On the 10th November we held the penultimate event in our series of ten ‘Conversations on Forgiveness’ at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace – How can Words help heal pain? Exploring how the written and spoken word can help the recovery process were Mr Gee, the acclaimed London poet and musician, and Marian Partington, whose sister was a victim of serial killers Frederick and Rosemary West. Also speaking was Tim Caroe, a GP who works with people and the stories they bring to him in his role as a doctor. He aims to help them to write the next chapter of their life narrative in a way that sustains them. The conversation was led by Melissa Benn, a writer, novelist and campaigner who writes regularly for the Guardian on a range of social issues, including education.
Mr Gee opened the event with a poem, ‘Citizen Gee’, exploring how we construct our identities to help us function in the world. Melissa introduced the speakers and bri efly described her own personal experience with ideas of forgiveness; she spoke about how forgiveness is a journey and a process, but one which involves a series of choices. She also touched on how she had found fiction helpful because it allows you to “create a narrative in which you can place your own experiences”
Marian spoke first, telling a moving story of the experience of losing her sister Lucy. She spoke about how the written word allowed her to reclaim Lucy from the Wests, as well as from the media, who had dominated the narrative. Marian revealed that during the trial she had this strong feeling that if she didn’t speak out, she “might as well be dead”. Reclaiming her voice and allowing herself to express her thoughts and feelings was key to healing and working through the pain. Marian also read from her book, If You Sit Very Still. The title of this is taken from an experience Marian had when she heard Lucy speak to her in a dream, telling her that “if you sit very still, you can hear the sun move”; a key theme in this book is the need for silence as much as the need for words. Melissa later spoke of how she felt that Marian’s work and her writing “brought Lucy to life”.
Hearing Tim Caroe speak brought a very interesting new angle to the question. He discussed how, as a doctor, he did not see himself as being in the business of making people better, rather he tried to work with them to write the next chapter of their autobiography. He discussed the power that words can have in changing a patient’s life narrative: by allowing them to put their feelings or symptoms in some kind of context people can make sense of what is happening, and discover some sort of order.
Mr Gee shifted the focus of the talk again, discussing how he had come to poetry. He told a deeply personal story of how, many years ago he had been involved in putting together a show in Brixton, working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. He recalls meeting one boy who seemed genuinely motivated by the work, turning up early and staying late. Several years later, after having enjoyed a variety of creative successes himself, Mr Gee described working on a project in a Youth Offenders Institute, where he recognised one of the participants as the boy he had met on the Brixton project. He spoke movingly about his sadness at the ways their two paths had diverged, his opening up and providing him with a whole new world of opportunities whilst the boy had landed up in prison. He described working in prison as a wake-up call, realising “I need to use my words to reach into those people who are falling between the cracks, not just to entertain”. To work with people in prison, you have to have a fundamental belief in rehabilitation, he said. Not everyone can be rehabilitated, but everyone should be offered the chance and the opportunity.
The questions from the audience were particularly insightful and generated thoughtful responses from the panellists. Someone asked them simply, how do you find the right words? Marian described how this process was extremely important for her, pointing out that it took her eighteen years to finish her book. She described the process of being silent and how sometimes you just have to wait for the words to arise. Mr Gee described poetry as “the right words for the right time” which doesn’t always have to be grand verse and eloquent phrasing. Tim spoke about how for him, it was important to find words by listening, echoing back and building on the words of others to avoid imposing your own words onto them.
We are looking forward to our final event on 1st December. This will be a conversation between The Forgiveness Project’s founder Marina Cantacuzino and Richard McCann, whose mother was the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe, asking the question “Should you forgive the unforgiveable?” Tickets are available here. We would like to invite those attending to join us for mulled wine and mince pies afterwards.