Writers & Company

How Laura Cumming unearthed the truth about her mother's kidnapping, 90 years later

The Edinburgh-born art critic and biographer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about investigating the real story behind her mother’s disappearance as a child in 1929.
Laura Cumming is an art critic and author. (Sebastian Barfield)
Listen to the full episode52:07

In 1929, when Laura Cumming's mother was just three years old, she disappeared from a beach in Lincolnshire, England. Five days later she was found unharmed. This is just one of the many family puzzles that art critic Laura Cumming probes in her book, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child

A blend of memoir, social history and visual art, Five Days Gone chronicles Cumming's investigation into her mother's story — for decades shrouded in silence and secrecy — and the surprising, and sometimes painful revelations she uncovers about her family along the way. A tender portrait of love and identity, the book is also an exploration of the link between pictures and truth, art and life. 

Five Days Gone was shortlisted for the U.K.'s Baillie Gifford Prize and the Costa Book Award for nonfiction. It appeared on many best of the year lists for 2019. 

Cumming spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London. 

Memory loss

"My mother did not know that she was kidnapped until she was 60. She remembered absolutely nothing at all about her kidnapping. She was just three years old at the time. The fact that she could remember nothing indicated that either it was traumatic — and perhaps her brain wiped it — or that it wasn't traumatic at all and it seemed like any other day.

My mother did not know that she was kidnapped until she was 60.- Laura Cumming

"Of course, I assumed that it would be more like the latter. I did discover who took her — and it was never the person we thought it was."

Art education in action

"I tend to think in pictures because I'm an art critic and an art writer. I am trying to attempt a reconstruction in the opening chapter of this book. I know the facts. It was remarkably difficult to find the 1929 police report.

"I visualized the kidnapping taking place on a tiny strand of beach in Lincolnshire. The beach is entirely flat. There are no rocks, no cliffs, no coves — nowhere that this child could be hidden. How is it possible for someone to remove a child from this beach in 1929 without a single person seeing it? 

How is it possible for someone to remove a child from this beach in 1929 without a single person seeing it?- Laura Cumming

"There's probably nobody there, I discover, because it's an October afternoon. It was very warm and balmy. I know all the meteorological facts.

"I was trying to imagine it in this particular way because, for a very long time, we didn't know how this occurred."

Long-held secrets

"My brother and I had tried to uncover the mysteries surrounding my mother's family origins when my mother was 60. This was 1986. We all went back to this area to try to find out what had happened. We had the same experience over and over again.

"We would go to the house of someone who would have known my mother when she was small. They would all invite us in for tea and would talk politely about the history of the village. But they would all absolutely seize up when they were asked anything about my mother's kidnapping.

I wanted to find out what happened to my mother because I was angry about what had been done to her.- Laura Cumming

"For the secret to have been kept so long gave my mother the feeling that she personally mustn't pry any further into it. I also think she couldn't bear to know any more than she already knew. I wanted to find out what happened to my mother because I was angry about what had been done to her."

Quiet as it's kept

"The silence is almost the central mystery of the book. It was like an omertà — there was an unbelievable kind of iron silence from the people who knew what transpired. One thing about this situation is that this child who is taken from the beach is living in a house with two people who may or may not be her parents. This is not an uncommon situation.

It was like an omertà — there was an unbelievable kind of iron silence from the people who knew what really transpired.- Laura Cummings

"My own feeling about why they all kept silent was partly to do with class. Then of course, there is a huge element of shame involved in this story. So some people are keeping a secret because they're ashamed and other people are keeping a secret because they've been threatened.

"And in the end, there came a point for me where I began to realize that it was generational as well; these were all adults who were mostly born in the 1880s and 1890s. The people from this era are Edwardians and from another time. Because there were no phones and there is no way of communicating, it's possible to keep colossal secrets."

Laura Cumming's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.