Recently, I was challenged to think about what I feared most. It’s not losing my mind, nor extreme pain, but the suffering of innocents that terrifies me. Lucy Partington, although a young woman, seems to have been innocent in the best sense; pure of heart, intelligent, intellectual, loving, gentle, perceptive, sensitive and on the brink of her adult life. The details are unclear but although she wasn’t someone who readily hitchhiked, she seems to have got into a stranger’s car, leaving a tutor forever guilty about a throw-away remark, that it would be safe if it were a man and a woman offering a lift. The suffering Lucy then endured, and the pain and grief of her sister Marian and her friends and family, are too horrific to contemplate and yet, somehow, Marian has made this account not only bearable, but uplifting, turning anguish to action that encourages forgiveness and fosters the best of the human spirit.
Lucy, who disappeared in 1973 and who was confirmed as one of the victims of Fred and Rosemary West twenty one years later, appeared to her older sister, Marian in a dream, shortly after her disappearance. Marian asked her in the dream ‘where she had been. She said ‘I’ve been sitting in a water meadow near Grantham.’ Then slowly with a smile, she said: If you sit very still you can hear the sun move.’
Marian refers to this dream as ‘our dream’ and it has a talismanic quality that underpins this extraordinary, moving and profound book. I found myself sitting very still as I read the book, aware that I was experiencing the words not only intellectually and viscerally but on a level that transcended me as reader, the writer and her particular experience. I felt, and still feel, goosebumps and a sense of not wanting to rush to a reaction but to re-read this book, preferably over some years in honour of not just the twenty years of ‘Not Knowing’ what had happened to Lucy that Marian endured, but also of the long and careful gestation of her account of coming to terms with it, (‘Comprehending’ and ‘Peeling Away the Layers’) once the truth emerged. Marian’s Buddhist Master, Sheng Yen tells her, ‘Just know that your suffering is relieving the suffering of others.’ In some mysterious way, this book channels all the suffering of the world and offers hope to all who read it. ‘Our dream’ doesn’t just concern Marian and Lucy but, like the best dreams and poems, resonates with associations, including for me, Psalm 23, the power of meditation, images of timelessness and eternity and a deep sense of peace.
‘If You Sit Very Still’ follows the structure of a fourteenth-century Dream Vision poem called ‘Pearl’, which Lucy was carrying in her bag the night she was abducted. Marian writes how it was uncannily appropriate both to Lucy’s fate and her, Marian’s, subsequent spiritual development. Accounts of important dreams are central to the journey described in this book, as is poetry. There are also uncanny coincidences. Lucy was received into the Roman Catholic Church five weeks before her disappearance. Marian became a Quaker five weeks before finding out what had happened to Lucy. If comprehension of suffering is central to Catholicism and a deep understanding of forgiveness is central to being a Quaker, it is as if both women found spiritual structures that may have gone some way towards supporting them through horrors that were about to unfold. Chillingly, Rosemary West claimed to have lured one victim with the promise of an opportunity to write poety. Lucy Partington’s own verse punctuates the book. Paul, one of the prisoners whom Marian meets at HMP Bristol, and is moved to change his life by the story of her and Lucy, sends Marian poems, writing, ‘I’d never written a poem in my life before I met you. And the only way I can let go of the pain and express myself – speak from the heart – is poetry’.
This book reads like one long poem, with its echoes and refrains, recurring imagery and mindful, beautiful language. It makes a journey from places of total darkness – the literal one of the Wests’ basement where the remains of Lucy and other tortured and murdered women were found, and the internal darkness of Marian’s own violent rage when she began to confront her own heart – to the ‘deep ease’ she describes on a Swiss mountain where spring is bursting out, or the joy of her wedding celebrations.
Just as writing, whether poetry or a book-length memoir such as this, can transform the most frightening or unpromising material into something uplifting, Marian Partington has transformed her own pain, suffering and capacity for destruction, into a force for good through her on-going work with prisoners and restorative justice. After many years of painful and honest searching, she is able to say: ‘Whatever arises is how it is’ and engage openly and non- judgementally with her environment in the moment. This seems to me a remarkable place to have reached and is testimony to her willingness to give up ‘all hope of a better past’.
I feel uplifted and humbled by this remarkable book, and also challenged to confront some of my own unexamined experience. A copy will go to every prison in the UK and Northern Ireland allowing this story to be heard by prisoners who are both perpetrators and victims of violence. Breaking down them-and-us barriers and acknowledging our total interconnectedness is at the heart of all spiritual practice (and poetry), and this testimony in its quiet, unflinching, persistent way, reminds me of that at the profoundest level.
Victoria Field Canterbury, November 2012