The large hall of the Friendship Cafe in Gloucester, at the start of the evening of 12 March 2018, was packed with people and full of conversation and hugs of greeting. The draw for people was our speaker Marian Partington talking on the theme ‘Finding a voice for the unspeakable’.
In this case, ‘the unspeakable’ was what happened to Marian’s sister, Lucy. She, in her early twenties, had been coming home from visiting a friend and was never seen again. For over twenty years the family did not know what had happened to her. That was unspeakably terrible in itself, but what was to come was even worse. Lucy had been one of Fred and Rosemary West’s victims: abducted, tortured, raped, killed and dismembered, as had many other women been by this infamous couple.
Marian has written a book, If you sit very still, which tells the story of Marian’s journey in much more detail than she was able to give us in her talk. This journey took her through the not knowing of what had happened to her sister, to the horror of the first news of Lucy’s fate and then to Marian’s unfolding realisation that forgiveness was the only way through such an experience – the alternative being either to turn violent herself or to let what had happened corrode her inside.
It must have taken great courage for Marian to tell us her story, only a mile away from where Lucy had been murdered. Marian took us through key points in that healing journey. What came across strongly to me was the spiritual depth that had already begun in both Lucy and Marian before all this happened. Lucy had become a committed Catholic five weeks before she was abducted, and Marian became a Quaker five weeks before the news broke about what had happened to Lucy. It was, however, at a Buddhist retreat where Marian asked to be shown the way to forgiveness. She was then faced with her own murderous rage and so began her journey to compassion for herself and eventually for Rosemary West as well. Marian said that she has come to see that Lucy’s crucifixion has been her own very slow resurrection. She spoke of grace, the people who came along during this journey that made it just bearable, the support that came, both spiritual and human.
This was not an easy talk to listen to. Marian did not pull her punches about what had happened to Lucy, and how it affected, and still affects her. Yet her early vow that good should come out of what had happened made the story bearable: because much good has come. Marian is a speaker and facilitator with The Forgiveness Project, https:// www.theforgivenessproject.com/marian-partington, telling her story and sharing with others: giving a voice to the unspeakable.
Both Lucy and Marian had always loved words, and Marian has found writing to be enormously therapeutic in her journey – both for herself and in writing her book. She has also written articles to raise awareness of dealing with such complex situations as her own. (Stories of horror, in different forms, are sadly never far away.)
After this moving talk we were asked to form small groups to address three questions, all of which asked how people could be enabled to share their unspeakable stories with others. Marian is very clear that we all share in shame, guilt, rage and any number of strong destructive emotions (as well as the constructive ones), and in coming to acknowledge them collectively we no longer make a false division between ‘baddies’ and ‘goodies’ and can grow into compassion first for ourselves, and then for others. That is the healing journey.
A former prisoner who had worked with Marian when he was in prison spoke movingly about the difference between the need for regret – and for restorative action of destructive acts where possible – and shame about oneself as an entire being. It was being able to share with other prisoners and discover that they were all experiencing similar feelings, though the details of their acts were different, that was so healing for him.
Members of the Grange Community, a home for adults with learning difficulties, contributed many times about the need for love, support and caring.
My observation was that the places where this kind of sharing can currently happen are most often in support groups for various life conditions/circumstances; mental hospitals, prisons, centres for the disabled, rehab centres and other establishments where people have been broken one way or another by what life can mete out upon us. But what happens to those people who are suffering in our society – perhaps most of us at certain times in our lives – who have no help in giving their unspeakable experiences a voice, and how might that be changed?
There are no easy answers, no ‘one size fits all’ solutions, but there is no doubt in my mind that Marian – and Jo Berry, who talked to us previously about her healing journey after her father was blown up in the Brighton bombing, and has worked together with the IRA bomber in peace and reconciliation – are doing vital and tremendous restorative work in our society, perhaps where it is most critically needed. And after Marian’s talking to us on 12 March, each person who was there will potentially go out into their world with a changed perspective, and a greater openness to both their own wounds and to the wounds of others. We may share our stories with those we already know or listen to someone in the supermarket queue in a way that transmits to them that we are safe to share with. As I always find at our gatherings, I came away feeling that, hideous though life can be, we can all do our small bit to transform our bad experiences into good ones, inspired by Marian’s example.
– Judy Clinton