Why the Story of the South African Kidnapping Victim Is So Unnerving

Celeste Nurse (in red) is the mother of the South African girl who was abducted after birth in 1997.

In case you haven’t heard, a 17-year-old girl has been reunited with her family after being abducted as a baby from a hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s an incredible story: The kidnap victim unwittingly befriended her biological younger sister at school, initiated by their uncanny resemblance, and when the parents invited the girl over for coffee they were so convinced the girl was their daughter that they contacted police to reopen the investigation. Un-be-lievable. It sounds like a movie plot or an episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” right?

This should be an uplifting news story … but I can’t help feeling disturbed by it. Not just because having your baby stolen from the hospital is terrifying, or the slightly creepy fact that the biological parents celebrated their missing daughter’s birthday year after year, making their three younger children blow out the candles (that’s weird, right?), but the whole thing is just such a bone-chilling fluke. There are nearly four million people living in Cape Town, and the kidnap victim ended up at the same high school as her younger sister? Imagine that first meeting. Was it like that scene in The Parent Trap? Did the girls suspect they might be related?

Growing up in the shadow of their abducted sister must’ve been incredibly difficult for all three of the victim’s siblings, but to come face to face with her at school must have been — I don’t know — exhilarating? Unsettling? Every year when they blew out her birthday candles, did they wish one day to be reunited, or did they resent their parents for continuing to live in the past? I’m sure I would have developed a complex about it, but maybe that’s just me.

And how ballsy of the kidnapper to raise the child in the same zip code she snatched her from! There aren’t many details on the story, and I can’t help wondering: Who is to blame? Is it the adoptive parents, or perhaps a shady third-party adoption agency? Are we supposed to hate the adoptive parents, or pity them? As of now the adoptive mother is under arrest, but it doesn’t feel that simple. Obviously the kidnapper was unstable, but I’m imagining the parents — guilty or innocent — to be on the brink of hopelessness, people with fertility issues who would stop at nothing to have a baby. Whatever the truth is, the adoptive parents/kidnappers raised the girl lovingly, as their own daughter, and now they might never see her again.

Of course, hearing stories like this must send out a message of hope to families of kidnap victims. Somewhere around 2,300 kids go missing in the states on a daily basis, so, in that sense I know this is an uplifting story. I can only imagine what an extraordinary moment it must have been, when the biological parents invited their daughter’s identical ‘friend’ over for coffee, and then found out it truly was their long lost girl. Don’t you get tingles just hearing about it? But put aside the elation of the biological parents for a minute. For them, 17 years worth of prayers have been answered, but what about the girl? What must all of this be like for her? For 17 years she’s been raised by one family — vacations, birthdays, doctor visits — never knowing that she had been stolen from another. Was it a nightmare for her? It’s not like she’d been chained up in a basement. She goes to school, probably living a normal teenage existence. And now it’s over. Her kidnappers — aka mom and dad — have been arrested, and the girl will wait in the custody of social services until she can go back to her biological parents. Two complete strangers.

The whole situation is a win-win and a lose-lose, no matter how you look at it.

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