Wrong doing, vengeance, remorse and forgiveness

I began what has become a four book review while reading ‘If you sit very still’ by Marion Partington. Her account of surviving the murder of a loved one inspired an exploration of related topics such as wickedness, revenge, wrong doing, betrayal, regret, and forgiveness; hence the other reviews here of : ‘Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay’ by moral philosopher Mary Midgley which includes analysis of existential thinking on this topic; another individual story in ‘How to survive the Titanic, or, The sinking of J. Bruce Ismay’ by Frances Wilson and finally ‘The Psychology of Feeling Sorry: The Weight of the Soul’ by psychologist Peter Randal.

If you sit very still

by Marion Partington, Vala Publishing Co-operative, Bristol 2012. 177 pages.

In 1973, Marion Partington’s 21 year old sister Lucy disappeared. Twenty years later they heard she had been tortured to death by Fred and Rosemary West and that finally “they beheaded and dismembered her and stuffed her into a small hole, surrounded by leaking sewage pipes, head first, face down, still gagged … [her] flesh was trashed” (pg 21).

This is about Partington’s struggle to forgive the Wests in order to release herself from the murderous rages and wish for revenge for a crime most of us would consider unforgiveable. Through several chapters ranging from ‘disappearance’ and ‘not knowing’ to finally ‘words of grace’, she weaves the story through Lucy’s poems and a series of dreams, the first when four months after disappearing Lucy returned and said “I’ve been sitting in a water meadow near Grantham” adding with a smile

“if you sit very still you can hear the sun move” (pg 6)

Although a very particular story it does have insights that are more widely applicable and helpful. For example, the more common violent death of self-murder invariably leaves in its wake a hugely complex grieving challenge that includes the need to forgive the suicide person and oneself. The unresolved pain may continue down the generations, especially if not talked about and ‘forgiven’. Realising this became one of Partington’s motivations for pushing onwards – she worried about the effects on her three children of her unending grieving and stifled violent emotions.

She found help in the Quaker movement who say there is ‘that of God in everyone’ (pg 39), and by immersion in Buddhist philosophy which sees evil as ‘an enormous mistake made by the perpetrator’ (pg 109). She came to the view that all violence ‘affects the rhythm of our shared humanity’ (pg 109) which resonates with Sartre’s suggestion that what we do to others we do to ourselves and all humanity.

Key to gaining her freedom was facing her need to be forgiven for “my own rotting pile of mistakes and woundings” (pg 68) ranging from emotional cruelty and betrayal of loved ones to four abortions which had become a source of deep shame. She traces the antecedents of her “violence” in the anger and dismay at her parents’ divorce and later in Lucy’s disappearance. She imagines her paternal grandmother’s suicide as an event that has cascaded down the family, its unspoken, unresolved pain causing further grief. Similarly her mother’s stoical silence after the divorce which ‘shores up pain into a solid place’ and keeps everyone mute.

‘it is not the dead that haunt us but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’ (pg 79)

She goes through this introspection to begin understanding something of what led to her sister’s death – that one ‘mistake’ can lead to another, a cycle of furious and mindless revenge set in motion and ending in something truly awful. Rosemary West was abducted from a bus stop and raped at 15. She was abused by her father, Fred West and his brother. She was 19 when she helped abduct Lucy Partington from a bus stop.

We may say Rosemary West still had choices to make, not every abused child goes on to commit such violence, but taking this view of how events unfolded helped Partington begin to make sense of things and find a way forward, much as therapy clients often want to go back and work it all out before moving on to new perspectives. As Partington frees herself, what to do next becomes the pressing issue. She participates as a ‘victim’ in a workshop with violent offenders and this leads on to working in prisons with the Forgiveness Project.

The paradoxical problem with forgiveness is that it is only the truly unforgivable things that are hard to forgive and this is further complicated here where the question arises whether we can forgive something done to someone else. Is it ours to forgive? Living with the unforgiveable may be the only path possible for some.

‘Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past’ (pg 26)

This idea is given to Partington by a woman whose daughter was murdered. It captures how forgiveness involves letting go of any claim we feel we have on the other, allowing their freedom, accepting the limits of our power to keep loved ones safe, realising that while we may ‘forgive’ someone they may never admit to wrong doing or seek forgiveness. They may not let us go and so we have to release ourselves.

Partington ends this lyrical, thoughtful book with a letter to Rosemary West saying that through facing her own potential for violence she has learned compassion for the terrible suffering West’s actions have caused herself and many others, and has forgiven her. West does not reply and asks the warders to block any more letters. But Partington now feels less powerless, more energised and freer to make full use of the time she has left to make her own reparations.

“Forgiveness? I can forgive too. Why won’t you be forgiven?”

from a poem by Lucy Partington (pg 152)


Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (Routledge Classics)

by Dr Mary Midgley, Routledge 2 edition 2001. 248 pages

Brief, dense and intellectually satisfying while also very readable and at times witty; Midgley’s explorations range over a broad canvas encompassing the ideas of Sartre, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Darwin amongst others, using historical cases such as Hitler and Eichmann and literary figures like Iago (from Shakespeare’s play Othello) and Milton’s Satan to develop her investigations.

Her chapters, each with a helpful summary, discuss ‘natural evil’, responsibility, aggression, fate vs free will, ‘selves and shadows’, Freud’s death wish and evil in evolution; despatching errors in immoralism, relativism, fatalism, subjectivism and determinism en route. As Steven Rose says on the back cover she is “one of the sharpest critical pens in the West”.

Midgley says dismissing wicked people as ‘mad’ may mean little more than that we have given up the effort to understand. She argues for a common starting point in ‘human nature’ saying “unless evil is to be seen as a mere outside enemy … it seems necessary to locate some of its sources in the unevenness of this original equipment … our specific [human] capacities and incapacities” (pg 16).

In the case of wickedness she suggests the ordinary motives we all experience have narrowed down to a single overriding one and become an obsession (or addiction) while the rest of the character has atrophied so that the individual disintegrates and what follows is as likely to destroy the perpetrator as well as the victims. “Self destruction is … [a] seemingly inevitable consequence of indulged resentment” (pg 205). As with Hitler chasing Jews ever more obsessively towards his own destruction and loss of WW II.

We all have conflicting motivations and must find a way to balance our contrary impulses in order to have a sense of being a complete, integrated personality. Midgley describes this obsessed motive as a ‘plan’ for life where an ordinary motive has gained corrupting control.

With Iago she says “crazy paranoid envy serving crazy paranoid pride” (pg 152) have pushed aside all other motives including prudent self regard. Finally facing his accusers he refuses to speak. “It has dawned on him that he has nothing to say” (pg 153) he has suddenly realised that his blind, obsessed malice has made him forget himself (in existential terms he is alienated from himself) and he has nothing left to live for. He is taken into custody declaring he will never talk about it. To do so would be an unbearable loss of dignity, ‘pride being the centre of his life’. This analysis bears comparison, although we don’t know their overriding motives, with Rosemary West’s silence and Fred West’s suicide in custody, unlike the moors murderer Ian Brady they finally have nothing to say.

Where a personality has begun to disintegrate, Midgley says the motives do not need to be adequate, since this is an assessment only relevant to a complete integrated personality. The motives here need only be obsessive or addictive. While it is useful to consider the badness of a bad motive, its negative aspects and what it lacks e.g. “selfishness is not centrally excessive self-love, but indifference to others” (pg 206) we will not understand wrong doing unless we look for the ‘positive’ characteristics – the perceived advantage involved that set things in train. As can happen with clients where we may unearth their original project and perceived advantage of adopting a strategy early on that now severely restricts their life and spoils their relationships.

To sum earlier events as causes does not provide an explanation – as with Partington suggesting prior events as ’causes’ of Rose West’s behaviour – naming a precipitating cause does not give a motive for the act/s. Whereas if we name something like envy, as with Iago, we do have a sort of explanation for actions which may appear to have nothing in common until realising they all gratify some frustrated wish and can be summed as “such things madden him” (pg 147), to know what such things are we return to the life plan and his principle of interpretation. She rightly says this requires standing in their shoes which is especially hard where it is a motive we do not fully share. Those around Iago were notably unenvious (although capable of envy) and absorbed in their own concerns hence no one suspects him. He is a monomaniac and because such extreme one sidedness is unexpected in everyday life he goes undetected. This also bears passing resemblance to the case of the Wests who went undetected, living a ‘normal’ family life for years.

She explores a Freudian suggestion that Iago has a sexual passion for Othello and “like many other persuasive psychopaths owes much of his success to being extremely disturbed sexually” (pg 154) regarding others as not people but things to be “manipulated, destroyed, or sexually devoured” (pg 154) while accepting the truth in this argument she does not find it sufficient. Nor does she accept that Iago in the grip of his obsession is any longer truly a free agent, rather he is enslaved to it.

Midgley is also interested in science and frequently uses examples from science and the animal world to help make a point, vividly and often very entertainingly. Roger Scruton describes her as underrated and I think he is right. He says it may be partly because she has focused on the unfashionable (in academic circles) question of the nature of Man. I think we could usefully include her in existential studies as a critical friend with much to offer.

Her book is dense with an abundance of lines of thought and careful argument and counter argument and I can only give a brief insight into aspects of its contents here. I recommend it as a very good read. It extends existential thought more deeply into moral philosophy and although called a philosophical essay is as much a contribution to psychology. Importantly, it suggested new ways to think about my clients – representatives of the majority who like us make everyday ‘enormous mistakes’.


How to survive the Titanic, or, The sinking of J.Bruce Ismay

by Frances Wilson, Bloomsbury publishing, London UK. 2011. 287 pages.

Ismay as the owner of the Titanic travelled on its maiden voyage and acquired instant notoriety for jumping onto one of the last lifeboats.

I started reading this for personal interest. My maternal great grandfather was a ship’s captain in Liverpool in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was shipwrecked many times, as was common then. It is included because of its relevance as an exploration of more everyday wrong doing – an ‘enormous mistake’ made in a moment of extreme stress. Contemplating this brings us back to ourselves, and our clients, it may be hard to imagine being Fred West but we can easily imagine being Ismay.

Wilson gives us a thoughtful probing of both Ismay’s personality and the difficulties of living on after you’ve let yourself down terribly in your eyes and those of others. His jump was not an illegal act nor wicked (in my view) but a betrayal of two codes of honour – that women and children should be saved first and the owner/captain should be the last to quit, going down with the ship if necessary. It was a case of what Midgley describes as the “deep, pervasive discrepancy between human ideals and human conduct” (Midgley pg 73).

A somewhat ‘kangaroo court’ was held immediately afterwards in the US and another more measured (but probably biased) one later in the UK. People were mesmerised by the hubris and hyperbole about Titanic being ‘unsinkable’, they believed Titanic was itself a life boat so it became a huge media story.

Witnesses’ narratives of events were muddled and contradictory. Confusion was hardly surprising given the shock, chaos and trauma of the sinking. Wilson lists the ‘factual’ causes of confusion – we all know there were insufficient lifeboats but may not have known the Marconi room where several iceberg warnings were received was owned by Marconi Company whose staff were not under the command of the captain hence messages were not automatically relayed to the bridge. Plus the Captain didn’t trust this newfangled technology preferring instead to rely on his experience. The star witness was an uncommunicative Ismay who seemed to be trying neither to incriminate nor justify himself. The public and the press wanted a villain to blame and Ismay was the perfect choice.

The Titanic sank in April 1912 when Ismay was 49. He “carried on living, keeping out of the way” (pg 261) according to his granddaughters who described him as “emotionally inhibited …. inapt for normal family and social life … a corpse” (pgs 262 & 268). He had always been a loner and became more so after the sinking although he continued working in various directorships, set up a pension fund for maritime widows and gave generously to charity. He lived on unforgiven for 25 years.

Wilson suggests no one survived really. Many people behaved at least as ‘badly’ as Ismay and some much worse: women in half empty lifeboats who refused to return to save drowning men, men who dressed as women, millionaires Mr & Mrs Duff Gordon accused of bribing the crew to not allow anyone else in their lifeboat capable of holding 70 people (Ismay took the place of just one person). Wilson concludes he was “an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, who behaved in a way which only confirmed his ordinariness. Ismay is the figure we all fear we might be. He is one of us” (pg 282).


The Psychology of Feeling Sorry: The Weight of the Soul

by Peter Randall, Routledge, 2012. 304 pages

Randall, a retired psychologist, focuses his exploration of wrong doing on betrayal and the possibilities for reconciliation in personal relationships. Over nine chapters, each with a summary, some with implications for practice and illustrative vignettes, he explores aspects of his central theme including conscience, religion, vengeance, shame, guilt, criminal offending, spirituality, empathy and forgiveness and how these may be explored in therapy.

His title refers to the age old concept of being burdened by one’s sins and to the notion found in many religions that at death the soul will be weighed and if the unreconciled bad deeds are heavier than the good ones the soul will be consigned to hell. These ideas persist, I have known avowed atheist clients admit to a fear of some form of existential punishment because of unconfessed wrong doing.

While not religious himself Randall’s aim is to explore the psychological processes and role of religious teaching in creating this weight. His interest extends beyond psychology because for many people religion provides a moral benchmark against which they critically judge their behaviour. Consequently, his analyses consider religious beliefs along with gender, age, background and personality when considering how these factors influence responses to wrongdoing, remorse, revenge and forgiveness.

He begins by exploring what is known about the structure and development of conscience and how differing styles of parenting and religious teaching shape this. He says, aside from psychopathologies associated with diminished or absent development of conscience, few of us can “claim to have escaped the discomfort of being sorry for wrongdoing” (pg 27) and the more we feel this the more likely we are to avoid the experience by inhibiting future wrongdoing.

Having established the source of the weight and its spur for resolution – as he says “the main driving force is that of conscience … there is no morality without conscience and empathy for others is its fuel” (pg 229) – the rest of book deals with the topics we frequently encounter in therapy, especially clients dealing with relationship breakdown.

He points out that vengeance, as I think Partington came to understand, often differs from the original wrongdoing only in the sequence of events and because it is a response rather than the original act. Such behaviour invariably hurts the vengeance seeker as much as the perpetrator. He wonders what makes people seek such a pyrrhic victory and sets out exploring the predictors of vengeance and what factors may make someone step back to consider forgiveness, one of which may be the wish not to bear the weight on their soul from refusal to forgive. This is important because the healing that can come from acknowledging guilt (perpetrator) and turning from a life of grudge bearing (victim), neither of which positions leave much space for a ‘feel-good’ factor, is likely to benefit mental health and quality of life.

He finds that vengeance although generally thought of as bad idea is the instinctual response of many people to betrayal and while dispositional vengeance diminishes with age males have a greater predisposition. Also vengeance comes easier to those who accept religious doctrine without question and to certain psychological personality types, particularly psychoticism and narcissism. On the other hand, people find guidance and help from religious teaching, as Partington did from Buddhism and the Quaker movement.

His research confirms that whether the aim is to repair or to split with dignity it is necessary both for the ‘victim’ to incline away from vengeance and towards forgiveness which requires a capacity for empathy and that a powerful influence on the probability of forgiveness is a contrite apology from the offender that includes understanding and remorse for harm done and expressed intentions of restitution. If this cannot free the victim from their vengeful ruminations and protestations of harm done for whatever reasons (which may include inability to empathise) then he advises realistic therapy goals are for reducing negative emotions rather than reconciliation.

In delineating shame from guilt he shows how a path through these can lead to remorse and healing, noting that while direct reparation may not be possible indirect reparations can sooth and eventually free shame-bound individuals. Presumably Ismay was attempting this but his already withdrawn personality and public opprobrium made it impossible to really achieve.

Randall describes forgiveness as not a ‘dewy-eyed’ return to the previous status quo but as “frequently hard headed and decisive” (pg 185) and leading to a new beginning. As with Partington who challenged herself and her own behaviour in relationships as one way to release herself from the pain. She was denied contrition from the Wests but she did find healing and release through admitting her own shame and failings. It was also important for her, as Randall notes, to be open to finding we have “more in common with the perpetrator than we may be comfortable with” (pg 194). For Partington Quaker teaching facilitated this breakthrough.

While I found some material unsurprising (eg evidence that grudge bearing is bad for your health and well being) there was content I found useful and thought provoking and I appreciated his wisdom and wish to look at the subject through a wider lens than usual by taking into account the effects of religious belief still present in our secular society on attitudes to shame, vengeance, remorse and forgiveness. We may be less avowedly religious but increasing numbers of people say they are spiritual and his chapter ‘religion, spirituality and remorse’ may be helpful in more accurately understanding and exploring the world view of clients whether religious or spiritual or neither.

He concludes saying that like G K Chesterton (the Catholic writer) he is of the opinion that “we have to be certain of our own morality because ultimately we must suffer for it” (pg 235). It is not the behaviour of others but our own shame and guilt that puts weight on our souls.

“No ear can hear nor tongue can tell the tortures of the inward hell”

The Giaour, Lord Byron.