A Terrible Beauty Is Born

The great accomplishment of Marian Partingon's If You Sit Very Still is its capacity to uncover the gift in the wound which, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats, permits "a terrible beauty" to be born.
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The great accomplishment of Marian Partingon's If You Sit Very Still is its capacity to uncover the gift in the wound which, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats, permits "a terrible beauty" to be born.

The recent US publication of this outstanding and beautifully crafted redemptive memoir is a reminder that poetry can emerge even in the most brutal and devastating of circumstances. Moving through trauma, pain and finally to transformation, the author seeks to explain and give voice to a humanity born out of suffering as she tackles the harrowing subject of her sister's murder by two of the UK's most notorious serial killers - Fred and Rosemary West.

I first met Marian Partington just a few weeks after the start of the Iraq war, in 2003. At a time when the whole world was talking about retaliation, I was trying to find stories of people who had found forgiveness in the face of atrocity. As a journalist I'd been told about Partington's remarkable journey of healing following the kidnap, torture and murder of her younger sister, Lucy, and I wanted to find out how anyone could line themselves up for forgiveness following an event of such unspeakable savagery.

I subsequently distilled our intense four-hour discussion into a short first-person testimony which, together with a stirring portrait of Partington, went on display alongside 26 other stories at an exhibition in London in 2004. I called the exhibition The F Word because by then I knew that forgiveness was a messy business; it was highly contested territory and seemed to inspire and affront in equal measure. Partington's story of transforming murderous rage into compassion made me understand how forgiveness was nothing to do with excusing evil but rather the crucial ingredient in shifting deep and unresolved pain.

Since that time I have been privileged to witness Marian Partington sharing her story with numerous people in many settings, but mostly in adult male prisons. It is always a profound experience, to watch her telling her story to men who have harmed others. Invariable, and in an astonishingly short time, fixed perceptions start to shift, hardened attitudes soften, and even the most resistant begin to unbend.

Above all, it is when she brings out the little, woolen, hand-spun bag, carefully woven from stray sheep's wool by her sister when she was eight, and passes it around the group that the mood settles in the room. It has always struck me that allowing countless strangers, one after the other, session after session, to handle and hold in the palm of their hands this most precious and delicate of gifts is an extraordinary gesture of generosity. By trusting prisoners with an object invested with so much emotional value, this story of hell becomes a message of hope.

I read If You Sit Very Still over one twenty-four hour period. I was mesmerized by the language and gripped not only by the need to know what happened next, but also to understand how anyone can truly reconcile with such evil. You feel you've been taken by the hand, led gently along a terrifying path (which few will mercifully know) into previously unchartered territory, and allowed to share in this deeply personal chronicle of grief.

Partington repeatedly and painstakingly searches for and then grasps the exact word or expression to faithfully describe every step of the journey until a new narrative emerges. This is a journey towards becoming forgiving - the only creative route the author could find to soothe and mend her broken world. There were times I stopped to read and re-read the words as they unfolded on the page, in awe of her ability to explain the inexplicable, give meaning to the incomprehensible and describe such deep agony through the towering lyricism of her prose.

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