The most notorious murderer whom I ever met during my time as a prison doctor was Frederick West. In a small house in Gloucester, he and his wife, Rosemary, had sexually tortured, murdered, dismembered, and buried 12 people, including two of their own children. Their crimes came to light in 1994, more than 20 years after they had committed the first of them; their depravity shocked even an age rich in criminal sensation. When I first encountered West, he seemed affable, spending much of his time playing pool with the prison officers (later, unexpectedly, he hanged himself, to the unanimous rejoicing of the other prisoners). Still, I found something sinister and lycanthropic about him, even when he tried to be deferential and charming.
The murderous couple’s modus operandi—except with their own children—was to drive out together in their car and offer lifts to isolated young women, sometimes suggesting that they come back to their house to sleep. The women probably would have refused the offers had they come from a man alone; they accepted them because of Rosemary’s reassuring presence. One victim abducted and murdered this way was Lucy Partington, a student of English literature at Exeter University; she wrote poetry, had recently converted to Catholicism, and had just applied to the Courtauld Institute in London to study medieval art history. Lucy was the child of a prosperous but bohemian family and a first cousin of the writer Martin Amis, who mentions her extensively in his memoir, Experience.
Lucy’s sister Marian has recently published a book, If You Sit Very Still, about the murder. The title refers to a dream that Marian had shortly after Lucy’s disappearance, in which her sister said to her: “If you sit very still, you can hear the sun move.” A comparison of Partington’s book with Obsessive Poisoner—written 40 years earlier by Winifred Young, the sister of an earlier serial murderer—is instructive in tracing a change in our cultural sensibility: from a robust and truthful common sense to a sickly and canting sentimentality.
Winifred Young was the elder sister of Graham Young, a highly intelligent boy interested from an early age in only one subject: poisons. I suppose today he would be described as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome; but this would be merely a redescription rather than an explanation of his conduct.
Their family was of the respectable, striving lower middle class. Winifred and Graham’s mother died of tuberculosis shortly after his birth, but the father took another wife, who treated both children well. When he was about 13, however, Graham, who had nothing personally against her, poisoned his stepmother to death (with thallium, according to his later confession), and then went on to poison both his father and his best friend with antimony and his sister with antimony and belladonna. Charged with these three nonfatal poisonings but not with the murder—Young’s stepmother had been cremated at his suggestion, and the evidence thereby destroyed—he was diagnosed as psychopathic and sent to a high-security hospital for the criminally insane called Broadmoor, where he remained for a decade.
Despite strong suspicions that Young had poisoned the tea of scores of inmates and distilled cyanide from laurel leaves, with which he killed another inmate, officials (acting on the advice of his psychiatrist) deemed him cured and released him in 1972. He found a job in a photographic laboratory, where he promptly killed two of his coworkers with thallium and poisoned some others nearly to death with antimony and thallium, alternating the two poisons to make it harder to trace his actions, since they produce different symptoms. Young poisoned people in the same spirit as a cruel child pulls the wings from a fly: just to see what happens. Utterly without remorse after his arrest, he was imprisoned for life and died in prison of a heart attack.
Winifred Young and Marian Partington were born ten years apart: in 1938 and 1948, respectively. Young, unlike Partington, had no university education and held a job as a secretary in London, whereas Partington worked as a homeopath and alternative-medical therapist in the beautiful countryside of Montgomeryshire, on the Welsh side of the border between England and Wales. But the woman of lesser education and humbler occupation displays in her book a much higher level of intellectual sophistication and moral intelligence than her more educated junior. Where one is modest, self-effacing, and straightforward, the other is grandiose and egotistical, her capacity to see clearly clouded by a combination of self-importance and obfuscatory pseudo-intellection. I believe that this contrast results not only from individual differences between the two women but from the different cultural environments in which they grew up and subsequently wrote. A week, said Harold Wilson, is a long time in politics; and it seems that ten years is a long time in the history of a culture.
Partington’s book has one strength. Anyone with an ounce of human feeling can sympathize with the sorrow of a much-loved sister’s unaccounted disappearance, followed by the horror of discovery, 20 years later, of what was done to her before her death. “I can’t remember your voice, Lucy,” Partington writes. “Now, after all this time, more than three decades, it is hard to remember the tones, the intonations, the inflections, the words that you would have chosen in your life.” This is authentic and moving because it suggests not only the pain of loss but the guilt associated with forgetfulness. We think that to forget is not to have loved sufficiently, and this adds to the pain.
That Marian Partington suffered terrible loss and its consequent pain, however, does not justify self-centeredness, self-absorption, and self-congratulation, or absolve her of the responsibility to think clearly, at least when she lays her thoughts before the public. Over and over again, Partington extols forgiveness, indiscriminately and without proper examination, as if to fail to forgive were necessarily to fall prey to insensate vengefulness and automatically to inflict cruelty, and as if compassion required forgiveness of wrong in every case. Her book is a description, often unctuous and syrupy, of her struggle to forgive Rosemary West. In the process, she ropes in as many different kinds of mysticism as she can—both Buddhist, from Tibetan and Chinese to Zen, and Christian, from Saint John of the Cross and Rowan Williams to Quaker. For her, a cloudy benevolence always trumps a hard-edged truth; her views are therefore a potpourri, minestrone, or Mickey Finn of religious—or rather, religiose—ethics; she is that very modern type, spiritual but not religious. One can almost smell the joss sticks and hear, as she writes, the wind chimes tinkling in the background, above the healing chakras of the earth that happen to cross her garden (which is not far from a mountain that she considers holy, as did the ancient Celtic Druids).
It is not surprising that someone so indifferent to the propositional, and therefore potentially contradictory, content of different religions or mystical traditions easily elides or collapses moral distinctions. In particular, Partington repeatedly attributes moral equivalence to murder and what she calls “murderous rage.” When finally, after much hesitation, she writes to West in prison, she says: “When I vowed to forgive you I experienced murderous rage shortly afterwards. Somehow I knew that I could have killed someone too.” Speaking to prisoners in England, she says: “Like all of you, I have ended up having to search inside myself, investigating my own cycle of violence and abuse. I have found debilitating grief, fear, shame and murderous rage.” On a Buddhist retreat, she says, psychobabbling away: “Working towards becoming forgiving began with an experience of murderous rage. In other words, I was not so different from the Wests as I might wish to think. . . . From that moment it would not be possible to write off these people who had acted from this place.”
The author, too, has mastered the modern art of constantly talking about herself in an imprecise but self-important way, without revealing anything of herself—perhaps because there is little to reveal: “It seems that as soon as I feel as if I have understood something about myself the next layer of unresolved pain looks me in the eye, as if I am sabotaging my aspirations by thinking I have arrived somewhere safe and clear.” Or again:
I’m not sure when I did attain adulthood. Have I? Adulthood is something about responsibility. I have to reach a compromise between what is demanded of me within my family relationships (as a mother, partner, sister, aunt, niece, daughter) and what calls me, what I am called towards as a unique individual—when I allow myself to be unraveled and re-knitted.
Oddly enough, this constant focus on herself is carried out in the name of the reduction of ego: “The movement towards comprehension is neither logical or straightforward. Essentially it involves becoming less self-centered, which makes space for the experience for oneself and others. It involves getting out of the way. Ultimately it may involve becoming forgiving.” And, of course, the first person to be forgiven is herself: “It was necessary to dissolve my own grief and anger and find compassion for myself before opening up to the possibility of forgiving those who caused this terrible pain.” The dissolution of the ego is supposed to result in a universal compassion that moves beyond considerations of morality: “The attitude of insight and compassion, that is able to love my enemies and pray for them, is waiting to be known and expressed beyond that which is Ωright≈ or Ωwrong≈. If only ΩI≈ (my small self that I cling onto as my only identity) can get out of the way.”
By now, reading this, I felt slightly sick, as if I had eaten too many chocolates. One would not expect a person who talks so much of forgiving herself to have anything valuable to say about forgiveness. She does not consider the possibility that incontinent forgiveness, deemed good in itself regardless of the act to be forgiven or the attitude of the person to be forgiven, means that no human behavior is beyond the pale, that nothing is unforgivable. This is to turn forgiveness into a kind of inalienable human right of the wrongdoer (a profoundly un-Christian view, incidentally).
That Partington thinks this way shows up particularly clearly in her reaction to Rosemary’s response to her letter of forgiveness. West chose not to respond herself. Instead, a note came from a prison official: “Ms West has received your letter and asked me to relay a message on her behalf and asked that you cease all correspondence, she does not wish to receive any further letters from you.” This utter rejection of her advances—the only comic moment in her book, albeit unintentionally and bleakly so—has no effect on Partington. Her forgiveness rolls on undeterred like a panzer division, flattening all monstrous immorality in its path.
So wrapped up in herself is Partington that the question of her locus standi to forgive does not occur to her. What is it that she actually forgives and has a right to forgive? She certainly has no right to forgive the torture and murder of her sister; it was her sister, not she, who was the principal victim. She could forgive Rosemary West the suffering that the torture and murder caused her, but this implies blindness to the sheer moral enormity of the crime. Nor does it occur to her that the Wests’ infliction of violence on 11 other victims, apart from her sister, reduces the significance of her forgiveness, even if she had the right to bestow it. Does she suppose that everyone else who suffered because of the Wests’ sadism should follow her example, or, if they do not, that they are her moral inferiors? Moral grandiosity hardly comes grander. Her forgiveness is like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, subsisting without anchorage to, or expression of, anything, except ego.
The question of the public significance of her forgiveness never occurs to her, either, for she mentions it not at all. Marian Partington forgives Rosemary West: So what? Does it mean that our primitively vengeful system—in Partington’s estimation, “focussed upon retribution, causing more pain,” by which “healing is imprisoned”—should release West from prison, so that Partington can feel good about herself?
I would have said that egotism could go no further, except that it can. In the acknowledgments at the back of Partington’s book, she writes: “Finally, thank you Lucy. Your life and death have deepened my knowledge of love and grace.” This is no mere slip of the pen. It is an unseemly thought expressed several times in the book. “The crisis caused by Lucy’s death was long,” Marian writes. “It has been an extraordinary opportunity for change, a valuable chance to deepen my powers of compassion by facing the reality of my deepest fears, and that which has been buried within me.” Here is a lesson she learned from a Buddhist teacher: “To be grateful for whatever life brings, especially to those who cause you pain or humiliate you.” In short, the abduction, rape, torture, murder, dismemberment, and burial of Lucy Partington was a sovereign opportunity for Marian Partington’s personal growth, so that she could learn to be compassionate toward herself (and therefore, as a side effect, toward others).
It is a relief, after bathing in this oil and syrup, to turn to Winifred Young’s account of her brother and of her reaction to his crimes. Unlike Partington, she is lucid, honest, straightforward, modest, and lacking in ego. For example, wondering whether anything in her brother’s home circumstances led him to the practice of poisoning, she writes:
So it was pretty quiet at home; and, really, there was nothing very exciting for Graham to do. Yet can one really say that if things had been much different; if there had been other things to occupy his mind, that he might have become a useful member of society, instead of the terrible menace he has become?
Her judgment is suitably tentative and yet sound and sensible: “I find it difficult to give a completely satisfactory answer to such a hypothetical question, but I don’t believe that there was anything in Graham’s home background that made him the psychopath he has become.”
She sees her brother in a clear-eyed way, describing how he nursed an ambition to go down in criminal history as one of the great poisoners, reveling in his own notoriety; how he would poison people only if he could watch or monitor the effects, as if they were insects; how he would be apparently solicitous about the symptoms of some but cold-blooded about those of others.
Winifred Young’s reaction (and that of her family) to her brother’s first trial, in 1962, was of exemplary clarity: “Even we, his family, persons who were more emotionally affected by it all; the ones who more than any others in the world, were reluctant to see him put behind bars, felt that this was the only right thing to do with him.” This response is sophisticated compared with Partington’s pseudo-spiritual maunderings. Not only is it far from the vengefulness that Partington ignorantly supposes is the only alternative to forgiveness; it clearly draws a distinction, as Partington does not, between the private sphere of the emotions and the public sphere of policy.
When her brother is committed to Broadmoor, Winifred writes:
I must say I could never understand how the people at Broadmoor proposed to cure him. It did not seem to me that there was any way of effecting a cure by physical means. As psychiatrists explained it to me, Graham had no properly developed moral sense, no conscience. . . . I didn’t see how you could instill a moral sense into someone who, basically, had a character defect.
Indeed, the first psychiatrists to examine Graham Young agreed with Winifred; but by the late 1960s, therapeutic optimism reigned, and Young’s new psychiatrist mistakenly believed him cured and safe for release.
Winifred Young also deals with the question of forgiveness. She is obviously a good and kind person:
Reflecting on my personal feelings at the time, I remember that I was not at all bitter or angry with Graham. I felt ready to forgive him, as I think most of the family were except, perhaps, Dad. . . . Now that he was in Broadmoor, I couldn’t hate him.
When one bears in mind that Graham had nearly poisoned her to death, this statement is remarkable; but it becomes clear that she does not consider her more forgiving attitude superior to her father’s. Graham had observed with chilling detachment his father’s agony in the hospital from antimony poisoning, from which he nearly died. Winifred has no expectation that her father will forgive Graham. Nor is she in the least censorious when he says, understandably, that he wants never to see his son again and that he should be locked up for good. Further, she clearly believes that her own forgiveness is a personal matter; indeed, a precondition of it appears to be that her brother should be locked up.
She wrestles with difficult moral problems, but in a non-exhibitionist way. To what extent is her brother, clearly born different from most human beings, morally responsible for his actions?
My own attitude is still very confused and ambivalent. How far can you go feeling sorry for him, when he doesn’t feel—is, in fact, incapable of feeling—sorry for anything he has done; when he does not care about the havoc he makes of other people’s lives as long as he gets personal satisfaction. I cannot understand the hairline difference between being a psychopath and being insane.
Winifred Young is a genuinely compassionate person, for she describes her “most heart-rending and traumatic experience” of Graham as his telling her, just before his second arrest, that he could not “get close to people.” Winifred, unaware that her brother had returned to poisoning, suggested normal social activities that might help, to which he replied, “No, nothing like that can help. You see, there’s a terrible coldness inside me.” But her sorrow for him personally did not mean that she was unable to make distinctions: “I forgave him for trying to kill me. When he was arrested the second time I felt differently about him.” In other words, she could forgive him for what he did to her, but not for what he did to others. There she has no right to forgive.
The contrast between Marian Partington and Winifred Young is, I suspect, not merely one between two individuals, though it is that as well. The difference between the transparently honest, modest, public-spirited Young, whose ambivalence reflects the real moral dilemmas that the world throws up, and the patently dishonest, self-regarding, and complacent Partington, is cultural. The first grew up before the transformation of the 1960s; the second, probably not by nature a bad person, grew up during that transformation (and participated in it enthusiastically). Marian Partington’s book is a compendium of the spiritual sickness of our times; Winifred Young’s is a reminder of the possibility of real decency—of decency as a great social virtue.
First published in City Journal.