Hopeless, helpless, human
I can’t remember if it happened in the December 1992, or 1993. If I was nearly eight, or almost nine. If it was the news at six, or at seven.
I was not watching the television, but I was in the room, and it was on. And I didn’t change the channel because some phrase or piece of information hit my ear in a way that intrigued me. I think I still wish that I hadn’t seen it, or heard it.
The news report was about a young girl, a woman of 19, who had been murdered. Before she had been murdered, she had been tortured. I do not want to share any more details, but I can remember them. I can recall the measured, sombre tone of the newsreader with uncanny clarity. The murderers had been her friends. They had fallen out. It happened, I think, somewhere coastal. A bleak bed-and-breakfast, where she had been living. There might have been a detail about how she had been estranged from her parents or had run away. I remember footage of grey skies, a record of the end of the world. The detail that haunted me, the part that made me wish I had no eyes or ears, was that the murder had been ‘inspired’ by the film Child’s Play 3.
I do have a memory of seeing a poster, or the case of a video in a shop somewhere. I don’t know if this happened before or after I watched the news, or if it is a real memory at all.
As an adult, I think of the young woman often. I can’t help it. I hope she is remembered and missed. As a child, then, in that moment, I was traumatised. I knew bad things happened. I knew people could be mean, and cruel. I was aware of wars, abstract, violent happenings that also occurred against a grey backdrop. But I believed in God, in magic, in happy endings and redemption.
I think this must have happened shortly after James Bulger was murdered. My parents and the adults around me went to great, great pains to conceal as much information about the news as they were able. It was possible to do so, then. I was brought up to censor the content I consumed for my own sake. I was very aware of what was Not Suitable. I think this is why I did not want to tell my parents about what I now knew. Perhaps I wanted to protect them. What I had just seen had no place in the world they had raised me to live in.
I do remember desperately trying to push the information from my mind, unable to think about anything else. I remember the crawling dread, the thud of my heartbeat, the crack of light shining through the bedroom door, from the landing. Putting my head under the covers and thinking about what had been on the news, and what hadn’t. The idea that there had been nights when I’d gone to bed, ignorant and happy, when the woman had been in pain, and terrified, not that many miles away. That I had no idea about how many other people were in pain and terrified at that second, I was powerless to do anything. I could understand why someone might steal, say mean words, rude words, lash out briefly, in anger. But torture?
I’m ashamed to admit that my other memory is a sense that Christmas had been ruined. That I couldn’t believe in happiness, or magic, ever again, because of what I knew. That was why I couldn’t tell anyone. I could not burden them with the information. I longed for the past, I longed not to know, to go back to the point before, and walk from the room and do something else. I had the beginnings of a thought that I’d return to and examine endlessly, as an adult. If I didn’t know about it, it would still have happened. My anxiety, my unhappiness, have nothing to do with the fact, and everything to do with my thoughts about the fact. It was a powerful idea, but it made me feel unstable. Not knowing seemed irresponsible. But at the time I did not have capacity to be responsible for this knowledge.
Over the last few days, the news has been filled with shocking and heart-breaking stories about unimaginable acts of violence, resulting in the death of children. There is no easy way to hold this information. We can donate money to organisations that help the most vulnerable people. We can tell the people we love how we feel about them. We can gather our resources and work out how to make good things and try to find out how to fill the world with active examples of kindness and joy. Evil will exist, but maybe it will not prevail? We can practise gratitude, make a litany out of every act of kindness we have known, celebrate every scrap of joy, and say a prayer to someone, or something, and give thanks for what is good.
I think it’s OK to feel hopeless, and helpless. It’s human. It’s hard to believe, but it’s a good part of being a human. We will not be hopeless or helpless forever. We will cry, and be scared, and we will slowly gather strength. When the time is right, we will be able to do things, and make things, and help. One day soon, we will prove to ourselves and each other that we don’t have to allow the bad to be bigger than the good. But if you feel crushed by the weight of knowledge alone, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and frightened, and as though the feelings are exacerbated by the pressure to celebrate a season of joy and peace — you’re in my thoughts, and in my heart. I’m saying a little prayer to whoever, for all of us.