An interview with Marian Partington – author of If You Sit Very Still

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Marian Partington’s sister Lucy was kidnapped by Fred and Rose West in 1973. In 1994, 21 years later, her remains were found in their basement. If You Sit Very Still is Marian’s response to this most traumatic of losses and her journey away from resentment, towards forgivness. 

We spoke to Marian about the process of writing such a unique and intensely emotional book. 

Marian, you wrote an essay on Lucy’s disappearance called Salvaging the Sacred in 1996. What motivated you to build on this, and to write If You Sit Very Still?

The essay was published in the Guardian Weekend and there was a huge, generous unexpected response which somehow changed me and honoured my continuing purpose. There was a hunger for meaning and wholeness that resonated within me, surprised me. It felt urgent and vital. There was no turning back. I felt heard and understood and realised the necessity of continuing to grapple with questions that wouldn’t go away; to stay true to this unravelling, wherever it may lead, however long it would take and to continue to write. The question of how to live with less harm, how to deepen our compassion in the wake of human atrocity, continues to challenge me to the core. It is upon this that I build.

Your language throughout the book is both lyrical and unflinching in its description of the events of Lucy’s disappearance. It’s a very powerful narrative. How did you feel while writing it? 

Finding words, finding a voice was almost impossible at times, yet remaining silent was not an option. If I had tried to carry on with no words, trapped in the frozen silence, I would have allowed death. The words that arose within me came from an instinctive need for a terrible truth to survive, a bearing of witness, a speaking by proxy in the face of unspeakable demolition. So writing became a way of allowing myself time and solitude to experience my grief and to face the unbearable pain of what had happened to Lucy.  Each word felt like a rung on a ladder leading from a deep pit. It felt empowering and honouring of our shared love and study of English literature to write. It felt as if we were raising the register through the grace of the words that arrived. It felt as if we shared a sacred realm. I felt blessed and guided.

Lucy converted to Catholicism before her disappearance. Years later, you joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and spent time in Buddhist retreats. What part has faith played in your journey to forgiveness?

It felt significant and hugely challenging in a way that was ‘beyond’ any formal religious faith. Lucy ‘disappeared’ five weeks after she was received into the Catholic church and we found out five weeks after I had joined the Quakers, twenty years later. I remember thinking that if there was anything of value in a religious faith it needed to show up now. Shared silence was important. To allow what lies within to surface and to be transformed.

I made the vow to forgive the Wests after a seven day silent Buddhist retreat. I realised that this would be the most creative, imaginative way forward, but I had no idea what it would involve and how it might come about. My faith was to trust that I would be shown a way. I call the religious words around this inner work ‘barnacled’. ‘God’, ‘sin’, ‘repentance’, ‘redemption’,’ forgiveness’- these words feel encrusted and clogged up with ‘aeons of piety’. But to travel within religious communities informed by teachings that aspire towards deepening our capacity to love and feel compassion and to know and live with wisdom has been essential to becoming less self-centred and more open to a greater whole. I have grown towards knowing our interdependence and our connectedness and the need to remain open to whatever arises and to learn from that. I feel deeply grateful for all that travel with me, for those who unpick their deluded selves and work towards our ‘true nature’ which is at the heart of ‘this great matter of life and death’.

You comment in the book that our society ‘suffers badly from a fear of the reality of death’. Do you feel as though you’ve come to terms with the reality of death?

When I cradled and wrapped Lucy’s bones I faced mortality in a profound way. It was unavoidable and awakening. I felt deeply grateful to be alive. As I grow older and was recently seriously ill it has become more important to reflect upon this reality every day. I feel that there is a gentle, tender, vast, subtle energy that is truly where ‘time intersects with eternity’. Recently I was convinced of this and knew that it didn’t matter if I lived or died. I am exploring the reality of radical helplessness (my next book!) and the need to surrender in the face of death and to embrace every moment.

Dreams play a very important part in your journey. The structure of the book is based on the medieval dream poem, Pearl, and you highlight five major dreams as signposts towards the act of forgiveness. How did you interpret these dreams as particularly significant?

All I can say is that the dreams felt ‘real’, almost more real than everyday life. They needed to be faced, heeded and integrated. They led me to reflect and act with confidence. I knew there was a truth in them that could not be ‘thought’. Maybe they came from ‘the collective unconscious’. They were compelling and profound, as if they were drawn from a deep well of creative imagination. To finally realise that the book that Lucy had in her bag the night that she was abducted from the bus stop was the ‘shape’ that I needed for this book (after sixteen years of writing!) – this fills me with pleasure and gratitude.

In many cases, it is the perpetrators who are remembered, more so than the victims. How does that make you feel, and why do you think that is?

Yes, I think that this was and continues to be something that drives me to speak for Lucy (Primo Levi called it ‘speaking by proxy’) and to reclaim her as my sister from the labels ‘missing person’ and ‘West victim’. The need to find the words, carefully, so that Lucy can live in people’s minds in all her complex, fiercely intelligent beauty and aspirations was involuntary. I couldn’t just leave her ‘out there’, sticky and stained by the media representations.  I felt sad that my energy could not extend to doing that for all of the ‘West victims’, but I try to at least name them when I can. Eventually I realised, through painful self-confrontation on long Buddhist retreats, that the perpetrators and their family were also victims, and that I am also a perpetrator and a bystander. I think it is easier for the public to demonise perpetrators than to try and connect with the suffering of those who are labelled ‘victims’. This is deeply unhealthy for our society. It makes me feel frustrated and sad that this is the case. It seems that we need to dig deeper, look within and learn something more about what it means to be human in response to human brutality and violence.

You have shared your story (and Lucy’s poetry) with inmates in male adult prisons to encourage them to experience victim empathy. How was that process for you?

I feel very privileged to have worked in 15 or so different prisons over the years (since 2001) in Restorative Justice settings. It has given me an opportunity to know that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone I have met and that sharing this story has brought healing in its wake. Meeting people who have committed serious crimes (rape, murder, sexual abuse) and listening to them respond to us with their own heart breaking stories has helped me to deepen my trust and to know that Lucy’s suffering is bringing something good into the world, despite the terrible loss and horror of it all. My work in prisons with the Forgiveness Project (www.theforgivenessproject.com)  since 2005, with a 3 day programme called RESTORE, as a speaker and a facilitator has been even more amazing because it involves two speakers, one ‘victim’ and one ‘perpetrator’. The labels drop away and the prisoners begin to thaw and tell their own stories. Our work in a women’s prison with creative writing, as a follow up to RESTORE has led to a sharing of Lucy’s poems and a great harvest of poetry from the women. This has all helped with my healing enormously. It lives up to the meaning of Lucy’s name: light. I feel her gentle spirit is at work in the world.

You mention that your work as a homeopath has informed your work in male prisons. How so?

In my work as a homeopath for the last thirty years I have listened to many stories of traumatic loss and witnessed the serious dis-ease that can come from unresolved mental/emotional pain. As a homeopath I have learnt much about the path towards healing (moving from dis-ease towards becoming whole) with its unexpected twists and turns. I have had to apply this knowledge and experience to my own life and then to those I have encountered in prisons. I have tried to use words and the little woven bag that Lucy made for me when she was 8 years old as ‘remedies’ in the prisons and to listen as an ‘unprejudiced observer’. First I have had to face what needs to be healed within me. It seems to come back to developing a for-giving, compassionate heart: to face, accept and let go. I have known my own murderous rage and that it is easier to delude oneself and remain in denial than to begin to thaw. I work with ‘similar suffering’, growing into the truth that an old Chan master gave to me: just know that your suffering is helping to relieve the suffering of others. I feel grateful to all those I have worked with and met in prisons. This work generates cycles of compassion.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I hope that readers may learn more about the journey from the frozen silence towards the shining silence, from cruelty towards compassion, from harm to healing, and that carefully chosen words can initiate change. I hope that this book will help to confront and dissolve the roots of fear and prejudice that lie within and without, and that it will help to nourish and allow a more generous and loving world. I hope that people will come to know Lucy, my sister and feel something of the love that I feel for her, that seems to deepen.

For more information or to buy the book, please follow the link.

 

 

An interview with Paul Hedges – author of Towards Better Disagreement

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Are atheists immoral? Does religion cause conflict? Is religion always opposed to science? Paul Hedges considers common topics of disagreement between religious believers and atheists, in his new book Towards Better Disagreement. We caught up with him to find out more.

What motivated you to write Towards Better Disagreement?

I think the main thing would be in response to what are often called the New Atheist debates. There is a very polemical and antagonistic stance which exists between religion and atheism, or more correctly between a number of prominent and influential spokespeople on each side. This colours a lot of the current discussion and perception, but I think a lot of people are not clearly in one camp or the other. A lot of the debate tends to be either very polarised, or quite simply wrong, and ignores the very real common ground that exists.

The book encourages readers to explore their stance on religion vs atheism. Did you find that you questioned your own position while researching for and writing it?

Yes, absolutely, I’m glad you asked that question. I was pretty clear when I started that the area of dialogue and exchange between atheism and religion needed to be covered. As such, I was pretty sure that some common ground existed, without ignoring very real differences and disagreements. But as I read and researched around these topics, and also started putting things down in writing, it raised a lot of questions for me.

Some of these things were perhaps issues I had had in my mind for sometime but never really fully worked through. I would always tend to put myself in the religious box if asked, rather than the atheist one, but on so many grounds I often found myself agreeing with a lot of what the atheist arguments seemed to say. Of course, there are lots of bad atheists arguments out there too, but I don’t think that agreeing with atheism that typical religious arguments don’t add up is something religious people need to be defensive about. Likewise, I think atheists can realise that lots of stuff they label as “religious” isn’t simply backward or crazy but based in very rational or natural human behaviour. I would say that as a result of writing this book I have a sense of having a foot in both camps in terms of having strong sympathies with some of the arguments and positions of both atheists and those who typically call themselves religious.

You cover a wide range of topics in a comparatively short book (less than 200 pages). Was it a challenge to do so, and how did you decide which were the most vital issues to explore?

That is a good question. Partly the areas I covered are those which interest me, but also I looked into quite a few areas that just seemed to keep coming up in the debates, and so I think they are things which people are either interested in or are just hot topics in the discussion. To some degree too I draw from things I have taught at universities, and if things seem new, important, or interesting to my students then it suggests to me that perhaps a wider audience will want to know about it too.

I actually also asked a group of my friends, former students, and other people to read and comment on bits of the manuscript as I went along as well so this provided some good feedback as I was writing in terms of what fascinated people, what they felt could be cut out, or areas they thought were of interest. It’s always good being able to run some things past part of your audience first.

Was there anything that you discovered while researching for the book that particularly surprised you?

The research for this book is something that went over quite a few years, and so there were a number of surprises. For instance, I was aware that the medieval development of science involved many Christian and Islamic thinkers who believed that the universe was built by a creator and so it would be ordered and coherent. This provided a foundation for actually starting to explore many areas that would lead to modern day science. However, I hadn’t realised how this influence went well beyond the medieval period and that the areas of life which we today call science and religion were so intertwined up until very recently. Indeed, the whole idea that there is a conflict between them, and that this has always existed, is very much a very recent myth founded in the nineteenth century for polemical reasons and not based on any solid evidence. However, it is such a natural part of our worldview and assumptions that I was shocked at how wrong it was.

I was also challenged on some of my assumptions about Islam, and this is something I go into within the book. Especially as I have had to teach about this at university, I have needed to really read up and fact check lots of assumptions, and also my own existing assumptions and prejudices – as Islam was not one of my main areas of expertise.

You argue that there is no natural antagonism between religion and science (atheism) and yet it is more commonly thought (in Western society at least) that atheism is the direct antithesis to religion. Why do you think this is?

There are quite a few reasons for this, and I will just mention a few here as well as some reasons there are problems with them. One is the polarisation of debate of recent decades especially in a Western context. On the one hand, the so-called New Atheist approach has received a lot of publicity. One reason it is termed “new” is new because it is more directly hostile and antagonistic to religion than many atheists have traditionally been. Whereas in the past atheists have often viewed religion as maybe a harmless superstition, it is been portrayed by figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as a positive evil, and a menace to human society and well being. So, on the atheist side we have seen a marked dichotomy of reason, science and atheism against religion and faith. Meanwhile, on the religious side, spreading especially from the United States of America, we have seen an often anti-intellectual and anti-science brand of what we can call fundamentalist Christianity. Prominent and influential voices on both sides of the debate have a stake in promoting this stark dichotomy. Indeed, while certain forms of religion and certain forms of atheism do make an antithesis, and science gets dragged into this, it is not the only way to look at things.

As I discuss in the book, the Protestant forbears of today’s anti-science fundamentalist Christians supported the heliocentric worldview of Galileo and others (that is the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way round) which some people see as an assault on a biblical worldview. Indeed, one of the most important early Protestant leaders, John Calvin, developed a theory known as “accommodationism” which meant that the Bible was accommodated to the worldview of those who first heard it. As such we shouldn’t assume it is a scientific textbook. This we need to remember is long before anybody ever assumed that religion and science could be in conflict, and his theory wasn’t really designed to deal with this but other matters about the cultural knowledge and understanding found in the Bible. So this shows that here no natural antagonism exists in areas which often seem controversial today.

Again, another way a distinction is drawn is the argument that religion is responsible for a lot of violence in the world today. A lot of media reporting can lend credence to this. But once you start analysing the situation with a bit of depth and stepping back from the heated rhetoric it is not so clear. Lots of the so-called religious violence is happening in places which are extremely politically unstable, and not for reasons to do with religion. Of course, for the actors involved calling on religion is a powerful tool to help build their narrative and credibility, just as at various times over the last century people used nationalism, Communism, or many other powerful tools to build their justification for war and violence. Again, if we look at many people drawn to the so-called Islamic State it has been observed that many of them don’t really have any background knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, a background of petty crime and an escalation of that is a far more likely route to terrorist radicalisation than devout attendance at a mosque.

However, it seems to suit the media to portray a story of Islamic terrorism against a secular West, which helps build into a sense that religion is dangerous, if not pathological, while being secular and atheist is rational and peaceful. Most people are not aware that the world’s largest Muslim organisation has condemned Islamic State and terrorism in the name of Islam, that the vast majority of Islamic scholars and many leading Islamic organisations in most Western countries have likewise issued condemnations, and that across the Middle East many meetings of religious leaders and scholars have done similar things. This simply does not make the headlines, and in most cases not even the middle pages of papers or small stories on TV. As such, a common narrative is allowed to develop in the mainstream discourse which is not based on facts, analysis, or understanding.

Again, we need to see that a lot of the discussion is based around what are often Western assumptions about monotheism. So, religious people believe in a big creator God, while atheists deny such a deity. But what about Buddhists who also deny that any creator God exists? Or traditional Confucianism which can look to some type of force in the world, sometimes termed Tian, which means both “sky” and something like the Western term “heaven”, but does not see this as a personal deity, and which sometimes seems to imply some sort of natural force or power in the universe, like the forces of nature. Here, we do not see the stark antithesis between belief in a personal creator God and the denial of this. So again, it is a particular historical, philosophical, and social context which can make the differences between religion and atheism, or religion and science, seem natural or inherently antagonistic, when it is not necessarily so.

Why do you think there is a need for a book that presents a neutral overview of the religion-atheism debate?

I think my answers to some of your previous questions will have addressed this to some degree, but I will emphasise some specific points. First, there is so much misinformation out there. Even very intelligent and well qualified people, on both sides of the debate simply get the facts wrong, distort them, or really don’t care what the facts are because they already know that they are right. On the atheist side many people seem to take ignorance of religion as a kind of badge of honour to show how little regard they have for it. Meanwhile, on the religious side we see people, maybe with PhDs in certain kinds of theology, but who haven’t studied religion from a really academic point of view spouting their views. As such, when it comes to facts and the truth, there is precious little of it in sight when high profile debates take place or books get written. Certainly there is some good work out there, but more often than not people stand in one corner or the other and use whatever evidence they find to try and make their case. As such, for somebody to try and stand in the middle and present two sides is unusual. How often do we stop and think: well, on this side they think this and they have some good points, and on that side they have this opinion and it is pretty solid.

I discuss something in the book called Confirmation Bias which is the tendency we have to fit any new information into what we already know or think. As such, we tend to ignore ideas or evidence which doesn’t fit our worldview, or slant new information to fit into our preconceived ideas. Everybody does this, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, agnostics, it doesn’t matter who you are, or how clever you are, it is a simple facet of the human mind and how we process information. Learning normally only really happens when we are ready to try and overcome this, and challenge our existing ideas. I hope that a book which tries to take both sides, and look at the different viewpoints and assess the information as impartially as possible can help out here.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

At the risk of sounding somewhat corny, and simply repeating my title, the ability to disagree better. I am hoping that my readers are ready to stand back from their built-in prejudices – we all have them – and say: “Well, let me see what the other side has got to say about this”, or “I think this is right, but do I really know it is”. Once people stop mudslinging and start listening then real dialogue can take place. Also, when people are prepared to question what they think they already know, or what they think should be the case, then they can appreciate what merits the other side may have. I discussed this in relation to Confirmation Bias in answering your last question, and I think that holds good here. So, if people are prepared to think again about what they think that will be a good take away.

Thanks very much for asking me these questions, and I hope the readers of your website will find it interesting and useful.

For more information, or to buy the book, please follow the link.

Pornography – does it matter?

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Vanessa Rogers reflects upon her new book to discuss the effect that pornography is having on young people’s relationships, self-esteem and body image at a time when it has never been more accessible.  

It can sometimes seem that sex, rather than love, is all around us. Lust and betrayal plays out nightly on prime time TV, music videos feature semi-nude women writhing with muscular men, and porn is streamed with ease anytime, anywhere to anyone. Meanwhile an obsession with finding ‘the one’ and a fairytale wedding is still perpetuated as the ultimate life goal, whilst education focuses on safe sex and reducing teenage pregnancy rates.

Welcome to the conflicting world of teenage sex education. Continue reading

Teacher Tips for Supporting Children with SEN and Autism

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Adele Devine reflects upon her new book Flying Starts for Unique Children and offers practical advice on making sure that children with Autism and SEN get off to the best start at school.   

Imagine that you are about to start a new job, but you know nothing about it. You do not know where it will be, who you will be working with, what the expectations will be or how long the day will last. How would this make you feel – nervous, resistant or even fearful?

Starting school

When children start school they enter the great unknown. There are those who will transition without issue. These children slot in, they see toys, play, interact, make friends and meet expected milestones.

Then there is the child who arrives filled with fear. They find the sounds painful, the smells intolerable, the environment overwhelming and the other children exhaustingly unpredictable. Maybe this child has autism.  Maybe this child has an undiagnosed, invisible disability

There are simple accommodations that can make the world of difference to the first impressions of a child with Special Educational Needs. These things should be in place in every pre school and reception class before the children start school. First impressions are important. There are no second chances. If we do not get it right from the start the child will remember. They may decide that they do not like school. They may resist, they may refuse or worse still they may start to withdraw.

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How to Build Language Using LEGO® Bricks

Ralph-Rochester_Building-Langua_978-1-78592-061-5_colourjpg-printIn this extract, Dawn Ralph and Jacqui Rochester discuss why Building Language Using LEGO® Bricks is a flexible and powerful intervention tool for aiding children with severe speech, language and communication disorders, often related to autism and other special educational needs.

This practical manual equips you for setting up and adapting your own successful sessions and downloadable resources, enabling you to chart progress in the following key areas:

– The use of receptive and expressive language

– The use and understanding of challenging concepts

– Joint attention

– Social communication

The book is creative, practical and thought-provoking and will be invaluable to Speech and Language Therapists, parents and other professionals wishing to support children with a wide range of language and communication problems.

Click here to download the extract

There is no formula when it comes to tackling child neglect

Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, but is hard to identify and address. Which is why Ruth Gardner decided to bring together a number of professional voices in her book Tackling Child Neglect, to look at the research, policy and practice involved in children’s services in the UK and the US. In this blog, Ruth shares her experience of working in children services over the years.
Gardner-TacklingChildNeglect-C2W Continue reading

A Q&A with Rosalind Bradley – author of A Matter of Life and Death

We talked to Rosalind Bradley about her new book, her motivations for writing it and her relationship with the concept of death.  Bradley_Matter-of-Life_978-1-84905-601-4_colourjpg-print

What motivated you to write A Matter of Life and Death?

The trigger for this book was my mother’s sudden death while she was staying with us in Australia, on holiday from England. It was a few days after ‘9/11’. One day we were strolling around the Sydney Opera House, the next day she was in Emergency Department following a cardiac arrest. I can still recall the physical and emotional numbness I felt that day and for many months afterwards. Her death completely shocked me as there had been no signs of any ill-health.

I had just started a new job, which certainly suffered as I tried to come to terms with this new reality. I am convinced now that the emotional numbness I felt inside me, which later manifested itself in chronic back pain, was the build up of grief inside me. In the wake of my mother’s death and the death and destruction from ‘9/11’, I became intensely curious about death and gradually, through a long period of spiritual and physical renewal, I accepted what had happened.

Several years later, after two close friends who were siblings died, I felt even more driven to come to terms with what is death? I knew I had to face up to my own fears and decide how I wanted to live the rest of my life. Exploring the mystery of death in all its rawness and complexity and gleaning some meaning from it led me to create A Matter of Life and Death.

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Why does someone with Asperger’s syndrome become depressed? Read the first chapter from Tony Attwood & Michelle Garnett’s new book

Attwood-Garnett_Exploring-Depre_978-1-84905-502-4_colourjpg-printRead the opening chapter of Tony Attwood and Michelle Garnett’s new book Exploring Depression and Beating the Blues: A CBT Self-Help Guide to Understanding and Coping with Depression in Asperger’s Syndrome [ASD-Level 1]


Chapter 1: Why Does Someone With Asperger’s Syndrome Become Depressed? CLICK HERE TO READ  

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The International Aspergirl® Society… author Rudy Simone talks about her brilliant new project for women & girls on the autism spectrum


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Although best known for her book Aspergirls Rudy Simone is a person of many parts (actor, musician, public speaker, AS consultant). With her latest book The A to Z of ASD’s: Aunt Aspies Guide to Life about to be published Rudy spoke with us about The International Aspergirl® Society, and her plans to improve the lives of girls and women on the autism spectrum around the world.
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