hard to avoid noticing how this pattern contrasts with other recent missing-persons cases in Winnipeg. When Cooper Nemeth vanished on the night of Feb. 13, local media spent most of the next week reporting the search in intensive and exhausting detail. The same is true of the disappearance of Thelma Krull.
That is a good thing, to be clear. When people go missing, it is right that the city should be plastered with their information. There are countless cases where someone was found because of media coverage. Sometimes, the memory of a news story can help find them even months or years after they vanished, as was the case with Elizabeth Smart.
Nor is this meant as a simple indictment. Many factors determine what gets coverage, and how much. These decisions are not made in a vacuum: we in the media may point public attention in certain directions, but we also take cues from where the public is looking. If there is widespread interest in a story, resources tend to be invested accordingly.
When people go missing, circumstances vary widely. So in all of these comparisons, there is some reasonable explanation as to why they rose so quickly to prominence where others did not. Nemeth, for instance, had a wide network of friends and teammates, young and social-media savvy; they flooded digital and asphalt streets on a mission to find him.
Still, these explanations can conceal a more pointed question. We can understand why Krull’s disappearance shocked the city, even before police revealed the most alarming evidence. It is terrifying when a middle-aged grandmother goes out for a morning walk in a quiet suburban neighbourhood and doesn’t come home.
But why is that same expectation of safety not extended as quickly to Christine Wood? Why, when she walked out of a hotel room and did not return, when she suddenly dropped out of contact with the parents she always called or texted, was this not met with the same immediate and citywide rush of worry and attention?
Those are rhetorical questions; I have my answers. It is likely the same reason that most media outlets in Winnipeg reported Tina Fontaine’s disappearance just once, five days after she was last seen in August 2014. Her name and image was not featured again until her body was carried out of the river.
Tina’s killing spurred one of the most honest reckonings with race and inequality that Winnipeg has yet seen. That reckoning cannot be complete without acknowledging this: we cared most about saving Tina only after we knew that she could not be saved. This child was more visible to us crumpled in a garbage bag than when she might have still been alive.
Canada is haunted by the memories of vanished and murdered indigenous women. It’s impossible to know whether any, or how many, might have been saved if mass public vigilance had been more focused and timely. It could be at least one. It would only need to be one, to make it all worth it. That means one set of parents who would have their answers.
For Christine Wood, I ache for a happier ending. There is hope. Bear Clan is out in full force to find her, and her story is now widely known. So look at her face. Take note of her situation. Ask your friends and neighbours if they remember seeing anything strange, or anyone who might fit her description. Let’s help bring this beloved daughter home.
George and Melinda Wood, parents of Christine Wood make an urgent plea Tuesday to the public for their missing 21-year-old daughter.