Peter Corns/Express UK/Zuma
October 04, 2007 12:00 PM

Taking your kids to nursery school isn’t supposed to be a heartbreaking experience. But heartbreak is exactly what Kate and Gerry McCann found on Sept. 19, when they enrolled twins Sean and Amelie, 2, in their local day care facility, the same one daughter Madeleine attended before she disappeared in Portugal in May. “It was very emotional and distressing for them,” says Gerry’s sister Philomena McCann.

At home, they find a bit of respite, surrounded by the happy chaos of the children playing and the constant stream of friends who have pitched in to run errands and help with chores. The McCanns talk to their kids about their big sister often, in an effort to keep her alive at least in their minds. Madeleine’s photos are everywhere in the house, as are her toys. “Kate and I have told them we don’t know where she is,” wrote Gerry on his blog, “but lots of people are looking for her and we hope they will find her.”

Meanwhile, the agonizing journey of Kate and Gerry McCann, both 39, from the largely anonymous life of respected doctors to international symbols of the perils of parenthood, is entering a critical phase of its own. Still suspects in their 3-year-old daughter’s disappearance, with photographers camped out nearby, the couple continue to deny any crime – and they are fighting to keep the focus on what they insist is the most important thing: finding their little girl. They are prepared to take lie detector tests, but polygraphs are not used in Portuguese courts. They will not comment on reports that they have hired their own investigators, but with the help of donations of more than $2 million, they will be launching a massive advertising campaign in Portugal and southern Spain, including remote areas, featuring billboards and newspaper ads with Madeleine’s picture. As supporters of the McCanns tell it, the initiative offers the couple some badly needed reason for optimism. But there is no denying the toll already taken on their spirits by the seeming lack of progress in the case. “Some days are better than others,” says the family’s public relations representative Clarence Mitchell. “It is exceedingly hard and getting harder.”

Madeleine McCann, only hours before her disappearance
PA photos/AP

Certainly the crises and false leads of the past five months have worn them down. Despite numerous sightings around the world of children resembling Madeleine, including one in Morocco where a tourist’s snapshot of a blonde-haired youngster triggered a media frenzy on Sept. 26, none have panned out. Though Portuguese authorities named the McCanns as official suspects on Sept. 7, a judge recently ruled there was no evidence that warranted further questioning of them. But that has not stopped the Portuguese press from continuing to flay the couple, with each day seeming to bring some new allegation or innuendo. One recent unsubstantiated scenario: that Madeleine was killed as the result of an accidental fall down a flight of stairs at the resort in Praia da Luz where the family was staying and that Kate and Gerry then hid the body. As one source confidently told the paper 24 Horas, “The only thing to investigate is how the body disappeared.”

Perhaps Kate McCann makes an easy target. Whether the McCanns are ever charged with a crime remains to be seen, but to observers, the couple are at the very least guilty of questionable judgment for leaving three small children on more than one occasion unattended while they went out for dinner with a gang of friends now referred to in the press as the “Tapas 9.” Nor has it helped that in her public appearances Kate has at times appeared chilly or emotionless. “Kate comes across as being cold,” acknowledges one acquaintance in Portugal.

But there is more to her steely demeanor than meets the eye. For one thing, in the early days of the investigation British profilers told the couple to remain calm when discussing the case in front of the television cameras. The reason: Madeleine’s abductor might become excited by seeing them suffer – which could conceivably put the child in greater danger. “They were advised very early on that pedophiles get a kick out of seeing completely distressed parents,” says family friend Jon Corner.

December '98: "Family is probably the most important thing to Kate amp#91;at her wedding, with godchild Ellieamp#93;," says Linda McQueen.
PA Photos/AP

The other fact, say friends, is that she is not someone who feels comfortable in the limelight. Kate Healy, the only child in a Catholic working-class family in Liverpool, grew up somewhat shy and studious. She excelled at school and entered the medical program at the University of Dundee in Scotland. And yet for all her accomplishments she harbored self-doubts. “Kate has always been a quiet, sensitive person,” says Linda McQueen, a longtime family friend from Liverpool. “She’s not overly confident, despite her intelligence and good looks.”

During medical school she did come out of her shell a bit. According to her yearbook, she was known as “Hot Lips Healy” and had a reputation for enthusiastic partying on Friday nights. She met her future husband while both were doctors in training at an infirmary in Glasgow. A year later she left to do a stint at a hospital in Wellington, New Zealand. Gerry had already been scheduled to continue his training in Canada, but at the last minute he got himself switched to New Zealand as well. As he quickly made clear, while his duties were medical, his intentions were romantic. “He told us he’d come for her, to woo her, really,” Ian Gearey, a friend there, told a local New Zealand paper. “He won her heart.” They returned home and in December 1998 were married in Liverpool. In 2000 they moved to the Leicestershire area, where Gerry had landed a job as a cardiologist. Though Kate was qualified as an anesthesiologist, she chose instead to work as a general practitioner, believing it would give her more flexibility when she had children.

But fertility problems put a crimp in that plan. “Being an only child, she always wanted a big family, lots of children,” says McQueen. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.” The couple had to fall back on fertility treatments that entailed, says McQueen, “all the traumas you go through, all the ups and downs.” With the help of in vitro fertilization, Madeleine was born on May 12, 2003. “If you look at what it takes to be a doctor and go through IVF, she must have some steel inside her,” says Corner.

Mid-'70s: Childhood friend Nicky Gill (right) from Liveripool is still close with Kate (left).
PA photos/AP

If so, say those who have met her, it does not appear to be the cold or inflexible variety. One British expatriate living in Praia da Luz who got to know the McCanns well says the image of Kate as an ice queen is all wrong. “She’s a very warm, very kind person,” says the source. “When local people would speak with her she’d always hug them.” As for her handling of Sean and Amelie, the source found Kate to be a doting mother. “They would sit on her knee and she would read them stories,” she says. “They were always huggy and she always put the kids first.”

The same pattern seems to have continued back in Britain, where she and Gerry have endured much unwelcome attention just so Sean and Amelie can enjoy some of the simple pleasures of childhood. “They took the children to buy shoes a week ago and they were followed and people were staring at them,” says Philomena McCann. “It’s very difficult.” McQueen says that during her recent visit to the McCann home she saw how the couple try to balance the needs of Sean and Amelie with their own emotional state. “If the twins showed an interest in going into Madeleine’s room, then Kate or Gerry would take them in for a couple of minutes,” she says, though the door is normally kept closed. “They want to keep things in place for Madeleine when she comes home.”

At the same time, the McCanns have been deeply touched by the gestures of support they have received from around the world. For instance, many of the teams in Britain’s Premier soccer league have showed up for games wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Madeleine’s image; jockeys at Ascot racetrack did the same. As Gerry wrote on his blog, “The fact that so many people are prepared to show solidarity with us in our search for our daughter does help restore our faith in humanity.”

Sept. 30, 2007: "I've seen them in private, both crying," says Mitchell of the McCanns (in Rothley). "They are only human like everybody else."
PA photos/AP

As for the reports that the McCanns have hired private investigators to carry out their own search, much of the talk has focused on Morocco. “We feel it is as valid a place for looking for Madeleine as anywhere else,” says Mitchell, without confirming anything. “Suffice to say, Kate and Gerry will leave no stone unturned in their search for Madeleine.” Mitchell adds that one thing the family has not done is hire any investigators in Portugal, which would be illegal in that country because there is an ongoing official investigation.

Ironically, the couple have seized upon the dearth of clues as grounds for encouragement, however faint. “As the massive investigation and extensive search did not find any evidence of serious harm to Madeleine,” Gerry wrote on his blog, “we started to hope she would be found alive.” Those in their camp say they still cling tenaciously to that hope. Walking home from church this past Sunday, Sean and Amelie scooting on ahead of them playfully, the McCanns put their arms around each other’s waist. Then Kate could be seen rubbing Gerry’s back, as if consoling him. How much it helped in these darkest hours, perhaps even they could not say.

By Bill Hewitt. Pete Norman and Sara Hammel in Praia da Luz, Ellen Tumposky and Shelley Akersin Rothley, Simon Perry in London and Dimi Gaidatzi in Liverpool

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