Boston Herald

Our biases reveal how we see Eappens

by Margery Eagan
Tuesday, March 9, 1999
The Boston Herald

Said Dr. Gerald Feigin, ``People hear what they wanna hear, and see what they wanna see. . .''

Said Dr. Floyd Gilles, ``Well I think there's a tendency in people to find what they expect to find. . .''

The doctors who made those remarks on ``60 Minutes'' Sunday were referring to medical evidence in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.

But they might have been referring to one sure truth to emerge from the Louise Woodward trial: Just like in the Fells Acres child abuse case, whom we believe guilty and whom we blame has less to do with facts than with who we are.

Our experiences, biases. Whether we're working class or professional. What decisions we've made with our own children and think everyone else should make with theirs: namely, should mother work or stay home? And is she entitled to work if she doesn't have to?

If she is, say, a doctor, like Deborah Eappen, married to another doctor, like Sunil Eappen, living in Newton, even if it is Route 9? And doesn't such a woman have a greater obligation than, say, a McDonalds fast food mom, to hire a top drawer nanny, not some 18-year-old working-class British kid to change diapers for her?

On top of it all, if such a hotshot doctor didn't notice her baby's broken wrist, maybe that's because she hardly noticed him at all, which explains why she failed to weep enough in court, outraging so many of us, doesn't it?

The above has been the bias defining this case since it began. It's as if we'd all feel much better if mother killed Matty. And while ``60 Minutes'' carefully did not say so Sunday it surely implied that Louise was railroaded.

Any doubt of the program's agenda was erased when producers let stand a ridiculous claim Woodward made. Said Mike Wallace to Louise: ``I'd never seen you before tonight. I figured that you were a much bigger girl.''

Replied Woodward: ``No, I'm only five-foot-two. Quite small. . .he was a heavy baby. . .I physically couldn't have done it.''

So Louise claimed to lack the strength to throttle an infant. It was fascinating to hear her say so when her own attorney, Harvey Silverglate, has publicly wondered why prosecutors did not investigate the possible criminal role of Matthew's toddler brother. However ``small'' Louise may be, brother Brendan is smaller.

Wisely, however, ``60 Minutes'' did not pursue the Brendan-as-mystery-thrasher route. But the show did devote an unusual amount of energy to the Woodward case - two entire segments - something only done once or twice a year, said spokesman Kevin Tedesco.

``Why,'' Wallace asked Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley, ``did that trial capture the public's imagination so here in Boston, in the United States and over in Europe?

Said Coakley: ``Any family might have hired Louise Woodward as a nanny. It could've been anybody's situation. I think it really struck a chord about day care and how we take care of our kids and what risks are in our home.''

And Coakley has never doubted the risk in the Eappen home.

As she patiently told Wallace, ``Matthew was probably fussy that day because he was teething. And I think (Woodward) got angry. And I think she whacked the kid. And I mean, end of story.''

But it is not, of course, the end.

Eappen lawyer Rick Ellis said yesterday that the one thing ``Debbie really needs is closure, to know how (Matthew) died.''

Yet since Louise Woodward now insists she is too petite to kill, she has provided no details.

But let's assume, if only for this moment, that Louise Woodward did kill, as both a jury and a judge believed. Here's Deborah Eappens's fate: never to know of her baby's last moments on Earth and now, thanks to ``60 Minutes,'' never to know whether Matthew endured not only a blow to the head and a fatal shaking, but also repeated abuse. Fists to his stomach. An attempt at strangulation. Broken ribs.

Imagine trying to sleep at night with a vision of your baby being beaten to death - first this way, then that, then in yet another horrible fashion. Imagine getting up in the morning knowing that in coffee shops and barrooms all around the country, strangers actually argue that because you're a doctor who went back to work, you somehow got what you deserved.