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My sister was abducted and murdered – but I came to forgive her killers

Marian Partington tells Claire Brine why she believes even murderers are made in the image of God

Forgiveness is about being released from a burden

‘HOW can a person find inner peace without denying the reality of human atrocity?’ It’s a haunting question posed by author Marian Partington – and one she is still trying to answer herself.

On 27 December 1973, Marian’s 21-year-old sister Lucy left her friend’s house in Cheltenham intending to catch the 10.15 pm bus to the family home in Gretton, a nearby village. She was never seen again. Fearing the worst but hoping desperately for the best, relatives, friends and police wondered what happened to her.

Twenty years later, in March 1994, Lucy’s remains were found in the basement of a home in Gloucester. Along with a number of other young women, she had been tortured, raped, murdered and her body dismembered by serial killers Frederick and Rosemary West.

In her book If You Sit Very Still, Marian pieces together what she knows of her younger sister’s story, exploring with painstaking honesty the ‘grotesque details surrounding Lucy’s death’. She also documents her journey towards forgiveness of the Wests, reflecting how the process began with a feeling of ‘murderous rage’.

As our conversation unfolds, Marian starts listing for me some of the questions she continues to grapple with in her efforts to come to terms with losing Lucy.

‘How do I respond to traumatic loss?’ she asks. ‘How can I connect with the people I’d rather edit out of my story? A big question for me is how on earth did the Wests become serial killers? Of course the answer can’t excuse what they did – but I do refuse to go down the path of demonising them. We live in such a punitive culture and it’s so undermining of the best in us.’

Although many hours have been spent speculating on what happened to Lucy the night she disappeared, Marian wants to give me some facts about her sister by telling me of the kind of person she was.

‘Lucy was very intelligent, imaginative and creative,’ she says. ‘She loved to read. She loved acting and poetry. We were both studying English literature at university and shared a love of T. S. Eliot. We used to send each other postcards, talking about the books we liked to read. She was also very religious, having become a Catholic shortly before she disappeared.

‘The day Lucy went missing, I was spending the night with friends, so the first thing I knew about it was when I arrived home the next morning and my mum rushed outside, saying: “Lucy didn’t come home last night.” The police came round and thought that because she was a student, she might have been with a boyfriend. But it became clear that she wasn’t. After that, there were endless interviews, roadblocks, “missing person” posters and a police incident room which was kept open for seven years.’

Understandably, as more time passed, their not knowing what happened to Lucy proved acutely painful for Marian and her family.

‘I found it difficult to face the fact that she might have been murdered,’ she says. ‘What if we started to think that Lucy had been killed and then she suddenly reappeared? It felt taboo to say out loud what might have happened to her. So for 20 years, while I had my children and built a career, there remained this unspoken grief in my life, just hovering around me.

‘As time went on, I felt as though I had to keep remembering Lucy. If I didn’t, I felt guilty. I always had a deep need to know where she was physically and what had happened to her.’

In 1994, Marian began to find out. What she learnt was horrifying.

‘A newspaper reported that three bodies had been found in a garden in 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester and I wondered if it had something to do with Lucy,’ she says. ‘In that instance, it wasn’t – but the police said they would contact us if they found out anything else.

‘Eventually, two young police officers came to see my mother, stepfather and me. They said that a man whom they had arrested – named Frederick West – had confessed to hiding more bodies in the basement and that one of them was called Lucy. It was her.’

Piecing together the physical evidence and testimonies given at Rosemary West’s trial by victims who managed to escape, Marian tells me what she knows about Lucy’s murder.

‘I don’t know why she got into Frederick West’s car instead of taking the bus, but I do know that Lucy was abducted, gagged, treated with violence and used as a sexual object for the gratification of others. She was raped. She was hung up in the basement. We don’t know how long she was kept alive. She was dismembered and buried in a little hole in the basement, which was later concreted over to become a bedroom for some of the West children.

‘I wanted to know what happened to Lucy, but finding out the terrible, unspeakable pain that she suffered completely changed my life.’

While legal proceedings got under way, Marian looked for ways to ‘reclaim Lucy from the Wests’. The family had long wanted a funeral, and a requiem mass at Exeter University eventually took place in 1995 after Frederick West, prior to his trial, took his own life. But before that, Marian decided she wanted to know what was left of Lucy. She felt she needed to bring Lucy back into her life as her sister, and not as a ‘West victim’ in order to begin to face the reality of her death. The police enabled her and two friends to go to Cardiff to perform a loving ceremony.

‘Holding Lucy’s skull was my first step towards finding peace,’ she reflects. ‘I was facing reality. It didn’t feel morbid. It felt as though time was intersecting with eternity.

‘I put some of Lucy’s soft toys in the box with her because it symbolised taking something of the beauty of her life and our family love into a situation that had become dehumanised. The whole experience was a way of grieving but it was deeply healing.’

In November 1995, Rosemary West was found guilty of committing ten murders and went to prison. As time went on, Marian found herself thinking frequently about the Wests and her response to their actions.

‘Five weeks before the police found Lucy, I became a Quaker,’ she says. ‘Over the years I had attended several spiritual retreats, considering the peace that passes understanding and wondering where to find it.’

After much reflection, Marian made a vow. She was going to forgive the Wests.

‘Immediately after making my vow, I experienced a murderous rage,’ she says. ‘And it showed me that I wasn’t as separate from this couple as I’d like to think. I was able to kill. I thought: how dare they murder my sister?

‘But then other thoughts about forgiveness gradually came to me. The whole process has taken years, just like coming to faith. But I have journeyed with it, because people need to find a way of grieving and raging while also being kind to themselves. Traumatic loss is so potentially corrupting, and I can see how people could become stuck in it. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to live a loving, fulfilled life for my children. I wanted them to know that it is possible to live through something which is shattering without it being endlessly devastating.’

While contemplating forgiving the Wests, Marian also considered the need for forgiveness in her own life.

‘I remembered the times I had hurt other people – and that was important because it showed me that I, too, needed to be forgiven,’ she says. ‘It was my business to face up to the harm I had caused others, and then find a way to live causing less harm in future.’

In 2005 Marian started working with an organisation called the Forgiveness Project. She visited prisons across the UK, sharing her story of loss with the prisoners, inviting discussion on the concept of forgiveness and what it might look like. It was fulfilling work and deepened her spiritual journey in unexpected ways.

‘When I went into prisons, I was treading on holy ground,’ she says. ‘I spoke with prisoners who had committed crimes of rape and murder. They had perpetrated traumatic loss, but so many of them had also experienced it. When I considered that, I began to understand how so many of them went on to become the people they did.

‘But I also thought that if we are all made in the image of God, then there has to be something of God in these people. We share a common humanity. To hear the prisoners’ stories broke my heart open. Sharing our pain was exhausting. We all had parts of our life that we wanted to edit out. But talking about forgiveness gave them a sense that there could be another approach to life. They could change how they lived.’

In 2012, after years of reflection and writing, Marian published a full account of her experience of losing Lucy and finding faith in the book If You Sit Very Still. The title is based on a dream she had four months after Lucy’s death.

‘In my dream, Lucy had returned and I asked her where she had been,’ Marian says. ‘She replied: “I’ve been sitting in a water meadow. If you sit very still, you can hear the sun move.”

‘Her words were a gift, filling me with a peace that passes understanding. At that time, I wasn’t a Christian. But then those words from the Bible went on to have a great impression on me, becoming the core of my faith. The fact that Jesus was crucified and that from his death and resurrection he was able to give us a “peace that passes understanding” is inspiring. I ask God to keep helping me find that peace.’

Our conversation is drawing to a close, but before we finish, Marian explains to me why she continues to tell Lucy’s story. She says she wants to bring into the world ‘something good from this experience’. She also believes that meaning can be found in pain – through forgiveness.

‘Forgiveness is about freedom,’ she says. ‘It’s about being released from a burden. It’s about facing the past with honesty, allowing the pain, guilt and shame to occur, but not allowing oneself to become caught up in those emotions. It’s about allowing them to dissolve instead. Forgiveness is an ongoing verb.

‘There have been many times in my life when I have felt desolate. My grief has been exhausting. And to be able to think about forgiving the Wests, I had to reach a point where I gave up. I surrendered. I admitted that I couldn’t do this on my own any more. And that’s where God came in. In the Bible, Jesus says that we can bring him our burdens and he will carry them. And that’s exactly it! I realised it was arrogant of me to think that I could carry my problems alone. I’m completely dependent on the love of others and the love of God to help me.’ 

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