Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Forgiving Serial Killers

To Americans the names are unfamiliar. How many who live outside of England will react to the names of Frederick and Rosemary West or to the name of Graham Young?

Yet, they were all serial killers. Graham Young came first, a man who took delight in poisoning people. Young poisoned his stepmother, his father, his sister and his best friend.

When he was finally found criminally insane and imprisoned Young poisoned several of his fellow inmates.

After a time his psychiatrist deemed him cured, so the vaunted National Health Service released him. He went to work in a photography lab where he poisoned several of his co-workers, killing two of them.

The Wests, Frederick and Rosemary worked together to kidnap, torture, murder and dismember a dozen young women. They also murdered two of their own children.

They worked in tandem. Unsuspecting women went home with the Wests because they trusted the comforting presence of Rosemary.

Among the victims was Lucy Partington.

Now, Lucy’s sister Marian has written a book about her efforts to forgive Rosemary West.

While reviewing the book  Theodore Dalrymple has compared it with a prior volume, written forty years earlier by Graham Young’s sister, Winifred.

Obviously, the analogy is inexact. Marian Partington is writing as the sister of a victim. Winifred Young is writing as both sister and victim of her brother. Winifred survived her brother’s poison.

Dalrymple finds that the two books show a marked cultural shift.

He explains:

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.

Marian Partington’s book chronicles her efforts to forgive Rosemary West. To her the most important moral challenge was to learn how to forgive the people who had murdered her sister.

Dalrymple sympathizes with her loss, but not with her form of spiritualist therapy:

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. 

Partington learns to forgive the Wests when she comes to believe that she herself contains murderous impulses and therefore that she and Rosemary West are quite similar indeed.

This is moral equivalence run amuck. Dalrymple will have none of it:

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.”

He continues:

She [Partington] 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).

Rosemary West had the last word. After receiving Partington’s letter she instructed prison officials to write back that she did never again wished to hear from Partington. West did not respond herself.

To cap it off, Partington closes her book by saying that her sister’s death has helped her to grow spiritually, to increase her capacity for love and forgiveness.

Dalrymple is surely correct to note that her sister deserves better. Partington has no moral responsibility to forgive unrepentant murderers. She has neither the power nor the duty to diminish the pain that Rosemary West might or might not be suffering in her jail cell.

By way of contrast, Winifred Young has a more subtle and complex attitude toward the brother who tried to kill her:

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.

Surely, forgiveness should follow, nor precede, contrition.

One is reminded that in Catholic theology there is one sin that even God cannot forgive: blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

As for what that means and why it is unforgiveable Augustine explains that the one unforgivable sin is: impenitence.


Anonymous said...

There's a movie about Graham Young -

"The Young Poisoners Handbook"

Fred West Hanged himself in jail. Rosemary claims she had nothing at all to do with the murders.

Also, Fred West worked as a contractor, the suspicion is that there are many more victims embedded in concrete in various places. Many more teenage girls disappeared from the area where he was active, in the same time period.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the added information. Dalrymple did mention that West hanged himself... but he did not mention Rosemary's claim that she had nothing to do with the murders.

The case sounded to me like the Canadian couple that also killed a number of girls, while working in tandem.... Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.