Shannon Matthews was nine years old in 2008 when she was kidnapped by her own mother and her accomplices. She went through something unthinkable: just a child, taken, drugged and hidden under a bed. Forced to comply. Told lies by the people she trusted most and unable to fully understand that she was being used as a pawn for greed. The press and the nation were captivated by the story – first, of a missing child, a helpless, distraught family and another innocent victim in the aftermath of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. And then of the unprecedented twist of a mother who constructed her own daughter’s disappearance in a series of despicable and abusive lies, in order to gain a few grand.
Back then – and in the following years – focus was firmly on Shannon’s mother, Karen. Heads shook and headlines raged as people tried to fathom just how a mother could act in such a way. How she could do that? And how would Shannon, the child with the optimistic smile we know from the school photograph used to misleadingly pray for her return, ever recover from such a thing?
Now she's legally an adult, her story is public property – to be “enjoyed” at a distance by the public, sitting cosy in their living rooms, exoticised and fictionalised
That was nine years ago and, now, the Matthews’ horror story is resurfacing again. A BBC drama based on the events, The Moorside, began on Tuesday this week, depicting the village in West Yorkshire where Shannon’s kidnap occurred. It has thrown more attention on the story, more questions on the perpetrators and several headlines asking, “What happened to Shannon Matthews?” I read them and thought about what might be happening to her this week – about the media circus that is inevitably now surrounding her.
I feel sympathy for what Shannon Matthews went through back then, at the hands of her own family, and I feel sorry for what she must be going through now. Back then, she was a child – but, now, she is 18. Now she's legally an adult, her story is public property – to be “enjoyed” at a distance by the public, sitting cosy in their living rooms, exoticised and fictionalised.
But it isn’t fiction, is it? Shannon Matthews lost her mum. She lost her home – since 2008, she has been voluntarily living in the care of a local authority. She lost her name, which will forever be associated with horror and outrage, and she lost her identity. Shannon's grandparents condemned the show, saying it was "disgusting" that the drama had been made.
As she becomes an adult, her life is being dramatised and exploited. Newspaper hacks will no doubt use her coming of age to knock on her door until she speaks out – papers can offer hundreds of thousands of pounds to convince someone to hand over their story to them, and they are, as you can probably guess, relentless. Regardless of how fervently those involved in the crimes against her should be held to account, there is much more at stake – Shannon has lost her chance to be an adult in her own right. And to live her life freely, as she wishes.
Shannon Matthews was taken advantage of by her family when she was nine years old and, now, it feels like control is being taken from her again. Is it so entertaining to watch a little girl’s life fall apart?