The Agony and the Empathy
Marian Partington's life has been dominated by the disappearance, rape and murder of her sister Lucy. She talks with Vajrasara about her intense journey towards forgiving - her inner work and her involvement with prisoners and restorative justice.
One night in 1973 my sister vanished. Our family then endured two decades of not knowing what had happened to Lucy. The anguish of uncertainty seemed, if anything, to increase over the years. By 1994 I had become desperate - my biggest fear was that we'd die without ever discovering. And my distress grew more acute as my eldest son approached 21 (Lucy's age when she disappeared). But1994 was to be a momentous year for me.
Back in 1973 we were at home in the English Cotswolds for the Christmas holidays. Lucy was 21 and I was 26, two of four siblings. We were both studying English at university. She was single-minded and passionately exploring the deeper meaning of life. I was more hedonistic, into flower-power and living with my boyfriend. Yet we shared a love of literature, particularly TS Eliot's Four Quartets, and his concept of 'the still point of the turning world'. On December 27 Lucy went to visit a friend in Cheltenham. She was due to catch the last bus home, but she never got that bus. Her disappearance led to a national search and an inquiry room operated for seven years, but to no avail. For over 20 years it remained an unresolved part of our lives.
It was an agonising period for our family. It was hard to stay present to the huge loss, and talking about Lucy became almost taboo. Yet because we didn't talk about her it was like she'd never existed. We'd had no funeral nor any formal gathering to mark her life, but it seemed as if we were privately acknowledging she was dead. I have learnt a lot about the complexity of unresolved grief.
Somehow my life continued and I finished my degree. My pain and lack of spiritual direction led to destructive choices at first. However, I gave birth to three lovely children, settled with my partner and eventually trained as a homeopath. But Lucy's continued absence was a reality I couldn't avoid. Whenever anyone went out of the door there was the prospect that I might never see them again. That anxiety affected my confidence in dealing with life and undermined my ability to trust myself and others. The 'not knowing' led to a frozen silence, part of me was still hoping ... stuck in the past.
One positive consequence was that Lucy's disappearance intensified my awareness of the present. I really appreciated being alive. Looking back now through Buddhist eyes, it was a strong teaching. It meant I could never feel complacent about life. I also knew it was a challenge, with which I needed to find an inner way of working.
Becoming a homeopath inspired a quest to understand and work with the process of healing. I learnt to listen to others' suffering and prescribe remedies to help them find a healthy relationship with their pain. Doing this as an unprejudiced observer became an important part of my own journey. I realised that becoming whole involves integrating the pain of the past. So, by 1994, after over 20 years, everything was in place to 'rediscover' Lucy. I was in a stable relationship, my children were growing up and I had 15 years' experience of helping others to heal.
By February 1994 a horrific news story was emerging in Gloucester of the serial killers Fred and Rosemary West. And I had a hunch that it was connected with Lucy. On 4th March - Lucy's birthday - Fred West told the police there were more bodies buried in the basement of 25 Cromwell Street, and that one of them was Lucy's. Dental records later confirmed it was indeed Lucy.
She was one of 12 young women who had been tortured, raped and murdered. I shudder at her unimaginable physical and emotional suffering. The Wests beheaded and dismembered Lucy, and stuffed her into a small hole surrounded by leaking sewage pipes. The notorious West case became known in Britain as the crime of the century: they had pushed sado-masochism to its limit and needed an influx of live human victims to feed their habit.
The shock of Lucy's bones being unearthed had the impact, for me, of a Zen insight: everything I'd once known was stripped of meaning. What was I left with? In the following weeks I felt terribly vulnerable but this experience was a reality I wanted to understand, because it felt true. I was left with the raw truth.
We weren't yet allowed to have Lucy's bones back, so we could not have a funeral. They were kept as 'exhibits for the defence' for another year. But I was keen to see what was left of my sister. So in May I contacted the police and went with two friends to the mortuary to perform a ceremony. There was nothing fearful or morbid about it - I was full of joy at finding something of Lucy after all these years.
I wanted to wrap her bones and treat what was left of her with love and tenderness. To reclaim her from her murderers and that hugely disrespectful, wretched hole in their cellar. I decided to place special items in the coffin, and something to represent the elements: a sprig of heather (earth), rescue remedy (water), a candle (fire) and some incense (air).
I gasped at the sight of her skull - it was so beautiful, like burnished gold. Holding her skull was very intense: for a moment I 'knew' a deep reality, and felt that what I was doing was not just for Lucy but for everyone who had suffered a violent death. I wrapped Lucy's skull in her soft brown blanket, while her friend placed some cherished childhood possessions inside to guard her bones. We lit a candle and held hands in silence: somehow we seemed united again within 'the still point of the turning world'. I felt in contact with something ancestral and timeless.
Our family was not religious but shortly before Lucy was murdered she had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. I was also interested in spiritual matters, and Buddhism had been on the margins of my life for years. However, I came to Buddhism via Quakerism. When my daughter was nine she asked to be christened and I wanted to support her, but I felt uneasy about God. Then I remembered Quakers and their silent form of worship, which seemed sufficiently open. So I began going to meetings in 1987. It became increasingly meaningful to explore this spiritual path alongside other seekers.
Just a week after our ceremony with the bones, my partner and I went on a Western Zen retreat. It felt timely - I had so much to assimilate - and uncannily appropriate. I was astonished when the retreat leader, Dr John Crook, used a hollowed human thigh bone as a musical instrument: after my recent experience with Lucy's bones, it was almost unbelievable. I discovered that this ceremonial instrument, from Tibetan Buddhist culture, is traditionally made from the thigh bone of a criminal, and that blowing through it was thought ritually to purify the karma of that person. This coincidence and other resonances convinced me that exploring Buddhism was my next step.
John Crook suggested that the more I could share of my suffering, the more it would help others. It became clear that meditation would be immensely valuable. I saw how Buddhism offered the tools to face the reality of human violence - as well as my own potential for that. And it gave me the means to work towards inner resolution without being crippled by negative emotions. So 1994 was also the year I started practising the Dharma.
A year later I went on my second Buddhist retreat with the Ch'an Master Sheng Yen. In the interim Fred West had killed himself, the bones had been released and we had finally had a proper funeral for Lucy. The week before the funeral I had attended Rosemary West's committal trial: I wanted to know as much as I could about what had happened before it hit the media. Yet listening to the evidence, the stream of brutality and crude sexual detail, I felt I was being corrupted. I became aware of the huge need for purification. I knew I had to make this journey towards peace without denying human atrocity.
Before that retreat I realised what I needed to learn from Master Sheng Yen was humility and gratitude. I was conscious of a lot of pride and ingratitude within. And this is exactly what he chose to teach. We did lots of meditation and prostrations. At the end of the retreat I made a vow aloud: I would work towards forgiving.
When I got home the first thing I experienced was murderous rage. The previous year my energies had centred on laying Lucy to rest. But now, having had the funeral and heard those ghastly details, tremendous rage erupted. It was a pure rage, intense and very physical - a great heat kept rising up from my belly and exploding inside my skull. It was terribly frightening. I realised I was capable of killing, and that I couldn't ever dismiss people who had acted out of a fury like this. So my path towards forgiving began with murderous rage.
During Rosemary West's trial, I was anxious to protect children from learning about their depravities through the media. So I imagined creating a national diversion by hanging poems in trees in memory of all victims of violence. The idea stemmed from one of Lucy's favourite poems by Yevtushenko, I hung a poem on a branch.
I didn't have the energy to pursue the idea, but I was excited at this time to discover Tibetan prayer flags, which symbolise compassion and interconnectedness. A colourful row now traces the wind outside my kitchen window.
I already knew all the details but I went to the judge's summing up. Hearing that Rosemary would be locked away for life gave me no satisfaction. I was not interested in vengeance. I was most disturbed by the fact that Lucy had been gagged, and couldn't speak her truth. I'd had a sore throat for the whole six weeks of the trial. I knew from my experience as a homeopath that I needed to speak, to communicate what I knew of Lucy's story.
So I contacted The Guardian newspaper and they suggested I wrote about it. Using meditation, I sat with whatever arose, then tried to find words for it. It took five months and was deeply healing. The very long article drew a huge response - over 300 letters and poems - and I was awarded a grant from a charitable trust to continue my inner journey, meditation retreats and writing. I knew I had work to do on forgiving. I needed a support group and I found this in the Western Ch'an Fellowship, and the Quaker community.
The next year was dominated by grief. After 20 years of not knowing, the horrific discovery, the media onslaught, the trials and the rage, finally came the grief. It first arose on another retreat with John Crook. I knew I had to confront this torrent of grief: the emphasis of Ch'an is all about self-confrontation. But I was concerned I might make a noise - and we were on a silent retreat.
However, I trusted John Crook; his response to my story of wrapping Lucy's bones had been so positive. Previously I had only grieved in private but now I turned towards it in meditation and tears flooded out. I could see why life is known as a 'vale of tears'. Endless tears and snot - I just observed, without wiping them away. I wanted it to be as it was - the truth of a very sad experience.
In one meditation I was feeling self-pity, wading alone in this lake of tears, when suddenly the lake was filled with everyone who'd experienced bereavement by murder - people from the Holocaust, from Rwanda, from all the wars and atrocities of the world. Once I had made that connection, the pain subsided. As the retreat progressed I just sat. I felt so present and at ease, I didn't move for three periods of meditation. I reached the bottom of my grief: a genuine purification of emotion. Previously I tried to protect others (especially my children) from my grief, but since then I haven't hidden it.
On my last retreat with Master Sheng Yen I became aware that acute pain was starting to erupt - yet again. I was having great trouble drawing breath. I realised I didn't want to go on breathing. It gave me an insight into why people killed themselves - why they didn't want to go on breathing. It was as if I was turning all that negative emotion inward, and I didn't want to carry on living.
I reflected on what we do with our unresolved pain. Not expressing the pain can lead to suicide. Acting it out leads to violence and brutality. Wishing it away, repression or denial leads to physical illness. The only creative way forward with so much pain is to inch towards forgiving.
In a meditation interview I said despairingly that I was dealing with a huge karmic obstruction. I asked Master Sheng Yen whether I had become too attached to this overwhelming aspect of my life. He replied: 'No, it's real, you must be true to it. But remember that your suffering will help to relieve the suffering of others.'
'Yes. But what's the practice? Tong-len meditation (breathing in others' suffering and breathing out compassion)? Prayer, or what?'
After returning to my cushion, I had a startling insight into Rosemary West's great suffering: locked away for life, isolated, demonised, estranged from her children ... As if for the first time I empathised deeply with her tragic position. I found myself praying that my pain would relieve hers. All my suffering dissolved. I had lived with this burning question of how to feel compassion for someone who had 'ruined my life' - and in that moment I knew. I experienced a spacious open heart, where forgiving is spontaneous.
I prefer to think in terms of forgiving, which suggests an ongoing process; the noun 'forgiveness' suggests something more final. Practising Buddhism helps to align me ethically so I can develop a forgiving attitude. It reminds me that I'm doing this not just for myself but for my parents, my own children, for the next generation - and also for Rosemary West. Every day one of the Buddhist vows that I recite is: 'I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings from suffering'.
A woman whose daughter was murdered told me that 'forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past'. To do this I have to face my own past, my mistakes, and find out how to purify and integrate them. Accepting the reality of what happened to my sister - and not being distracted by what we'll never know. It is a big discipline and I couldn't do it without the Buddha's teachings, the spiritual community and periods of solitude.
A couple of years ago I was invited to the International Conference on Restorative Justice. I was inspired by what I heard. I was already convinced that the labels 'victim' or 'offender' were inadequate. I had come to realise that these people - supposedly so different - have the same needs. Both need a safe place to explore their pain and accept the truth of what has happened. Restorative Justice seems to soften that sharp separation and opposition.
It is the only method I've come across that offers a positive way forward. Crime is viewed as harm done that needs healing, which often involves mediation between victims and offenders. Restorative Justice is a voluntary process in which both sides listen to each other; it can naturally lead to reconciliation and even forgiveness. If both people can talk about their lives, then the perpetrator usually expresses remorse. Consequently the victim feels more generous towards them. This tends to bring deeper understanding - seeing the other person as a suffering human being.
Without such a meeting the victim is often left with unresolved pain, which may well harden into vengeful prejudice; while the perpetrator might understand the consequences of their action. They also might not. Results vary, but it is such a worthwhile endeavour.
I've been drawn to work in Restorative Justice through glimpses of my own Buddha-nature. In Bristol prison I became involved in a project to raise victim awareness with staff, and among some prisoners. Usually I explain my story, including my experiences of extremely destructive emotion. Then I listen to their stories, trying to help them open their hearts to themselves.
There was a young man in prison for burglary who was very moved by my story and my likening what happened to Lucy to the ultimate burglary. He suddenly saw that his crimes had affected others' lives. So he asked to be taken back to his flat where he showed police all the other items he'd stolen; he was driven around pointing out the houses he had burgled and asked the police to return the goods and express his apologies. He didn't expect it to have much effect but it made a huge difference to him, because he suddenly realised he had more choice.
He and I are corresponding - he has written beautiful poems about forgiveness, truth and the seeds of hope. It was clearly a significant insight, which probably changed his life. And when he left prison I helped him to get into a residential situation where he would have one-to-one help. I know he's still struggling but he hasn't returned to drugs or crime. This relationship satisfies me deeply.
I have also been to Grendon prison. Their therapeutic approach involves holding visitors' days. In our group there were six visitors and six prisoners - each spoke about why they were there. I said I was motivated to understand how these extreme feelings that I, too, had experienced came to be acted out in violence. I said the fact that Lucy had been gagged meant she couldn't speak her truth, and I was interested in listening to their truth.
One of the prisoners who had committed multiple rape then looked me in the eye and said: 'Something you said has just hit home. Until you spoke I was just playing at victim empathy'. It clearly helped him to understand what he'd done. I don't know what has happened to him but again it meant a lot to me.
Recently I went back to Bristol prison and spent time listening to prisoners serving life sentences. I would love them to learn mediation - they have so much spare time. I'm not ready to teach it myself, but hopefully I can support that happening. I am moved by the acute loneliness of people who have made grave mistakes and been written off by friends and family. I feel drawn to help. So often they have nobody to talk to - prison seldom encourages meaningful communication. There are a few religious ministers who visit prisons; perhaps that's the way my work will lead. I seem to be in an unusual position, in that I can help prisoners to open their hearts by sharing my perspective.
Ideally I would like to have a meeting with Rosemary West, but since she has denied anything to do with Lucy's death, she's unlikely to agree to meet me. Those who know her have advised me that it is not yet time to suggest it. I am planning to send her a letter, though. Meanwhile I am content to continue sending her compassion. It is almost 10 years since the discovery and I've noticed that other cases of victim/perpetrator mediation often occur after 10 to 15 years. So, maybe the time is ripening ...
Recently I went on my first solitary retreat and practised the visualisation meditation of Green Tara. She is described as the quintessence of compassion, and I know compassion and the understanding that we are all connected are the keys to encouraging forgiveness. And over the years I have responded strongly to Ksitigarbha, the Bodhisattva who watches over the hell realms and brings help to all beings in misery and torment.
I also came across this verse by the Dalai Lama, which struck my heart:
I will learn to cherish beings of bad nature
And those pressed by strong sins and suffering
As if I had found a precious
Treasure very difficult to find.
What an inspiration, and an awesome challenge. I know Lucy would have understood the meaning of these words: 'love thy neighbour'. This path of forgiving offers a way to break the cycle of violence and hatred, to reach towards the experience of profound compassion and humility. Lucy's life and death have deepened my knowledge of love. I dearly hope to pass that on.