Lynn Powell, a poet in Oberlin, Ohio, has written a powerful and disturbing book. Like the gripping true story Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and the film Rendition, it is a chilling account of what can go wrong in the lives of ordinary, good people who feel safe in the privacy of their homes and who trust in the protections afforded them by living in a country where jurisprudence is believed to prevail.
In 1999, Cynthia Stewart was a school bus driver, a devoted mother, and an amateur photographer when she dropped off several rolls of film to be developed at a local drugstore in her hometown of Oberlin. She had been documenting her daughter Nora's life ever since she'd been born eight years earlier. Of the thousands of pictures she had of a happy, confident little girl, a few were of Nora unclothed. Two of the pictures in the lot she took for developing that fateful July day were of Nora in the bathtub. In one, she was rinsing herself with a shower head and in the other, she was imitating a pose she'd seen at a photography exhibit she'd visited with her mother. The developer in the drugstore deemed the photos to be pornographic and notified authorities. And thus began a year of hell for Cynthia, her partner David (Nora's father), and Nora.
If this all sounds familiar, it may be because the case drew national attention and numerous supporters from various quarters. Because of that, readers may already know that ultimately Stewart was not separated from her child nor did she go to prison -- largely because of the overwhelming support and media hoopla her case garnered -- but the book is a nail-biter from start to finish, thanks to Powell's skillful account of events.
Powell paints vivid pictures of a determined prosecutor (and his obsessed associate), an equally determined young lawyer, a feisty guardian ad litem, a less than adequate child welfare system, a community of supporters and more. She also gives us a birds-eye view into events and a blow-by-blow account of what transpired during a tense and frightening year in the lives of a loving family. It is to Powell's credit that although she is a friend of Stewart's and actively advocated on her behalf, she tells the story fairly and dispassionately, without diminishing its drama.
What happened to Cynthia Stewart raises more than alarm bells although it is a cautionary tale. It forces us to ask important questions about our legal system and our civil rights, to contemplate what constitutes art; to think about who decides what is pornographic; to wonder what rights the state should have and to ask when parental rights are being violated. It also causes us to look at what constitutes "community" and how people deal with each other when their values are in conflict.
Further, it makes us realize how often false accusations of this nature occur and how terrible the consequences of those accusations can be. In the course of the year it took to resolve Stewart's case, she received numerous calls and emails from other women who like herself, had been charged -- but falsely convicted -- of child abuse. One was a grandmother who had photographed her three-year-old granddaughter goofing around with her; another was a woman, wrongly accused, who'd spent nearly fifteen years in jail.
Their stories reminded me of something that could have landed me in similar trouble. In 1981, when my son was a pre-schooler, I received a call from his teacher. She was concerned about something he'd said when asked to name his favorite thing. "When my mommy colors me after my bath," she'd heard. What he'd really told her was, "When my mommy cuddles me after my bath." I shudder to think now what could have happened had that teacher not believed my explanation that our kids used a lot of English words, their dad being British. I realize how close I might have come to charges similar to those Cynthia Stewart, and so many other innocent women, have faced.
The very thought is enough to send shivers down anyone's spine. Reading Lynn Powell's compelling book about Stewart's deeply troubling experience is guaranteed to send them down yours.
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