The Healing

How a community might recover from a horror that defies imagination.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 31st May 2013

In 2010, I wrote a column about urban planning, in which I argued that new estates should be built around a common green on which children could safely play. This is what I said:

“Most importantly, the houses face inwards, and no cars are allowed inside the square: the roads serve only the backs of the buildings. The square is overlooked by everyone, which means that children can run in and out of their houses unsupervised, create their own tribes and learn their own rules, without fear of traffic accidents or molesters. … There’s a council estate a bit like this across the road from my house. Whenever I pass through it on a dry day in the holidays, I see dozens of children playing there.”

That is the place from which, on 1 October 2012, April Jones was taken.

Until now I have not been able to write about it or speak about it. After the reports of the first day of Mark Bridger’s trial I have been unable to read about it either. I’ve long prided myself on being able to handle more reality than most, but with this case I’ve discovered my limits. For everyone connected with Machynlleth, the experience has been shattering. It has shattered our sense of contingency, broken the boundaries of what we considered reality. In his novel The Sleep of Reason, about a similarly hideous case, CP Snow wrote of “the hallucinations of fact”. I now know what he meant.

People often say, when something terrible bursts into their lives, “it’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, but not to us.” But this is not the sort of thing that happens to other people: or if it does, it’s so rare that such events are separated by years. The details that began to emerge on the first day of the trial, beyond which, I admit, I know little, nag at the outer limits of imagination, mock as insipid our most lurid nightmares. Perhaps, among his many lies, Bridger’s claim that he remembers almost nothing is true. In Snow’s novel a criminal psychologist maintains that “it is quite common to forget the act” of killing a child. Could horror of this nature exceed even the killer’s ability to absorb the facts?

I have never come across a town in Britain that is as child-centred as Machynlleth. The elderly people in particular seem to regard the entire population of children almost as if they were their own, doting on them, treating them, offering to babysit and help out. This cataclysm could not have afflicted a more unlikely place, or a place that would feel it more keenly. The entire town seems to have been struck by a family tragedy. There are people on April’s estate who look as if they’ve aged ten years since October. It’s as if the lights have gone out from their faces.

I expect that some newspapers, as they did after the Philpott case, will seek to score points from this crime. They might argue that Bridger, with his history of promiscuity and reliance on benefits, represents some broader moral decline. But it is no surprise to discover that a child killer with a suite of what appear to be psychopathic characteristics was also feckless and chaotic. The community to which he claimed to belong is caring, loving, cohesive, socially engaged. There are no lessons to be learnt here, except that there lives among us a very small number of people who are capable of almost anything.

As the search for poor April began, this case, as extreme events often do, exposed people to aspects of themselves which had previously been hidden. I found myself horrified by what I wanted. I did not want to see Mark Bridger judicially executed. Long before he had been brought to trial and convicted, I wanted to see him lynched. I caught myself fantasising about having my hands around his throat, throttling him to death.

It was not that I hated him, or that I failed to understand that something terrible, in nature or nurture, must have happened to drive him to act as he did. It’s that I wanted an end to it. I wanted the horror to be concluded, definitively and irredeemably, so that I could blot it out. Due process, the rule of law, civilisation: all are sorely tested at times like this.

That dreadful urge has now passed. As soon as it became clear that Bridger would be convicted, I paradoxically lost the desire to see him and his deed erased in that way. Mingled with the horror was a slowly developing sense of relief: that, through the judicial process, this would eventually be over. Though April is lost for ever, the awful wounds her abduction and killing have inflicted on Machynlleth will begin, very slowly, to heal.

Already a sense of resilience and defiance is growing in the town. People are slowly emerging from the carapace of shock. And from the green on the estate comes the most beautiful sound on earth, the sound of healing: children playing. Their happy voices, ringing out once more, are the best memorial that little girl could have.