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Just when it can't get any worse. . .

Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2000

What manner of madness is this?

A first-grader sitting on a bed wags his finger at the all-too-familiar camera. The family hovers around him. Outside the window adults form a human chain, inside more adults hang on his every word. He is in the place every 6-year-old desires and dreads: the center of attention.

The camera rolls - Take One - and the boy speaks. ``Papa,'' he says, as if he were addressing an audience rather than a parent, ``I don't want to go to Cuba. If you want to, stay here. I am not going to Cuba.''

There. It's a wrap. Break to the so-called grown-ups.

The Cuban Americans who have elevated Elian Gonzalez from refugee to oracle, from 6-year-old to saint, rejoice. At last, they have their proof. There, you see . . .

The same people who insist that Elian will be subject to brainwashing if he returns to Cuba, celebrate. Was there then no rehearsed quality to his performance?

The media who have elevated him from victim to ratings star utter a collective ``Yesss.'' Every channel and online program airs the tape, again and again. Did these producers collectively decide the custody dispute? Don't we need a parent's permission to talk to minors anymore?

Only weeks ago, in one last fleeting moment of tiny restraint ABC decided not to air a 6-year-old's opinion. But it took only this videotape to change the collective mind of the industry. An MSNBC producer now tells a reporter, ``The public has a right to see it. For months, people have been asking thesmelves, `What does this kid want to do?'''

Oh, and now we know?

What must the father think as he watches his son, the child who survived a wholesale disaster, pointing his finger through the television lens at his heart? What mixture of pain and anger and worry and rejection must this father feel?

We have entered another chapter in this unhappy, unseemly case. Elian's cousins and uncles have fallen to using the boy himself as a tool in the custody dispute. Like families undergoing the most destructive of custody fights, they have put Elian on the public stand.

It was not enough to suggest that the boy is afraid of his father, to imply that the father was abusive, even threatening. Now the relatives and the community are suggesting that the decision should be up to the boy.

What do the crowds outside do next, go home to their own children and take an opinion poll? ``Do you want to go to school today?'' ``Would you rather have dinner or dessert?'' ``Disney World or homework?''

`It's a terrible thing to ask a 6-year-old to choose between relatives,'' Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who has studied divorce and custody, reminds us. ``A judge in a divorce case would never ask.'' But then, if this were a normal custody case, it would have been over in five minutes.

It's also a terrible thing to raise a child to the status of an oracle. ``People are using him as the authority when in fact he's the victim,'' says Cherlin. ``He's just a confused kid. He's got to be treated more like a 6-year-old and less like a young Dalai Lama.''

Try to put yourself in the head of a traumatized child whose entire life was upended and deeply colored by loss. A child who lost control of his life, bobbing in a sea, literally. Five months later, crowds and cameras hang on his every wave, follow him as he plays with a puppy or tells his father what to do. And of course, he knows it.

If there is any value in that exploitive videotape - and do not take this as an endorsement - it's the eery image of a little boy all too conscious of his importance. Even his power.

How does a child handle the simultaneous experiences of impotence and omnipotence? Do the people who have elevated - or lowered - him to the status of a symbol care?

One thing we know about 6-year-olds that the adults behind the video camera and the crowds in Little Havana and the TV producers have conveniently forgotten: Small children want to be protected. Small children get anxious when the grown-ups are out of control. Small children can decide what candy they want, but not what country. Or what family.

In the end, Elian Gonzalez has been a firsthand witness to an extraordinary cast of grown-ups behaving badly. There is little doubt that the boy will go back to Cuba. But how long will it take him to get back to earth?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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