Photography by Brian Moody
In 1975, one week before his sixth birthday, Richard McCann’s mother became the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. As a result Richard’s life went into a downward spiral and it wasn’t until many years later that he was able to use his experience to create a lasting and positive change. In 2005 Richard’s autobiography ‘Just A Boy’ became a best-seller. For more information on Richard’s work, please visit his website.
I had a kind and loving mother, but even before she was murdered violence had been a tangible part of my turbulent childhood. I was four years old when my abusive father left home, yet Social Services considered it was best that my sister and me moved back in with him after our mum’s death. One of the first things he did then was drown our pet dog in the bath, because the dog had annoyed him. While I have forgiven him for his violence towards me, I am still struggling to find forgiveness for that one incident.
Three years after my mum’s death, I began to believe that it was my responsibility to carry out some kind of revenge on behalf of my family. I wanted to kill random males and fantasized about attacking them from behind with a hammer. In my mind they represented society as a whole and ultimately everything around me that caused my mother’s untimely and violent departure. Also, when I was older I found myself occasionally acting aggressively towards girlfriends, which scared me because I didn’t want to become like my dad.
When I was stationed with the army in Germany, one day someone showed me a magazine with Peter Sutcliffe on the cover. There was so much pent up anger inside me that when I saw his face I simply could not contain it anymore. That same evening I ended up wreaking havoc; I smashed fences, nicked a motorbike, and damaged a car. Following the incident I had a breakdown and was medically discharged from the army. Even though I subsequently managed to get a decent job, I started taking drugs and ended up serving a six-month jail sentence for drug dealing.
Then, in 2002, my sister Sonia stabbed her boyfriend in self-defence and it was at this very moment that I realised I needed to write about my experience, including events from my childhood, to help the world understand why my sister might do such a thing. I also became involved with SAMM (Support after Murder and Manslaughter), which changed my life because for the first time, I met people who understood what I had been through.
Writing my story was like shedding a skin. I confronted the past and talked about taboo subjects such as prostitution and murder. It liberated me and I knew one of the things I now had to consider was whether I should forgive Peter Sutcliffe. I thought about what my mum would have wanted me to do and concluded that she would be really proud, if I could forgive.
I wanted Peter Sutcliffe to confront the true enormity of his crime and thought that if I could get him to show some remorse for what he did, I might be able to forgive him. To give my mum’s killer a conscience would feel like revenge in a way. In the end I never did get to meet him, because his solicitor decided it was not appropriate. Instead I sent him my book, and even though I was left with no response, which made me feel disappointed at first, sooner or later I had to let go of it.
Some people, who knew my mum, are still bent on revenge but that’s not how I feel. In 2010 I was invited to a lecture on Forgiveness given by Desmond Tutu, which turned out to be a life-changing experience. I have always known I could never turn back the clock, but hearing Desmond Tutu’s words showed me I had the capacity to change the situation by changing how I felt about what had occurred.
I am no longer carrying around remorse or bitterness; Desmond Tutu’s words about forgiveness helped me forgive the person who killed my mother. At the same time forgiveness fluctuates in my experience; it’s not a decision you come to. I don’t believe forgiveness is a one off act; it’s rather something that enters and leaves our consciousness like the tide and it requires working through continually.