The Post Tragic, with Zak Stein and Marian Partington

Dec 15th, 2020

Not everyone experiences tragedy, but many who do are changed by it forever. Tragedy can cut so deep that it comes to be recognised as an inescapable feature of life, but not necessarily a defining or debilitating one.

Learning from that kind of wholehearted relationship to tragedy matters today, if only because we are in a phase of history where we are witnessing a collective tragedy, namely our apparent failure, despite decades of effort, to respond to the ecological collapse of our shared home. The point is not to give up, but to recognise that any future success depends on an encounter with the tragedy of our current failure.

The Post-Tragic sensibility and stance therefore offer a response to personal and societal hardship that may become critical as the interlocking crises of our times continue to bite. We will need to remain positive, but that positivity will have to be informed by the pervasiveness of suffering and uncertainty. This evening gathering brought together Zak Stein and Marian Partington as two leading practitioners of post-tragic awareness to ask what it is and how it can help us.

The writer, educator and futurist Zak Stein has described how the post-tragic turns from strategies of avoidance to look squarely at what has happened and is going on. It is about grappling with the tragic but not becoming stuck in it. ‘There’s an art to dealing with suffering’, he says, ‘it steals into a new form of character or identity’.

Marian Partington’s sister, Lucy, disappeared for 20 years before Lucy’s remains were found in the cellar of the house of Fred and Rosemary West. Marian has written about her deep and fierce engagement with the experience. She knows how ‘the feeling of despair, and helplessness that this is never going to go away, consumes the hope of change’. And yet, her story is one of recovering the human spirit, which carries huge resonance for us today.

The transcript for this event can be found below.


Pippa Evans – [00:03:07] We’re going to be hearing from Zak Stein, the writer, futurist and philosopher of education, on how the post-tragic turns us from strategies of avoidance to look squarely at what has happened and is going on. Grappling with the tragic but not becoming stuck in it. We will also be hearing from the writer Marian Partington about her personal journey with the tragic in relation to the abduction and murder of her sister, Lucy Partington, by Fred and Rosemary West, which Marian speaks of in her memoir, If You Sit Still. I’m going to hand you over to the director of Perspectiva, Jonathan Rowson, who will speak about why we felt the post-tragic is relevant to the work Perspectiva is doing. 

Jonathan Rowson – [00:05:48] Thanks Pippa. I’ll briefly explain why this event is of interest to Perspectiva. We describe ourselves as a community of expert generalists, and it’s a little bit of a status claim because who’s to say we’re the experts? But we’re aspiring to be people who get better at seeing things as a whole, looking at the global predicament and how it relates to the inner life of human beings. In order to do that, you have to be quite fluid with your ways of knowing and in your ways of acting, which is why our team is quite diverse and has a lot of different qualities of inquiry about us. 

I worked on climate change for many years when I was working at the Royal Society of Arts in London. The more I looked into it, the more troubled I felt by just how difficult it was to even feel. We are quite deeply into that predicament and we will struggle even with the best will in the world, and the greatest amounts of cooperation. A great deal has already happened and is already underway that cannot be undone. Equally, through our personal lives, we face different tragedies in our life. And as we get a little bit older, we see a little bit more of the dark side sometimes. So the interest in the post-tragic is really about how one should feel in this space and time? We’d like to remain positive. We also want to keep it real.

My interest in the post-tragic is something about the juxtaposition of those two words. In some ways, to me, the intrigue is really the relationship. It’s the cool presence, recognising the tragedy, but somehow living with it and getting beyond it, too. So tonight is really a chance to look more deeply at what that means. I’m delighted to welcome Marian and Zak to join us. 

Mark Vernon – [00:08:59] Marian immediately actually came to my mind when we were planning tonight’s event. It began when her sister Lucy suddenly disappeared in 1994. And for 21 years, no one knew what had happened to Lucy until her remains were found in the basement of the house belonging to the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West. It turns out that they were responsible for the deaths of many people, including Lucy. So for three decades, Marian has been reclaiming Lucy and her own life in a deep, and at times fierce search for the human soul in response to a brutal tragedy. She draws on a number of practices and dreams, as well as a lot of public work. There’s a tremendous amount that she could share with us this evening. Marian, I will hand over to you now.

Marian Partington – [00:10:41] Good evening, everyone. It’s lovely to be with you. I brought a friend with me this evening who I would like to introduce you to. This is an owl who comes from Vancouver Island. He used to be a branch of a cedar tree. The owl represents the ability to see clearly through the darkness of chaos, confusion and deception, and also represents the need for self-examination. The world is confronting but can enable self transformation and realisation, bringing the dark wisdom of the subconscious into the light. The owl can also be a harbinger of death. 

I was on the island for three months doing some research into how indigenous people respond to crisis, and the healing practices that they have in relation to their traumatic loss. At the end of my stay, I met a man called Laverne Sampson, an indigenous man from a reserve north of Victoria. He told me his story of why he became a carver. 

When I met Laverne, I commissioned a talking piece for the project I’ve been involved with since 2000, the Forgiveness Project, which uses stories to explore forgiveness in prisons and in the community. It doesn’t have a particular religious focus, but it has a collection of people who speak from the place of having either experienced traumatic loss or perpetrated traumatic loss and have found a way to bring something fresh and meaningful to the experience of loss. Through the sharing of stories, it helps other to tell others to tell their stories.

When you stand with this owl stick, it gives you a sense of empowerment. It’s used in their culture so that if you’re holding the talking piece, only you speak and it helps you to speak with gravitas and respect. It’s an exercise in listening deeply and we’ve used it in restorative circles, in the community, but we couldn’t take it into the prisons because it was seen as a weapon.

I’d like to bring Laverne’s words into this. His son Shane committed suicide in 1997, and there’s a huge problem with many destructive ways on the reserves relating back to the attempted cultural genocide of the the white settlers. He said, I liked to work with driftwood because it’s already seasoned. The constant waves are there to wash everything away. The wood itself lets me know when it is ready to carve. I work around splits and cracks. Creating the talking stick was fun. It took so long because I only worked on it if I was feeling good. I put forgiveness into it before I sent it off. I gave it a blessing and smudged it. A mixture of herbs, buffalo, sage, sweetgrass. When my son died in 1997, I didn’t know who to talk to. I did things by myself, and found my own answers. 

So my story started in 1973 when my sister and Lucy and I were home for the Christmas holidays. We were both studying English literature at university, and we shared a love of T.S. Eliot. Lucy had chosen to become a Catholic five weeks before she came home for Christmas. We went out to visit friends two days after Christmas, and Lucy didn’t come home. That was the last time we saw her.

There began the long time of what I call the not knowing. At the beginning of this period, I had three significant dreams and in a way they’ve been the most guiding aspect of my experience. It felt like the core of my spiritual practice at the time. In the dream, Lucy came back and I asked her, where have you been? She said, I’ve been sitting in a water meadow near Grantham. And then she said the words, if you sit very still, you can hear the sun move.

In the dream, I felt what I describe as the peace that passes understanding, and it was a place where everything was joined up, where there was absolute harmony. It felt like a place that could hold something of the mystery and the pain of not knowing, the years of not knowing. That period began with a huge loss that wasn’t resolved for 20 years. And my response at the time, I was twenty five and Lucy was twenty one, was to make some very destructive choices which hurt other people and which I’ve had to face in my life. All this time, under the current I had three children. I have a good, lovely relationship with Nick, who I’m still with. I had a very difficult relationship with two of the children’s father. 

The whole of that time, I remember feeling very isolated. It was as if nobody really knew how to relate to me. In a way, you lose your parents when something like that happens. They’re not there for you anymore. And our parents were divorced, so it was already a complicated family. 

I call that dream the shining silence, it felt like the right way to speak, any words would destroy the wholeness of it, and the beauty of it, and the meaning of it. It was just humbling. I felt I knew where I was in the world. Often I mused about the meaning of the words. The other aspect of the experience of the 20 years of not knowing was what I call the frozen silence. 

That was very much about there not being any words because they could not be spoken in a way. In our family, it was almost taboo to speak of Lucy as the years went by, and yet there was this increasing fear that we’d all die and never know what had happened to her. 

[00:20:43] The pain no one speaks about is because there are no words, or because the words will crack open the pain, the words would express the pain, share the pain. But it is taboo.

If we don’t say it, it might not be true. Life goes on, but only life, that pretence hides in the silence that magnifies the pain. The taboo is against the pain of being alive. As Joseph Campbell said, love is the pain of being alive. We went crooked, deformed by the secret of a missing sister. 

In 1994, we began to find out what had happened to Lucy. The police came and told us that Lucy was one of the victims of Fred and Rosemary West, and that she was buried in the basement. I remember making a vow at the time. I don’t usually make vows, but I think making a vow is sometimes helpful. It’s like a very strong intention. I felt that I needed to try and bring something good out of this, something that we could all learn from. But I didn’t know what it was. Then I had the second dream, which was about wanting to know what was left of Lucy, and in the dream I was shown a pack of bones with numbers on them, and they assembled to become a full sized skeleton. I put my arms around the skeleton and it became Lucy in the flesh. I remembered what she was like to hold. I woke up and thought, I need to go and do something about this. The bones were kept for another year, they were called an exhibit for the defense. 

We were shown into a chapel of rest, and there was a full size coffin there. We were expected to just sit there and go away. I just said, no, I’ve got something I need to do. I brought some things I want to put in with Lucy’s bones, and fortunately the man understood. 

When he unscrewed the coffin there were two boxes inside. I pointed at the smaller box and asked, is her skull in there? He nodded. I moved forward, and I could only say that this was the space that Lucy and I had mused about. It was the place where time and eternity were intersecting. I knew what to do. There was no fear in the experience. It felt as if I was doing it for all women who’d been abused and treated horrendously, mostly by men, though not solely in this case. I saw her skull and it suddenly looked like burnished gold, it looked beautiful. 

I felt the urge to pick her skull up and kiss her brow. I laid it back with a piece of sheep’s wool and heather that I got from the nearby mountain, and it felt as if I was reclaiming Lucy from the wretched hole she’d been buried in for so long, and bringing some beauty and love into the situation. So the first year was really about laying Lucy to rest. 

We could eventually have a funeral, but only because Frederick West committed suicide. That meant that Lucy’s bones were no longer needed as an exhibit for the defense. Very shortly after doing that, I started to go on Buddhist retreats in a nearby place up on the mountainside where there’s no electricity. I’d wondered whether to go. The teacher said this is exactly the time to come. So I began to learn about Buddhism. I began to sit on intensive retreats over the years, and this was how I lived through what I call the thaw, the moving from the frozen silence to the shining silence, and the thaw of getting to the depth of the grief.

[00:27:56] I made a vow on one retreat to try and forgive the people who killed Lucy, because that had felt like the only creative, imaginative way forward. The other ways of dealing with the unresolved pain were either denial, or letting it take me away. The end result could be suicide, or dumping it on others. How to deal with this pain in a way that was not perpetuating the cycle of violence, and that was going to actually move towards a place of healing? 

So eventually, I was on a retreat and I was feeling the feeling that Mark put on the blurb about this event, that feeling of just no energy and being stuck, and I spoke to the master and he just said the words, just know that your suffering is helping to relieve the suffering of others. I didn’t really know what he meant, but I went back and sat on the cushion and I thought of Rosemary West and very half heartedly said, well, I hope this pain is going to help you in some way. Then I had the most extraordinary insight of my whole body waking up and suddenly knowing something of her suffering, knowing her isolation, knowing that she’s hated by our culture. I was left with this release, this feeling of having faced my own murderous rage. I’d faced my rotting piles of mistakes. I’d got to this place where I knew myself. So I knew her in a way. The inner journey then turned into an outer journey and I was invited to go to a conference on forgiveness, and then I was invited to go to a conference on restorative justice. That was when I was invited to work in prison, and so I began to go into prisons. 

Five weeks before we found out what happened to Lucy, I had chosen to become a Quaker, having attended Quaker meetings, so shared silence with fellow aspirants, people with a sense of wanting to get to some sort of truth in life. This was an important part of my healing, to be able to just sit and allow the thaw and allow love. 

I felt that I was allowing love and finding compassion for myself. By the time I started to work in prisons, I felt that this restorative justice was the exact shape of the inner journey in a way. This form of listening, this form of speaking in a circle is actually at the roots of restorative justice. It’s about seeing crime as harm done that needs healing and needing to listen to each person who’s been affected. So in a way, taking off the labels. When I work in prisons, I always say we’re in here together. I’m not a victim. You’re not a perpetrator. And I investigated my own life as a perpetrator, victim and a bystander. I know those parts of myself. There’s something about sharing this story that helps people to get in touch with their story. Some extraordinary things have happened in prisons. 

I felt that the challenge from a Quaker perspective was, how could you find that of God in people who’ve committed atrocious crimes? The more people I met in prison, the more I knew that everyone did have that of God in them and that approaching people in that way meant that they could express that in some way. 

[00:33:04] Eventually I sent a letter to Rosemary West. I wanted her to know the effect on me of what had happened. I said, I offer you the springing of the branch, which was an experience I’d had, where it had snowed and I was snowed in. The weight of the tree branches had been pushed down. And I just brushed past and the snow fell off a branch and sprung back to where it was meant to be. 

I said, I feel no ill will towards you at all. I just feel deeply sad that this has happened. I want you to know that our lives are connected, and I send you the springing of the branch. So I’ll end with Lucy’s words, Lucy wrote poetry and she loved words, and the most difficult thing for me about her death was that she was gagged, so she couldn’t use her voice. She couldn’t speak. 

Her beauty was masked and denied. She became an object of torture and rape and murder. I always say this at the end of any work I do with Lucy, and I feel that the beauty of her life, I’ve reclaimed in some way and offered it in a way that that story can grow and the conversation can grow. The words are so simple, they’re on her gravestone and she wrote, things are as big as you make them. I can live a whole day of life with worry about a few words on one scrap of paper, and yet the same evening looking up, can frame my fingers to fit the sky in my cupped hands. 

Zak Stein – [00:37:25] Thank you, Marian, that was very powerful and it’s hard to know what to say into the space after that. I intentionally didn’t prepare anything because I knew that it would be almost impossible to know what would be appropriate to say. I had glanced at your story and absorbed a video that was sent to me where you spoke before, but I have not read your book. So I didn’t know the details, and a strange synchronicity occurred today before I got on this call, I thought, where did I actually encounter the post-tragic consciousness first, like in my own life? It was with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was a post-tragic figure.

The great love of his life died very tragically, and that’s what the image in my mind of the post-tragic is actually Emerson late at night breaking in and opening the coffin, and looking at his dead wife’s body, to be in touch with that reality, and so I was going to share that image.

So these images that I want to surface from what you said, that’s one of them, right? The skeleton, the hugging of the skeleton. That’s a post-tragic image. In my metapsychology, for people who care, the pre-tragic, tragic, and post-tragic is in this domain of ensoulment. The process of ensoulment involves images and the transformation of images, and the emergence of images. You offered so many profound post-tragic images.

The image of the broken driftwood in the vast ocean, put on a random shore, picked from obscurity and turned into something incredibly beautiful. This is a post-tragic image. The skull, the shining, beautiful skull, this is another post-tragic image. The Owl of Minerva. The Owl of Athena. The Owl of Wisdom is this sign like mirroring the sign in the Bible that knowledge itself comes in a tragic structure. Beautiful image. And the snow on the bow of the pine tree, you know, that notion of the resiliency of nature, even under the weight of the death of the winter.

And then, of course, the most striking one, which resonates with my experience, this move from the frozen silence to the shining silence. That’s one way of describing the move from the tragic to the post-tragic.

The move from the pre-tragic to the tragic is also complex and involves imagery. But my sense is people are drawn to a talk like this, most of us have begun to make that move out of the pre-tragic into the tragic, and the question of how to get through to the other side of the tragic, how to move from the frozen silence into the shining silence? This is one of the questions of our time. It’s one of the questions history is basically asking us to be able to answer as people.

I was just struck by the resonance of the imagery, and specifically the dream work nature of what your inner process was like, which is in the domain of ensoulment. This is how it takes place, and my experience has shown this to be the case as well. I’m a psychologist, so I look at this often as a psychologist, and so you’re looking at certain ways that human development works. How do people actually process trauma and profound tragedy? And what are the things that allow for post-traumatic growth, which is actually a new kind of line of inquiry these days? And one of the things you see is actually what you mentioned. It’s a movement into a form of post-conventional spirituality, for lack of a better term. So you have been a Quaker, and you’ve been on Buddhist meditation retreats, and you’re pulling practices from various places and traditions and having spontaneous post-conventional spiritual experiences.

These dreams were profound, prophetic and healing. This is one of the lessons about these forms of maturity which we’re asked to step into by life, that often we can’t create the solution for ourselves. It is through this that grace is given. This is where all of the life coaching and human potential movement, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of stuff comes from – that’s all pre-tragic. That’s all saying we don’t have to actually confront our ontological dependence on, let’s say, God. In fact, this is what the tragic shows us. Another reason I didn’t make plans for this is because when you make plans, God laughs.

This is what the tragic experience invites us into. It invites us into the overcoming of the skin encapsulated ego. When you’re in the tragic, there’s a tremendous opportunity for irresponsibility. This is a very complex place to be psychologically.

I’ve been a caregiver for many years, first for my mother and now for my wife. So I speak from experience about having to be in the presence of profound human suffering. The point here is that these forms of maturity we’re asked to move into, we cannot engineer for ourselves in a sense. We need to make ourselves available to receive grace. 

It’s hard to find other language that isn’t religious. I would say that the post-tragic consciousness is characterised by kind of a return to religiosity. The tragic is characterised by a questioning of how could you possibly be religious given this, given reality, which is tragically structured.

The pre-tragic is not seeing clearly what the nature of reality is. The tragic is also not seeing it, seeing more clearly than the pre-tragic, but it’s not seeing the full reality. So it’s the post-tragic consciousness. 

[00:45:53] The post-tragic consciousness is a kind of knowledge. It’s a dark knowledge. There’s a knowing that is not available when you’re in the midst of tragedy.

It’s certainly not available in the pre-tragic. But this is sometimes what we call wisdom. Because it’s not the arrogant objectivistic knowing of science, which is often pre-tragic. The greatest example of tragedy these days may actually be the company Alphabet, who own Google. Alphabet owns a company that is going to cure death. That’s an example of pre-tragic knowledge. There’s very sophisticated forms of medical knowledge, but wielding medical knowledge actually requires post-tragic consciousness. It wouldn’t be to deny disease and death and pretend we can absolutely fix disease and death. But it would actually be to provide for dignified suffering. 

One of the things that I think characterises our culture as a pre-tragic culture that needs to actually move through tragedy and get the post-tragic very quickly is that we don’t give dignity to certain forms of suffering. We try to alleviate them immediately or explain them out of existence. So one of the things that gets kind of strange when you start using this framework of pre-tragic, tragic, post-tragic, is the notion that we actually have a right or in some way to be able to experience tragedy. So let me explain what this means. 

[00:48:08] The more you love someone, the greater will be the tragedy when they die. The more your life matters and the more that people around you matter, and the more what you’re building matters, the greater potential there is for tragedy. So the degree to which society stops us from being equipped to be real lovers and real builders and real collaborators and real meaning makers to the degree that it turns that volume down, so everything kind of matters less… 

Love is actually dangerous because you’re an atomised economic actor and there’s all of these things that complicate the conditions for the possibility of real deep love, the degree to which we’re losing out on tragedy. This sounds odd, don’t we want to stop all tragedy? I’m actually saying no, the deeper you go down and into life and the process of ensoulment, the deeper you go into tragedy.

So there’s a reframing of the tragic, as both a kind of structural property of human existence and a sign that you’re living fully. It’s like a sign that you’re taking life seriously and that you have courage to fully love the world, which is another way of talking about the post-tragic because the pre-tragic only love the stuff that looks great and lovable, and the tragic tends to find a very narrow range of things that it feels comfortable even allowing itself to love. Because during the tragedy, how can you love or laugh or do anything? You’re in the midst of tragedy. So with the post-tragic, there is that reemergence of the courage to love and to love extremely deeply. And that’s a risk.

Google’s project will fail. Death will not be cured. The love of your life will die. These are simple things that we all know.

[00:50:36] No one has a monopoly on tragedy or suffering, and it is actually a birthright of the human condition and something we need to find a language for talking about in our culture, so that we don’t remain, either pre-tragic, denying the tragic, or completely surrounded by tragedy, an in an almost narcissistic spiral of victimisation and dramatic tragic complication and complicated grief, which is again what you’ve described with the frozen silence.

This is a personal issue for many people, especially now, given both economic and pandemic related issues. But more broadly speaking, as a historical epoch, this is actually the thing we’re being invited to as a species. It’s kind of an underlying thing that cuts across environmentalism and decolonialism and social justice and a whole bunch of other things which we’re now grappling with. We’re grappling with the reality of the tragedy, waking up in the midst of something, a kind of unmasking, a kind of apocalyptic unveiling of everything that has happened. We have to exit the tragic first, and figure out how to first enter it in such a way that it doesn’t destroy you, and then how to grapple with new potentials for love and care and concern as opposed to hardening perpetual cycles of traumatisation and re-traumatisation. 

It’s crucial that we find a way, as you did, as I explained with all the images you did, it spontaneously reintroduce into the culture and languages for grappling with tragedy.

We need to find ways to hug the skeleton. To know that although we may feel like a piece of abandoned driftwood and a vast, meaningless ocean, that there’s actually always that potential for profound re characterisation and meaning.

I want to keep it focused on your images and the power of images in particular as a way through to the post-tragic. That’s what we’re looking for, not answers or solutions or ways to fix it. What we’re looking for is new images that we can share together. Thank you for listening, I’m pretty honoured to be on the ticket here.

Jonathan Rowson – [01:35:46] Thanks so much to our speakers, Marian and Zak, it’s really been an extraordinary delight to hear you speak. I just wanted to open up slightly and zoom back out from this rich experience to the context in which this conversation is taking place. We believe the post-tragic may be a key theme or sensibility. That’s part of the festival we hope to put on in June, the Realisation Festival, an event that takes place with Perspectiva and collaboration with St Giles House. 

The final thing is that one time I was speaking with Zak, I think he used the expression reality avoidant culture. I think the reason we want to speak about the post-tragic is to not be a reality avoiding culture, not to necessarily encourage tragedy or death or to invite it even, but just to be closer to reality.

I’m grateful to Mark Vernon for reminding me of that earlier this evening. But mostly I want to say thanks. Thanks for hosting. Thank you all for being here. 

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